Numbering Our Days

Preparing for festivities? It is New Year’s Eve. Last night I saw a lady load a shopping cart full of liquor and roll her buggy—bottles clinking against one another—up to the cashier at the register and prepare to spend hundreds of dollars on alcohol at one of the shoppettes here on Fort Benning. No one seemed surprised. The lady was just an ordinary customer, I suppose, and this is what is expected as New Year’s Eve arrives, right? No, I’m not sanctimonious about alcohol. That is not my concern here. I am thinking more about time and how we spend it. Do we often think of our amount of time? Do we not sometimes pretend that death is something that happens to other people? Do we not sometimes distract ourselves so that we do not have to face the ultimate issues, at least not right now? But are not ultimate issues called ultimate for a reason?

Unfortunately, I will be separated from my loved ones all this week, so I am not preparing anything festive, unless black coffee qualifies. I may get a bit wild with an espresso later. But earlier today I was reading and thinking through Psalm 90.  It is one of Moses’ writings in the Psalms. Verse 12 reads this way: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, ESV). To number our days. In the biblical worldview, this means to live our lives with the conscious awareness that our lives are lived before the face of God, Coram Deo. It is a way of saying, live your life knowing that you are in the presence of God. Wisdom, therefore, involves our dwelling upon ultimate issues. That does not mean that festivities are by any means wrong. Scripture is replete with festivals, parties, fellowships, etc. But they are to have their places within a larger theological framework. They are not to be ends in themselves.

But to number our days, that is no small matter, right? Examples help me to think, and here are a few that stirred some reflections on this theme of numbering our days.

In 2019, I was able to take a trip with some of my family to a place near Destin, FL. The beaches are beautiful there. But to get there, we drove through parts of FL that had been devastated by a hurricane earlier. Mighty trees were reduced to sad-looking twisted and snapped timbers. Their boughs were gone. Leaves had been stripped from them during the deluge. Some roads had washed away. Entire restaurants had been washed out to sea. Just like that, as the saying goes, all was gone. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

A second weather-related catastrophe got me thinking, too. In the small town where my family and I lived for years, a town where I taught English and pastored, a tornado had recently struck. I viewed pictures online of the devastation. Again, trees were ripped from the earth or left bent into ghastly contortions. Rooftops had been sucked up into the sky. Just like that, gone. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

I saw a friend of mine undergo multiple surgeries, and still press on with his responsibilities. I saw another friend run off (that is, he was run off by an oligarchy within the congregation) from a church because of unregenerate church members, small town politics, and power struggles. I watched my wife have to raise our children while I was away in Iraq for nine months. After those nine months, I was still not able to return home to her because of an injury I sustained in Iraq that is still keeping me at Fort Benning. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

I have had more than enough reasons to reflect. Many will load their carts with beverages, chips and salsa, finger foods, etc. and ring in another year. That is often the plan. But I have aged some and hopefully learned a few things about how quickly man’s plans can be interrupted by bigger plans. One might even go so far as to say they are plans of the Sovereign. With a goal, too: to teach us to number our days.

 

Three: Theology, a Novel of the Miniscule, & a Tome by Joyce Carol Oates

This week, I read three very different writers: John MacArthur, Nicholas Baker, and Joyce Carol Oates. One is a Christian theologian and pastor; one is a postmodern fiction writer whose style departs from almost anyone else I have read; and Oates is an American writer who has been prolific since the 1960s.

Below are some thoughts on each book, its main concerns, examples from each that illustrate said concerns, and some questions for reflection.

In Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, published in 1994, MacArthur introduces his theme up front and unpacks it throughout the next 200 pages. He explains how existentialism, subjectivism, relativism, and mysticism have undercut the very foundations of logic and reason. The result has been widespread poverty of proper biblical interpretation:

. . . to say that people can’t reason their way to the truth of Scripture is not to imply that Scripture itself is irrational. The Bible is perfectly reasonable, consistent with itself, true in all its parts, reliable as a foundation for our logic, dependable as a basis for good judgment, and trustworthy as the definitive test of sound doctrine. Because it is pure truth, it is perfectly rational (xii)

And another gem:

We cannot simply flow with the current of our age. We cannot elevate love by downplaying truth. We cannot promote unity by repressing sound doctrine. We cannot learn to be discerning by making an idol out of tolerance. By adopting those attitudes, the church has opened her gates to all of Satan’s Trojan horses. (81)

But the various isms resulting from suppressing God and his revelation of himself in Scripture have led to abuses and misinterpretations that are embarrassing. In his trademark fashion, MacArthur does not pull punches. He quotes from primary sources in his many analyses of existentialism, mysticism, neo-orthodoxy/liberalism, fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and more. He traces the trajectory of how many people wound up with such reckless faith.

One example I found particularly helpful was his analysis of mysticism that has infiltrated much of the professing Christian church. Many people are chasing feelings, chasing experiences:

The faith of mysticism is an illusion. “Truth that is true for me” is irrelevant to anyone else, because it lacks any objective basis. Ultimately, therefore, existential faith is impotent to lift anyone above the level of despair. All it can do is seek more experiences and more feelings. Multitudes are trapped in the desperate cycle of feeding off one experience while zealously seeking the next. Such people have no real concept of truth; they just believe. Theirs is a reckless faith. (30)

He ends this book as he ends every book I have read from MacArthur—with a call to the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Scripture is the authority. Many profess that, but deny it in practice. Say what you will about John MacArthur, but I have never seen him equivocate on that: Scripture is the only objective standard—not traditions, not feelings, not “being led,” not visions, not “looking within,” and certainly not popes, bishops, or councils. If you seek clarity, and want an apologetic resource calling you back to living out, not just the sufficiency of Scripture, but also the authority of Scripture, this is a valuable resource. Isms come and go, but the Word abides forever.

A second book I read was a first for me. More precisely, the book and the author were new to me. Nicholas Baker is an American postmodern writer, and The Mezzanine, a short novel about a businessman’s trip up an escalator, and his mental activity during that trip, is, well, amazingly detailed in its attention to the banal, the quotidian, and the everyday. The author’s goal? To show us the superficial ways we so often glide through contemporary life without thinking through things.

Baker’s forays and footnotes (yes, lots and lots of footnotes, even footnotes about footnotes) serve to focus the reader on the things right under our noses and under our fingertips (like the handrail on an escalator, like the feel of a stapler on your office desk, like why shoelaces break at nearly the same time, etc.). Here is an example:

Presently the metal disk that drew near was half lit by sun. Falling from dusty heights of thermal glass over a hundred-vaned, thirty-foot-long, unlooked-at, invisibly suspended lightning fixture that resembles the metal grid in an old-style ice cube tray, falling through the vacant middle reaches of lobby space, the sunlight draped itself over my escalator and continued from there, diminished by three-quarters, down into a newsstand inset into the marble at the rear of the lobby. (103)

 Baker is new to me. I admire his precision in description. I admire his raising the issue of how the quotidian may teach us if we would but pay attention. But, I think Baker suggests herein, we suffer the illusion that we will be happier if we skate along life, carried escalator-like, unbothered by serious contemplation of our mortality. Baker is, in my view, important. He is not, I admit, easy to read; it can be work. But that, I believe, is part of what makes him important to read. If I had to summarize Baker’s aim, it is this question: What happens if we pay attention–stop entertaining ourselves to death–and just stop and pay attention?

The Oates novel I am (still) reading is her 2001 tome Blonde. It is nearly 800 pages, so it is not one I can finish in a day or two. Marilyn Monroe, as most of the world knew her, was really Norma Jeane Baker, and she is the subject of the novel. As readers, we meet her mother, Gladys, her grandmother, Della, the actors at The Studio in Los Angeles during Hollywood’s golden era, and on and on.

I said the subject was Marilyn Monroe. The more I read this novel, I would say the subject is not Marilyn so much as it is the question of what it means to act, to fulfill a role, to don a façade, and what costs are involved.

Norma Jeane Baker lived roles. And I think Oates is exploring that theme, not a small one. Stay tuned.

7 Worth Your Time

I had several blessings this year. I returned from a military deployment to Iraq that I deeply appreciated. I worked with some fine Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and civilians for whom I am grateful. Each deployment brings together diverse personalities, and several people stood out via their unique giftings and particular strengths. We were a diverse group, a motley crew. Because of chaplaincy’s unique inroads, I was able to work near engineers, Marine infantrymen, pilots, mechanics, electricians, fuelers, budget analysts, accountants, cyberspace gurus, logisticians, and more. The diversity of those with whom I labored found a counterpart in my reading life. I discovered several new authors. That is, they were new to me. Some of those have become new favorites. (More on that below.)

What follows is a list of seven books that particularly stood out for me. Some refined my thinking. Some convicted me. Others confirmed my deeply held convictions. If you are a fellow reader, I hope you benefit, too, from my reflections on some of my reading. This is part one of several installations as I look back on some of this year’s reading. More reviews are forthcoming. Tolle lege: Take up and read.

You’ve Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe This 1994 volume is edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard and is my favorite volume of short story collections I own. The selections include masterpieces by Isaac Babel, Borges, Raymond Carver, Cheever, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Welty, Munro, Joyce, Updike, O’Brien, O’Connor, and more. I am a junkie for short story collections, but the fact that these masterful short pieces are introduced by such impressive writers as Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, Joyce Carol Oates, Ron Hansen, and Annie Dillard deepens this volume still more.

A Long and Happy Life This novel by North Carolina writer Reynolds Price was published in 1962. I read it for the first time last month. It captivated me such that I read it in a day and a half. The story of Rosacoke and Wesley, poverty and ignorance in Dixie, honor, sacrifice, loneliness, longing, and love, this story explores all of these and more in less than 160 pages. If you enjoy literary fiction set in the South of days reflected in the worlds of Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, this is a great place to camp. Price has become a new favorite for me.

Pathway to Freedom: How God’s Laws Guide Our Lives A 2003 book brought about by hearers encouraging Reformed Christian pastor-theologian Alistair Begg to put his preaching through the Ten Commandments into book form, this volume is chock-full of biblical wisdom delivered by a winsome wordsmith and faithful pastor. Our lives invariably demonstrate our theological beliefs. Begg excels in connecting God’s words to our ways in the world. An excellent resource for the Christian church.

Why One Way? Defending an Exclusive Claim in an Inclusive World This book was published in 2002. Written by pastor-teacher/theologian at Grace Community Church and The Master’s College and Seminary, John MacArthur elucidates in 75 pages what few other men dare. In a time when many high-profile so-called Christian teachers have caved to the “social gospel” and being “woke” to the culture, MacArthur is one of the few who holds the line. Perhaps it is because I appreciate clarity so much, but MacArthur demonstrates how the gospel always offends the unregenerate, how sin is essential to diagnose, how Jesus himself confronted the world, how Scripture—time and time again—outlives its critics, and how the Christian church needs to grow up and endure the battles we were warned of long before, and engage the emptiness of secular worldviews with complete confidence in the power of God as revealed in Scripture to accomplish God’s purposes.

The Doctrine of Repentance This is a classic of Christianity. Written by Puritan Thomas Watson, it is no wonder that Banner of Truth continues to find a market for these profound writings from the deep biblical minds and pens in the Reformed tradition. My copy is now highlighted and underscored such that one would think I had had this volume for years. Wisdom on every page in this volume.

Words made Fresh: Essays on Literature & Culture Larry Woiwode is a wordsmith, fiction writer, and thinker that merits faithful reflective reading and thought. He has become one of my favorites over recent years. He writes not only moving fiction and essays, but also of other areas with the same deftness. This is my favorite collection of his essays I have read so far. Herein he writes of Shakespeare, Reynolds Price, Wendell Berry, and more. A fine book by an important writer.

Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought Of all the theology/worldview/”history-of-ideas” books I read in 2019, this 2007 volume, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker, is exceptional, not just in this year’s reading, but in my library as a whole. If you are a big picture worldview thinker like I am, I cannot think of a better worldview book to have at hand. An invaluable resource.

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny Cash and Thoughts on Vocation

Over the last few days, I completed reading Johnny Cash’s autobiography cash (ibid.) and I respect him and his music even more now than I did before. It has to do with his determination to follow his vocation with simple (not simplistic) truthfulness.

Vocation—(n.) a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action

I remember sitting down with a professor when my family and I moved for me to attend seminary several years back. We met with a scholar from the church history department. My wife and I went into the professor’s office and exchanged pleasantries for a bit. He asked me which writers and thinkers most influenced me. Then he asked me to describe my vocation. It was then I discovered his aim. It was for me to understand what I really valued. By whom and to what was I called?

I relearned through that conversation years ago something I again appreciated in Cash’s autobiography. It is this idea of vocation.

This idea of vocation/calling shapes Cash’s music. He is not glamorous. He is not flashy. He is not adorned. He is simply (not simplistically) “the man in black” with his black Martin guitar, his black boots, his deep Arkansas-Tennessee voice, his simple lyrics about love, loss, self-destruction, rescue, redemption, Jesus’ work on behalf of sinners, marriage, forgiveness, restoration—all with ever-present focus.

His country music attests to his worldview. It bears witness to his efforts to answer and follow his vocation.

There were dark times, of course. He battled amphetamine and opioid addiction. He battled the bottle. He battled lust. He was not a perfect husband or father. But he pressed on; he followed his vocation. He did not sell out to style over substance.

When he saw that much of so-called country music had degenerated to donning a cowboy hat, wearing tight jeans, boots, and speaking with a southern accent … well, he stayed true to what he knew—the old gospel tunes, Hank Williams Sr.’s tunes, the Carter Family mountain music, Bill Monroe, and the other pioneers.

He kept to the timeless truths he had learned the hard way … from growing up poor in the South, picking cotton, listening to the panthers screaming at night in Arkansas and to the whistle of the trains as they cut through the farmlands.

He stayed close to his heart for telling the truth musically. He fought to maintain his allegiance to his vocation. Towards the end of his autobiography, Cash writes about his awareness of his own mortality:

Not that I believe you have to “grow old gracefully.” I go along with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s idea that it’s okay to go out screaming and scratching and fighting. When death starts beating the door down, you need to be reaching for your shotgun.

And when you know he might be in your part of town, which is true for anyone my age, you should be taking care of business. Quit gazing out the window at the lake and start telling your stories” (p. 273).

 Cash died in 2003, but I think his contributions will endure due in large measure to his faithfulness in following his vocation, and not losing his soul to this world. I am grateful.

 

Johnny Cash, October Sands, and Family

There’s a line in Moby Dick that sticks with me. No, it’s not “Call me Ishmael.” It’s this one: “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” Why? Short answer: I have found it to be true. Something there is about the sounds of waves meeting shore; something about the way moonshine bathes the sea’s surface in white, and you can see the dark below and the light above, and you seek to discover some truth therein.

Perhaps it’s something about the strands of white and the impressions they hold for a moment: footprints of walkers, runners, kite fliers and tan seekers, young and old, working and retired—all there until the next wave or footprint or toddler with an orange shovel and matching pail.

I had my family, Johnny Cash’s autobiography, and a week of sun-drenched days and moonlit nights. Tonight is the full moon but it was nearly impossible to tell it was not full already, it was that bright.

Sitting on the balcony looking down towards the pool, I watched a gray squirrel climb a palm tree. Until he spotted me watching him, he seemed on a mission. I watched children play in the Gulf of Mexico while Zac Brown’s “Free” poured from a Bose Wave Music System, and many of us sang along, even if to ourselves.

I swam with my son and rode the waves in from the sandbar. I heard his boyish voice say, “Hey Dad, watch this!” wave after wave, afraid I’d miss seeing him.

I watched my wife’s skin absorb the sun and turn brown almost immediately. I read my Johnny Cash autobiography and listened to his last album filled with gospel songs about hurt and redemption and heard his voice say, “The Man Comes Around,” in a voice like no one else’s.

I watched my immediate and extended family work to provide and continue to make memories. And it’s all so simple: sunlight, water, sand, each other, music, ice cream, walking at night with headlamps on our foreheads, chasing the crabs on shore, their black eyes glowing in our beams of light. And still, the moon above. The sand like a white ribbon. The sounds of the water lapping at your ankles and retreating. Children’s voices. An occasional firecracker. The silhouette of lovers walking beside one another.

Melville was right; meditation and water are forever wed in a dance. And it is a good thing to be able to participate, to wade in and belong.

Roads to Redemption in the Stories of Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s long novel published in 2007, won the National Book Award. Its subjects were Vietnam, conspiracies, and myriad struggles to discern what is the “really real.” I read this novel over the last few weeks as I have worked my way through the fictional works of Johnson.

Perhaps it was because I still have an appetite for Vietnam stories. Though that was the war of my parents’ generation, in high school I read Vietnam stories and novels, and got hooked on them. Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War and Going After Cacciato were books I was assigned to read, but I actually enjoyed those. And Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, though it has been years since I have read it, still remains with me. Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is another fine book about the many fallouts of the whole Vietnam era from which I have benefited.

Even though I was too young at the time to have understood Vietnam when it ripped America apart, the scores of novels and memoirs I have read of that war have hopefully helped me understand a terribly divisive time in America’s history, especially with regard to issues related to war, the dangers of trusting mainstream media, drugs, feminism, secularism, and the loss of shame. The list could go on.

The late 1960s and early 1970s still shape my parents’ generation. They can recall JFK’s assassination, Watergate, and Charles Manson like I recall the Challenger explosion, the attempted assassination of Reagan, and the Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/ll.

I know that is a lot of background to explore the fiction of Denis Johnson. But context is critical. No one writes in a vacuum. Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke was, to me at least, not his best writing. In my view, it was too long, and he lost track of his main idea. But that was the first piece of Johnson’s that I read. Its backdrop was Vietnam, the effects upon brothers and families, upon men and women with each other, and upon how people very often lose their way.

They lost belief. Does that sound banal? Perhaps. But Johnson’s characters can rip your heart out when you see them unravel existentially and flounder in trying to put themselves back together again.

Here is an example of the protagonist (Skip Sands) thinking about who he is and what he is about, about how he is to make his way in the world of Vietnam’s horrors and the pervasive lies surrounding him:

Skip regretted the role handed him at the end, that of traitor to the rebellion. At the end the colonel had sought reasons not just for an operation gone wrong, but for the breaking of his own heart, had looked for betrayal at the very center of things in the shape of some classical enormity, and what could have been more enormous, more darkly Roman, than betrayal by one’s own house, by his nephew, by his own blood? A soul too wide for the world. He’d refused to see his downfall as typical, refused all collaboration with the likes of Marcus Aurelius: “You may break your heart,” the old emperor had written, “but men will go on as before.” He’s written himself large-scale, followed raptly the saga of his own journey, chased his own myth down a maze of tunnels and into the fairyland of children’s stories and up a tree of smoke. (p.515)

But it was not in his long novel Tree of Smoke that most impressed me. It was his short stories.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden contains amazing short fiction. Johnson, you need to know, is not a gentle writer. That is, he addresses life at its extreme moments, as if the extremes are oracles revealing mysteries not otherwise spoken.

In the short story “Strangler Bob,” (from the Sea Maiden collection of stories) for example, the first-person narrator describes his mindset while at the county jail and courthouse. Like many scenes in Johnson’s fictional world, this character is amidst addicts, rebels, dreamers, and rebels:

While I was kept there I wondered if this place was some kind of intersection for souls. I don’t know what to make of the fact that I’ve seen men many times throughout my life, repeatedly in dreams and sometimes in actuality—turning a corner on the street, gazing out the window of a passing train, or leaving a café just at the moment I glance up and recognize them, then disappearing out the door—and it makes me feel each person’s universe is really very small, no bigger than a county jail, a collection of cells in which he encounters the same fellow prisoners over and over. (p. 99)

And in his novella Train Dreams, Johnson explores the experiences of Robert Grainer, a common railroad laborer in the early 1900s in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Texas. Uneducated but hardworking, he marries, becomes a father, loses his wife and child in a fire, becomes a recluse, howls at the mountains with the wolves, battles insanity, a gives a dying man a drink of water from an old shoe. Yes, this is the world of Denis Johnson’s fiction, and it may shake you, too.

Lastly, my favorite Johnson stories came from his collection Jesus’ Son. This collection—again—explores lives of men and women on the edge—not just on the edge of society and laws, but on the edge of sanity. Characters hitchhike across America, find themselves in and out of hospital ERs, dives and bars, car crashes, and cabins for junkies. But they also serve as characters who illuminate the beauty in life that escapes the attention of most people.

I don’t think for a moment that Johnson would advocate for going through life on drugs or alcohol (he himself got clean after a long battle with both substances in the 1970s and into the 1980s) but in his fiction, Johnson does not shy away from using the extreme experiences—both comic and tragic—he was privy to in order to shock us into realities we would otherwise suppress. But those realities matter; they are important. They are sometimes those oracular insights—about ultimate things, and how we can know redemption is not just possible, but actual, if we will follow the signs.

 

What Is Your Worldview?

Seven questions reveal a lot … if they are the right questions. In his book Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think, James Sire asks the right ones. 

 

In a world ripped apart and often characterized by (pardon the poor grammar) Us vs. Them, Sire excels in this book by demonstrating that all of us have a mental map of the world, a set of assumptions about the big questions and answers of life. We may not be conscious of our own worldviews at all times, but learning to be aware of ours and the worldviews of others—be they politicians, writers, entertainers, teachers, lawyers, philosophers and theologians, etc.—helps clarify what we think, why we think the way we do, and why we behave the ways we do. 

 

The questions he asks us to ask are fundamental questions that go a long way in revealing each person’s worldview. In a world ripped asunder via politics, race-baiting, shouting matches, and ad hominem attacks, Sire’s book may encourage you, too. 

 

Sire’s seven questions that elucidate each person’s worldview follow. Each time you listen to a politician, read a newspaper article, listen to the lyrics of a song, watch a film, ask these questions about the person’s or persons’ views behind what is being promulgated. What worldview are they operating from? How would they answer these questions?

 

1. What is prime reality—the really real?
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
3. What is a human being?
4. What happens to a person at death?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?  

 

And perhaps most important of all, Sire’s definition of worldview: a set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world. 

 

One of the passions of my life is literature. Sire dedicates an entire chapter to worldview analysis of literature. In one chapter he contrasts the worldviews of the Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied Beauty” with the atheistic writer Thomas Hardy in his poem “The Darkling Thrush.” 

 

The worldview of each writer is manifested. Hopkins, a Christian writer, sees the world as the creation of the infinite-personal God, and beautiful colors and creatures in life as indicators and evidences of God’s nature being inseparable from the true, good, and beautiful. God exists, his creation exists, our minds exist, and we reflect God’s glory because we are created as his image-bearers.

 

Hardy, writing from an atheistic worldview, sees a bird dying along a fencerow at dusk as symbolic of man’s darkening hopes with regard to life and the future. The universe is a closed system, there’s no God beyond it, and all that exists is material, etc.—yet here we are, trying to make sense of why we feel empty and lonely in a dark world. Well, when we explore Hardy’s worldview, it’s no wonder. Why write poetry if we are just material in a material world? 

 

If you are curious about why we people think, create, and behave the ways we do, you are curious about worldviews, and an excellent place to begin is with Sire’s book.

Rereading J. Gresham Machen (& some related musings)

 

Over the last few months I have been under medical care due to a shoulder injury that called for surgery. Unable to exercise the ways I have done hitherto, I have spent more time in a recliner and/or on a bed than I would have liked. But these days healing post-surgery have not been wasted. I have been able to read more than usual. Better still, I have been able to reread some of my favorite books and writers. 

 

Last week I reread one of my favorite writers and thinkers, J. Gresham Machen. What follows are two items: 1) my thoughts on Machen’s book The Christian View of Man and 2) a short list of some books I am rereading.  

 

There are a few writers I return to again and again. J. Gresham Machen is one of my favorites. Why? In short, Machen excelled in getting to the bottom line in his books. He saw to the heart of the matter and then explored it with a keen mind and sharp pen. Okay, you might say, other writers have done that. Some have, I admit. But Machen saw the issues clearly and did not shy away from declaring them clearly. That is one way he distinguished himself. 

 

Very often I have found academic writers write largely to sound impressive. The writing contains little if anything new or noteworthy, or even particularly insightful. And often it is laden with abstruse academic jargon, as if that denoted something’s truthfulness.

 

If veracity is the goal, clarity of expression should be more prevalent. In academic writing, however, many books are never read except by committees, and then only to credential a peer.  

 

With Machen, however, we are spared those irritations. In The Christian View of Man (a book comprised of lectures Machen gave during the 1930s), Machen addressed fundamental issues with regard to the Christian worldview. The title is accurate. Machen contrasts the Christian worldview with the pagan one. He divides the book into twenty short chapters (usually five to ten pages each). And those few pages are packed with clearly defined characteristics regarding how the biblical/Christian worldview explains reality. Following is an example from Machen on how the Bible differs from secular literature:

 

     The Bible differs from human books on religion not merely in this point or that but in the centre about which everything moves. Human books are prone to find that centre in man; the Bible finds it in God.

     Men do not like that fundamental characteristic of the Bible. The prefer to think of the happiness of the creature as the goal; they wrongly interpret the text ‘God is love’ to mean that God is only love and that God exists for the benefit of His creatures; reversing the Shorter Catechism, they hold that God’s chief end is to glorify man. (50)

 

See how Machen clarifies the ways in which worldviews matter? If one comes to the Bible assuming it is just another book penned by men, (maybe even with helpful myths regarding the origin of the universe, of man, of sin, of strife, of ethics, etc.) it is still just another book. 

 

But if one takes the claims of the Bible seriously, and does the work necessary to understand the various types of literature it contains (history, law, poetry, wisdom, gospels, epistles, apocalyptic, et al.), and that it has one central theme uniting the myriad genres, and that there is a unifying storyline reaching its crescendo and fulfillment in Jesus the Christ, that would mean it’s a very different sort of book, would it not? Then it would not be “just another book.” Then there might be good reasons the apostle Paul, imprisoned for declaring the truth of the biblical worldview and Jesus as the Christ, would write to his younger child in the faith, Timothy, instructing him to do one thing above all–bring him the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).

 

This is what I mean when I write Machen’s book clarifies what’s at stake. Here is another example of how Machen reveals the mutual exclusivity of the pagan worldview vs. the biblical worldview:

 

At the heart of everything that the Bible says are two great truths, which belong inseparably together—the majesty of the law of God, and sin as an offence against that law. Both these basic truths are denied in modern society, and in the denial of them is found the central characteristic of the age in which we are living.

    Well, what sort of age is that; what sort of age is this in which the law of God is regarded as obsolete and in which there is no consciousness of sin? 

I will tell you. It is an age is in which the disintegration of society is proceeding on a gigantic scale. Look about you, and what do you see? Everywhere the throwing off of restraint, the abandonment of standards, the return to barbarism. (189-90)

 

See the differences? On the one hand is the biblical worldview, with God and his holy nature revealed in his law. On the other hand is the secular/atheistic view, with man at the center and moral chaos as its distinctive characteristic. 

 

I was reminded today of how current—how relevant–Machen’s writing still is. Today as I went to the library, I heard the news on my radio. The story was of newborn infants left to die in a “comfort room.”

 

No, this story was not of babies under Herod in 1st century Palestine. No, it was not of babies under Josef Mengele in 1940s Nazi Germany. No, this was a story from our day, in our world, of Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois in the U.S. Here’s a link to read about it, if you dare: https://www.lifenews.com/2019/09/10/hospital-created-comfort-room-for-babies-to-die-in-if-they-survived-abortions/

 

This is the value of rereading Machen. He clarifies the importance of worldviews. He explores winsomely the truism that ideas have consequences. And he points us to the Scriptures which are able to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). 

 

I am looking on my desk now at other books I am rereading. They are among my favorites: Dickens’ David Copperfield, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. There are more. And they are worth our time, dear readers, as much is at stake.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gritty Fiction of Larry Brown

Occasionally I discover a writer whose works have endured thus far because they are true, not because they are necessarily pretty. If you appreciate the writings of Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, you may appreciate the gritty fiction of Larry Brown.

 

 Today I completed reading Brown’s novel The Rabbit Factory. Like everything else I have read from Larry Brown, this narrative explores the trials of (mostly) poor, white, hard-drinking, hard-living southerners who long for better lives. But each character is trapped—almost powerless to extricate himself/herself fully from a taunting, overwhelming web of evil. Better lives remain out of reach due to unwise choices, bad luck, fate, and/or formidable evil. 

 

This is not reading for the faint of heart. There is much violence herein.  And there is sex. And there is physical abuse. And there are scenes upon scenes with bourbon, beer, gin, and marijuana use. But these scenes are not there for shock value. These things, I would suggest, are tropes for lesser writers (Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, e.g.) but not for Brown.

 

Brown excels in his depiction of down-and-outsnot to sentimentalize them, but to reveal our possible connectionto them. He shows the sense of how actual people battle demons that we don’t often speak about to one another—demons of childhood traumas, wounds from abusive fathers, and loneliness that aches. His characters long to accomplish that for which they are convinced they were born but they flounder amidst cruel realities that reveal they have fallen far short. 

 

And on the stories go–of fighters, licentious wives, hit men, lonely female country cops, men and women who press on against formidable external odds and plaguing internal demons. 

 

If you’ve ever driven through the U.S countryside and seen neon Bud Light signs in front of roadside bars, and seen pickups parked out front, and you’ve thought of those men and women inside as if they were obviously beneath you … you might have thought, “How sad. Why can’t they be like I am?” Well, this book is not for you. Your life is zipped up nicely; theirs are apart at the seams. 

 

But if you’ve driven by those places and thought, “Yep, I am a lot like those folks on the inside—ugly, trying to drown my pain in my own way, in a mess … but determined to push through,” then this book might grip you. You might find we sinners are a lot more similar than we care to admit. 

 

Exposing facades of composure is what Brown does so well. But he does not do it via the high and mighty in our world but by exploring the downtrodden and morally bankrupt. 

 

Reading Larry Brown makes the honest person ask himself a hard question: Am I responding to other people like a Pharisee or like a fellow sinner?

25 Lessons at 50

Turned 50 this year. Perhaps that is part of what gave rise to reflecting on some lessons from along my way. If you like lists, enjoy. If you don’t, sorry … I do. 

 

 

 

1. Cruel people are almost always more courageous than kind ones, but I still prefer the kind ones. 

 

2. No testimony is so powerful as the lived one.
3. I learned more about the value of hard work when sitting alongside my grandparents under a pecan tree, shelling butterbeans and shucking corn, than I did in any university.

 

4. There is a world of difference between Facebook friends and friends. 

 

5. There will be lots of surprises for us at the final judgment.

 

6. Beauty makes no sense as a category if atheism is true. 

 

7. The visible Christian church, though filled with sinners, is still precious, because we sinners confess our sin is the problem and the gospel is the answer; secularists refuse to admit these by insisting the world will ‘progress’ via yet another humanistic model. It wont; study history. 

 

8. Words, though often misused, are nonetheless necessary.

 

9. Great books are one of life’s great comforts.

 

10. We have forgotten how to be alone and learn.

 

11. A hand-written letter still makes me smile. 

 

12. In a week, we won’t remember today’s headlines.

 

13. The Bible is too important to neglect; previous generations knew this. 

 

14. There are more wolves than shepherds.

 

15. Some people’s smiles reveal knives; discernment is key.

 

16. I bet Judas Iscariot had a lovely smile.

 

17. I have not fished enough, even if they’re not biting.

 

18. The apostrophe has reason to be upset. 

 

19. Grammar classes should be compulsory.

 

20. Public discourse has degenerated into verbal assassination; we have slain ourselves.

 

21. I wish I had learned to garden well. 

 

22. There are many excellent books, and Shakespeare penned more than a few of them. 

 

23. My wife loves me better than I deserve.

 

24. The arts, though largely neglected, are vital. 

 

25. 1 Corinthians 15.