Monthly Archives: August 2007

"We Have Shared the Incommunicable Experience of War"

So said Oliver Wendell Holmes after his time in the Civil War. Holmes fought with the Massachusetts militia before he became a justice of the Supreme Court. His words ring true in my ears today–not because I am fighting, but because I am reading Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, and thus feel as if I am fighting.

I am a military history devotee. I have not yet read a book that more vividly communicates the experience of war. Ambrose ran into some justified trouble regarding plagiarism in his career, but that did not stop him from telling magnificent, true-to-life history. If you have not yet read his Citizen Soldiers, and you are a military history aficionado, you are cheating yourself. Ambrose chronicles the efforts of the American battle commanders–the everyday soldier and his officers–to defeat the Germans from the time of D-Day’s end until the war’s conclusion. The book is mesmerizing for its attention to detail, its outlay of the big picture, and its relentless citation of the primary sources–namely, American and German soldiers. In reading this book, I must keep reminding myself that the war is not still going on at this moment, and that I am not in it.

One of the primary realizations I’ve had in reading Ambrose’s text is just how much goes wrong in wartime. Even the most skilled and conscientious general or commanding officer makes mistakes, and the consequences are always–not often–brutal. If I make a mistake at my job, some time is lost, and some frustration is incurred. If a general–say, Eisenhower–makes a mistake, 2,000 men lose their lives, millions of dollars are lost, and whole communities dry up. Though they got so many things right, the US Army made countless mistakes, and life after life was lost as a result. It is wrenching to read about, and must have been awful to take. Another engrossing matter is the idea of the Geneva Conventions, the codes that govern the conduct of war and that bind all nations who sign them. What an interesting concept, that even in war, even when men set out to do nothing but slaughter one another, they shake hands first, and agree on how they will do so. There is something in such conduct that fascinates me. You and I can be gentleman in this moment, agreeing that we will not torture POWs or kills medics. Then, in the next instant, we will shoot at one another, and try to extinguish one another. I suppose that this illuminates the paradoxical nature of our fallen world–though terribly corrupted, grace still exists here, even if it exists in a shape both odd and mystifying.

War is awful stuff. It is fascinating to read about, it sometimes inspires the best in men, and it is instructive for all of us, but it is, at the end of the day, horrific. You and I may not experience it firsthand, but even in reading books such as Citizen Soldiers, we come away changed, aware of a whole side of the world we had lightly imagined but never understood. Though we have not fought or killed, we know something of war–and we realize that though we use words and photographs, the true nature of battle will remain incommunicable until the day when all wars cease.

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How Hunting Gives Men an Excuse to Be Friends

Just check out University of Illinois-Urbana journalism professor Walt Harrington’s 2002 book The Everlasting Stream. I recently read it and enjoyed Harrington’s meditation on hunting and masculinity. Having grown up in a rural area, I found that Harrington understood well the dynamics of groups of hunting men. As one who gravitates more to reading than killing, fiction than fishing, I came away from the book with a better understanding of why men get together and kill animals. Sure, it’s about the sport itself, the desire to take physical dominion over animals. But hunting is also about getting together with one’s friends and enjoying life together. The Everlasting Stream communicates this reality even as it allows the reader to peek into Harrington’s life. Harrington was once a prominent Washington Post writer, a post he gave up to step into a quieter, simpler life, the professorial life in Illinois.

Growing up, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would live in a small town. Boredom dominates, and nothing significant seems to happen. But as Harrington reveals, there is great meaning in the living of everyday life in a friendly, familiar environment, surrounded by one’s family and friends. My generation seems naturally to detest any connection to its old haunts, its childhood stomping grounds, so restless are we to shuttle off to big cities filled with excitement and discovery. When you’ve had a taste of such traveling, though, when you’ve inhaled the fumes of a transient existence long enough, you start to understand why people move to small communities, why they reject the hustle and bustle of cities for the calm and peace of small towns. The Everlasting Stream doesn’t seek to make any major points, but it does allow one to reflect on the tension between urban and rural life that exists in so many of us, and to wonder whether bigger, better, faster, and more truly delivers what it promises.

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Why Can’t Evangelicals Write Good Literature?

Donald Williams has the answer. In a deft, balanced piece in Touchstone magazine, he lays out his answer. I encourage you to read this piece and mentally digest it. It’s worth thinking through.

Williams notes the lack of attention paid to art by evangelical theologians and then comments:

So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture seems even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.

As a professor in the school of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, Williams is well equipped to identify this problem among Christians. The above paragraph brings out one of the fundamental tensions involved in the making of art by Christians: guilt. This is not Williams’s word–it is mine. Many of us feel guilty if the work we do in explicitly and overtly related to a verse of Scripture or the gospel. All our work should be done for God’s glory, but it need not always evangelize. Doing things well and truly reflects nicely on the Christian faith. We should seek to witness to the world of Christ’s mysterious atonement, but we should do so when appropriate, and should thus feel liberated to live and do without guilt. I do not want a Christian architect constantly peppering his consultations with clients with Bible verses. I want him to represent Christ in his work and to share the gospel and biblical truth when possible. How awkward and unhelpful for such a man to constantly attempt to witness. So it is with Christian artists. We should hope that their work reflects biblical principles, and that they represent Christ well in their personal lives. However, we do not expect them to constantly reference scripture or to make every painting an aesthetic exposition of John 3:16. We would all be helped by understanding that we do not honor Christ only when we explicitly evangelize but when we live and work and speak and paint and construct for God’s glory.

Williams’s essay sounds a note I’ve talked about on this blog before: the need for excellent Christian writing, and the contemporary paucity of such literature. It is encouraging to see such a piece in such a major (relatively speaking) magazine. One hopes that there is a minor movement underfoot, and that in years to come we will not only write sermons with excellence, but provocative, challenging, insightful, God-glorifying literature that speaks well and truly about the world.

Many thanks to Matt Crawford for his excellent contributions this past week–and thanks to the readers who read his posts and also to those who commented. It’s good to be back, but I’m very thankful for Matt’s work on this blog.

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Why Can’t Evangelicals Write Good Literature?

Donald Williams has the answer. In a deft, balanced piece in Touchstone magazine, he lays out his answer. I encourage you to read this piece and mentally digest it. It’s worth thinking through.

Williams notes the lack of attention paid to art by evangelical theologians and then comments:

So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture seems even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.

As a professor in the school of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, Williams is well equipped to identify this problem among Christians. The above paragraph brings out one of the fundamental tensions involved in the making of art by Christians: guilt. This is not Williams’s word–it is mine. Many of us feel guilty if the work we do in explicitly and overtly related to a verse of Scripture or the gospel. All our work should be done for God’s glory, but it need not always evangelize. Doing things well and truly reflects nicely on the Christian faith. We should seek to witness to the world of Christ’s mysterious atonement, but we should do so when appropriate, and should thus feel liberated to live and do without guilt. I do not want a Christian architect constantly peppering his consultations with clients with Bible verses. I want him to represent Christ in his work and to share the gospel and biblical truth when possible. How awkward and unhelpful for such a man to constantly attempt to witness. So it is with Christian artists. We should hope that their work reflects biblical principles, and that they represent Christ well in their personal lives. However, we do not expect them to constantly reference scripture or to make every painting an aesthetic exposition of John 3:16. We would all be helped by understanding that we do not honor Christ only when we explicitly evangelize but when we live and work and speak and paint and construct for God’s glory.

Williams’s essay sounds a note I’ve talked about on this blog before: the need for excellent Christian writing, and the contemporary paucity of such literature. It is encouraging to see such a piece in such a major (relatively speaking) magazine. One hopes that there is a minor movement underfoot, and that in years to come we will not only write sermons with excellence, but provocative, challenging, insightful, God-glorifying literature that speaks well and truly about the world.

Many thanks to Matt Crawford for his excellent contributions this past week–and thanks to the readers who read his posts and also to those who commented. It’s good to be back, but I’m very thankful for Matt’s work on this blog.

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Why Can’t Evangelicals Write Good Literature?

Donald Williams has the answer. In a deft, balanced piece in Touchstone magazine, he lays out his answer. I encourage you to read this piece and mentally digest it. It’s worth thinking through.

Williams notes the lack of attention paid to art by evangelical theologians and then comments:

So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture seems even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through the “Christian bookstore” will show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them.

As a professor in the school of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, Williams is well equipped to identify this problem among Christians. The above paragraph brings out one of the fundamental tensions involved in the making of art by Christians: guilt. This is not Williams’s word–it is mine. Many of us feel guilty if the work we do in explicitly and overtly related to a verse of Scripture or the gospel. All our work should be done for God’s glory, but it need not always evangelize. Doing things well and truly reflects nicely on the Christian faith. We should seek to witness to the world of Christ’s mysterious atonement, but we should do so when appropriate, and should thus feel liberated to live and do without guilt. I do not want a Christian architect constantly peppering his consultations with clients with Bible verses. I want him to represent Christ in his work and to share the gospel and biblical truth when possible. How awkward and unhelpful for such a man to constantly attempt to witness. So it is with Christian artists. We should hope that their work reflects biblical principles, and that they represent Christ well in their personal lives. However, we do not expect them to constantly reference scripture or to make every painting an aesthetic exposition of John 3:16. We would all be helped by understanding that we do not honor Christ only when we explicitly evangelize but when we live and work and speak and paint and construct for God’s glory.

Williams’s essay sounds a note I’ve talked about on this blog before: the need for excellent Christian writing, and the contemporary paucity of such literature. It is encouraging to see such a piece in such a major (relatively speaking) magazine. One hopes that there is a minor movement underfoot, and that in years to come we will not only write sermons with excellence, but provocative, challenging, insightful, God-glorifying literature that speaks well and truly about the world.

Many thanks to Matt Crawford for his excellent contributions this past week–and thanks to the readers who read his posts and also to those who commented. It’s good to be back, but I’m very thankful for Matt’s work on this blog.

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The Day When Nobody Died

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Pop songs are often a window into the hopes and desires of a culture. It is always interesting to listen to songs that come along that present a utopian vision of the future. This phenomenon is nothing new. Just think back a few decades to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a song with a haunting tune but a frightening description of the perfect society. As Christians, being aware of such songs, especially songs that get a lot of airtime on the radio, is useful in ministry, because they can serve as an avenue to bringing up the gospel.

As an example of what I’m talking about, consider “If Everyone Cared” by popular rock band Nickleback. The song is about the love shared between a couple and the hope that the entire world might experience such love. The chorus states,

If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
We’d see the day when nobody died

The music video for the song only further highlights this utopian vision, as it replays clips from various peace marches and protests around the world including such prominent figures as Nelson Mandela. The song thus presents the hope that one day through the united efforts of humanity, injustice and war will cease, ushering in a day “when nobody died.”

As Christians, let us not be too quick to condemn these songs. The longing they present is a universal human experience and is right, since we live in a world that is not as it should be. In book 19 of City of God, Augustine argued that peace is the true “highest good.” We were created for it and therefore should not be surprised when longing for this peace surfaces in art, even pop art. However, what Nickleback and others fail to see is that human peace movements are unable to bring about this desired state because of the universality of depravity. All utopian projects ultimately fail because they rely upon an exalted view of human nature.

Thus, these songs provide ready-made opportunities to tap into the longing for a better place and explain why this longing exists (because sin has marred the world) and what the solution is (the work of Christ). The next time that Nickleback comes on the radio when you’re at work, use it as an opportunity to tell others that there will indeed come a day when nobody will die, but that day will not be brought about by mere human political machinery. Moreover, on that day the only ones who will indeed ‘never die’ are those who have placed their faith in Christ. Truly everyone must now “swallow their pride” and submit to Christ, or find themselves bowing under his judgment on that day.

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What does it take to make a community?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

What does it take to make a community? One of the best thinkers alive today trying to answer this and related questions is Oliver O’Donovan. He attempts to answer this question most directly in his book Common Objects of Love. Although not an easy read, O’Donovan’s book rewards careful and repeated reading. In keeping with O’Donovan’s field of expertise, political theology, the stated goal of Common Objects of Love, is to answer “the question of what unifies a multitude of human agents into a community of action and experience sustained over time” (1). The short answer to this question is given in the title of the book. Human agents are formed into communities as a result of their common objects of love.

O’Donovan covers much territory in his book, such that a single blog post could never do justice to the breadth and depth of his thought. What I would like to do is highlight a single quote in order to stimulate your own thoughts on the matter. O’Donovan stands in the Augustinian tradition, and his book can be understood as an exposition of a single passage in City of God. Augustine stated that a people is “a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love” (20). As a group of individuals comes to love that which it perceives to be the good, it becomes “part of a community that is not constructed to accomplish some task but is given in the very fact that we cannot but love them” (19). Not all loves are the same, but are differentiated as better or worse loves based on “the adequacy of their grasp of reality” (23). This love which builds a community resides in all human hearts, even in the hearts of those in hell, whose objects of love result from their inadequate grasp of reality.

Augustine’s quote has profound implications in both the micro and the macro levels of human experience. An example of O’Donovan’s thesis is the community experienced by those at a sporting event who agree to share with other attendees their love for their favorite team. This common love binds the group together into a community, albeit a shallow and temporary one. Another more significant example is the mistake of young lovers who assume that their reciprocal love for one another will be sufficient to create a lasting bond between them. Augustine’s point is that real community only exists if there is some common object of love among those in the relationship. In other words, in order for a marriage to last, each spouse must share a love for some other thing besides the other spouse, and this shared love is what gives shape and perseverance to their relationship. As Christians, we would assert that a shared love for God is that which should bind the married couple together.

Augustine’s definition of a community might also be applied to larger groups such as denominations and even whole nations. How can true community and unity of purpose be formed when a denomination appears to be divided into various factions each with their own agenda? One way to begin the process of community formation is by identifying what are appropriate common objects of love. This difficult analysis must precede calls for joining arms in a common purpose, for such attempts at unity in action will ultimately fail if there is not also a unity in the objects of love. All would state that we share a love for God, but specifics must be given to this assertion. What conception of God? What conception of the calling of this God upon our lives? What appreciation (or lack thereof) of the community’s existing tradition? The answers to these questions cut to the heart of the divisions in our communities.

What are the common objects of love in your friendships, your church, your denomination, your nation?

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Nauseous Nihilism or Divine Rest?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Recently I’ve been reading some of Nietzsche’s first work, The Birth of Tragedy. It is not his most significant book, but it does contain elements that are central to his philosophy. Nietzsche’s central argument is that Greek tragedy arose from a combination of two impulses – the Apollonian and the Dionysian. The Dionysian element is the untamed force of intoxication and war, the opposite of the restrained rationality of the Apollonian.

I thought that I would share with you one of the most memorable quotes from the book. Some would argue that reading philosophers like Nietzsche is not worth the time. I would respond that reading Nietzsche is useful for, among other reasons, he shows us what is the logical result of the Enlightenment reliance upon autonomous reason. When was the last time that you stopped and considered what the implications would be if God had not spoken and we were left with only our own reason and creativity to make sense of the universe? Have you ever really stared into the void of meaninglessness that must be true if there is no God? I’m not encouraging you to doubt your faith. Rather, I am saying that we should not forget what it is like to be apart from Christ. Nietzsche’s quote below illustrates what every thinking atheist must come to, if he is consistent in his beliefs. He states,

“Now no comfort avails any more; longing transcends a world after death, even the gods; existence is negated along with its glittering reflection in the gods or in an immoral beyond. Conscious of the truth he has once seen, man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of existence; . . . he is nauseated.” (Section 7)

To merely conclude with what Nietzsche says above and say no more would drive someone mad. In fact, it is likely that it did eventually have this effect on Nietzsche himself. Man cannot live long conscious of his complete lack of teleology, the purpose of things. What then is Nietzsche’s proposed solution to the problem of man? He says in the next paragraph,

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.” (Section 7)

Art is Nietzsche’s answer. He thought that art was sufficient to enable man to reckon with the absurdity of his existence. Art is powerful, but art separated from metaphysics is still unable to give any higher meaning and purpose to life. The outrage of death screams in our ears, demanding an answer. Art merely distracts us from its cries until that point when we can no longer ignore the reality of our own impending death and the death of those we love. Let us be those who loudly proclaim that across the void of nothingness God spoke into the apparent horror or absurdity of our existence. He himself experienced death, and, by so doing, brought about the death of death itself. In the end there are only two ways to live consistently – with the nauseous nihilism of Nietzsche or, as Augustine put it, rest in the divine. “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”

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Are We Tacit Gnostics?

– Matthew R. Crawford –

As a consequence of recently joining a history book club, yesterday I received a free copy of The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, a compendium of the group of texts that launched the modern scholarly interest in Gnosticism. Key to Gnosticism is the disavowal of the body. The body is merely a prison for the soul, something to be transcended. As many others have noted, this view is at odds with historic Christian orthodoxy which affirms the value of the physical as a evidenced in the resurrection of Jesus. However, I wonder if we at times are still Gnostics at heart in the manner in which we treat our bodies? When we consistently deprive ourselves of bodily necessities like sleep, exercise, food, and recreation, or when we persistently indulge in harmful pleasures, we are demonstrating whether or not we truly value the body. I’m not saying that if you have ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper, or if you have eaten an entire quart of ice cream in one sitting then you are a Gnostic. There probably are legitimate places for both of those activities. What I am saying is we need to examine our unspoken assumptions that drive out actions. Do we really see value in our physical bodies? Or do we consider them merely a tool to be used or mistreated in order to accomplish our goal, whether it is a hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure, or the ascetic pursuit of an impressive degree?

A colleague recently told me a pithy statement that gets at the solution to this tacit Gnosticism. He said, “We were creatures before we were Christians.” That is, before we became followers of Christ we were physical beings, and once we experience the regenerating power of God, we remain physical beings, albeit with remarkably changed desires and outlooks. Part of the calling of being a “new man” in Christ is to care for this old body that is still very much a part of who we are. As Christians our highest calling is to glorify God. Doing so will at times necessitate what Paul called “beating our bodies” – sleepless nights, lack of food, rigorous discipline, and the like. However, let us remember as we do so that this calling to glorify God exists in the same book that emphatically affirms the goodness of our bodies. Persistent neglect of caring for the body might be a sign that our theology is not in keeping with that propounded in the pages of the New Testament, for the apostle who denied himself bodily pleasure in his labor for the church was also the one who showed concern for his young protégé’s health by telling him to take a little wine. I leave you with a couple of passages to ponder:

“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:2)

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

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Remembering the Value of the Ordinary

– Matthew R. Crawford –

Today is a very special day in the Crawford household. Our first child, Violet, is turning one year old. I thought that I would share with you one of my reflections upon this milestone event. First let me give a little background. I’m sure that my experiences thus far in seminary mirror that of many of my fellow students. I am taking enough class hours to maintain full-time status. I work a few part time jobs. I try to spend some time each day with my wife and child. I try daily to spend time in reading Scripture and prayer. And, if there’s time left, I try to get a little sleep each day. Needless to say, most days it seems that I don’t have enough time to do all that I have set for myself to do. In the midst of such a harried schedule, I become very goal-focused. I will mistreat my body and neglect other responsibilities so that I can attain the light at the end of the tunnel – graduating with a degree. Looking back over the last year, I wish that I had spent more time with my family. It is easy to squander time. So, in one sense, let me simply exhort you not to neglect those things that are most important.

However, I would also like to make a further point that is related to the first. When on a journey to an exciting place, one rarely pays attention to the road one travels to arrive at the destination. This same attitude often marks our entire lives. We just can’t wait for the next major event or milestone – the first birthday, the vacation at the beach, the graduation from college, etc. However, in the midst of pursuing a goal, let us not forget that there are pleasures to be had along the way. In fact, God seems to affirm the pleasures that are to be had in our day-to-day experience. At several points in the book of Ecclesiastes the preacher concludes that the best thing is for one to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. For example, he states, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man” (3:12-13). He goes on to give similar exhortations that man should find joy in the apparently common things given to him by God such as food and drink, work and a wife. Scripture clearly places a value upon such ordinary parts of life. Our calling as Christians is to see all of life as a gift from God, not simply the big, important events. Birthdays are a lot of fun. But there’s also much joy to be had in the other 364 days of the year.

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