Archive for March, 2013

Before the Cross

March 29, 2013

My Lord, my Master, at Thy feet adoring,
I see Thee bowed beneath Thy load of woe:
For me, a sinner, is Thy life-blood pouring;
For Thee, my Saviour, scarce my tears will flow.

Thine own disciple to the Jews has sold Thee,
With friendship’s kiss and loyal word he came;
How oft of faithful love my lips have told Thee,
While Thou hast seen my falsehood and my shame!

With taunts and scoffs they mock what seems Thy weakness,
With blows and outrage adding pain to pain;
Thou art unmoved and steadfast in Thy meekness;
When I am wronged how quickly I complain!

My Lord, my Saviour, when I see Thee wearing
Upon Thy bleeding brow the crown of thorn,
Shall I for pleasure live, or shrink from bearing
Whate’er my lot may be of pain or scorn?

O Victim of Thy love, O pangs most healing,
O saving death, O wounds that I adore,
O shame most glorious! Christ, before Thee kneeling,
I pray Thee keep me Thine for evermore.

– Jacques Bridaine, 1701-1767
Translated by Thomas Benson Pollock, 1836-1896

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Mind Your Manners – 2 – The Strange Silence Around the Third Commandment

March 22, 2013

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

This command is universally understood to mean that God’s name is not to be used as a curse-word, or as a mere exclamation. And who would deny that? To use the very name of God to express irritation or surprise, to add verbal oomph to a promise, or to simply use His name as a joke would surely violate this command.

How do we know that? Is there anywhere in the rest of the Law of Moses that explains and applies the Third Commandment? Not explicitly, anyway. Apparently, this command supplies a principle, to which believers were, and are, supposed to supply applications.

What is the principle? Since one’s name represents one’s person and character, the name of God represents more than simply the verbal pronouncement or written letters of God’s names or titles. The name of God represents God’s person. To take His name in vain, is to take His person, character and reputation in vain. “To take in vain” is to treat as light, empty, or worthless. It is to misuse something in a fashion that trivialises its dignity, devalues its import, or profanes its uniqueness. The timeless principle of the Third Commandment seems to be: do not treat God in any way that trivialises, devalues, or profanes Him. Positively: fear God, and give Him the glory due His name (Ps 29:2).

One can easily see how using God’s actual name as a swear-word would profane God. But are there not other lawful applications of this command? What about treating His Supper as common? What about treating His Day like any other day? What about making light of God’s Word in a sermon? What of Sunday School songs that make God into something comical or amusing? What about methods of evangelism that ‘theme’ the gospel after some form of entertainment or leisure? What about worshipping God with forms used for revelry, narcissism and entertainment? Are there forms of speech, song, poetry, prayer, dress that would portray God as lightweight, inconsequential or unimportant? Could a certain kind of behaviour drag God’s reputation through the mud, particularly by those who name Him?

We’re probably only getting started with possible applications. The point is, the Third Commandment, like most of them, gives a command which is timeless, and therefore generalised. “Treat God’s Person With Respect”, might be a paraphrase. This broad principle then needs to be worked into differing ages, cultures, and situations. God gives us the etiquette – treat Me with reverence – and expects us to apply it.

And there’s the rub. We can take God’s relative silence about how to flesh out the Third Commandment two ways. We can assume that the only moral aspect of the Commandment is the timeless principle, while the applications, because they may differ from culture to culture, are amoral. What becomes moral, in this way of thinking, is the desire, or the sincerity with which a person wishes to reverence God. The actual forms, habits, speech, dress and musical forms contain no meaning except insofar as they give a moral agent an opportunity to express his sincere desire to revere God.

The other approach is to see morality extending from the timeless commandment through to the applications, even when these applications are not spelt out by Scripture. The applications are moral insofar as they carry meanings. These meanings can communicate, in a given culture, reverence for God or its opposite. This meaning comes about in several ways, but since it is present in every culture, what is needed to keep the Third Commandment is more than sincerity, but discernment. Every moral agent needs to grow in knowledge, to judge the meaning, in his culture, of his acts, habits, gestures and responses to God. I’d like to defend this second approach in the next posts.

Save Them From Secularism

March 20, 2013

Last year, I did a series called Pre-Evangelism For Your Children. I compiled those posts, re-worked them, and added some material on manners and education. The result is this booklet, aimed at parents and pastors, to think through how we create a Christian ‘thinking-grid’ or worldview in our children. While trusting entirely to the decisive work of the Spirit in bringing regeneration, we must not fail to use all means possible to instil in children an imagination shaped by Christian categories, to prepare for and support the gospel and orthodox doctrine.

As a pastor and parent, I’m concerned at how oblivious we seem to be at the many ways that we inculcate a secular imagination. This book is an attempt to point out some of the possible gaps in our thinking and practice.

It’s free for five days at Amazon. If you find it helpful, promote it to other parents, grandparents, pastors, etc.

Save Them From Secularism2

Mind Your Manners: Rude to God

March 15, 2013

Manners are strange and wonderful things. Every culture has them, and yet they often vary widely between cultures. In Western culture, ‘ladies first’ is a way of expressing deference and honour to women, while in some black cultures in South Africa, a man is to enter every space first to demonstrate his protection of those who follow him. Ladies first would be considered cowardice. “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” often rings out in many a home in English-speaking countries, but in several African cultures, eye contact with a superior is considered effrontery and rude. Honour is shown by keeping one’s gaze down. When I lived in Taiwan, I found all my table manners were backwards. Absolutely nothing should be touched with the hands, but loud slurping, chewing and other sounds of mastication and digestion are considered normal and complimentary. Chopsticks alone must be used to pick up food, but a stray ant or bug walking across the table didn’t cause so much as a double-take. In the Afrikaans language, one speaks respectfully by avoiding direct pronouns ‘you’ and your’, so a respectful person will say something like, “Father, will Father be taking Father’s car to the shops, or may I offer Father a lift?” Funerals in the West are observed with silence and dark colours; funerals in Africa have wailers, singing, and a feast. Every culture has its manners, and as far as we can tell, no culture has been without manners. Manners were clearly present in Hebrew culture:

Leviticus 19:32 Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD.

Deuteronomy 28:49-50  “The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand,  “a nation of fierce countenance, which does not respect the elderly nor show favor to the young.

Proverbs 30:17 The eye that mocks his father, And scorns obedience to his mother, The ravens of the valley will pick it out, And the young eagles will eat it.

What are these strange things we call manners? To explain them is like explaining a joke. You either get them or you don’t. But on close inspection, they provide much drapery and clothing to our imaginative lives. They distinguish us from mere animals, they demonstrate the transcendence of our lives. Manners turn meals into something more than sustenance, sex into more than mating, clothing into something more than covering, speech into more than sharing information. Through manners we order and arrange our lives, recognising distinctions in age, sex, office, and station in life. Not only do manners provide life with the delight of respect for person, property and occasion, manners actually shape our understanding of oughtness. Certain people ought to be treated in a particular way. Certain occasions ought to be conducted with a kind of decorum. Manners are an elaborate system of value judgements.  “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”(1 Peter 2:17) Man judges the meaning and therefore the value of people, things, and events by clothing them with manners. He will invest life with ceremony, from eating, to queuing, to speaking, to attracting the opposite sex, to passing laws, to holding meetings, and until recently, to waging war.

Why should he do this if he is merely advanced protoplasm? Though many today argue for life without manners, man keeps defaulting back to them. Man believes there is a transcendent order, which filters down into a scale of values: some things or people deserve a certain kind of treatment. Some people and things ought to be respected. Some gestures or habits are offensive. Some things are obscene.

Yet, for all this universality of manners, manners are slippery things. Their differing, and sometimes opposite applications in cultures lead people to regard them as arbitrary. No rule-book, not even Emily Post, can finally define manners. But human life would not be human without them.

Since manners reflect a transcendent order, we would do well to ask, are there manners for dealing with God? Can one be rude to God, indecorous in His presence, disrespectful, or unmannered?
The Bible suggests it is possible to be rude to God. Several Scriptures enjoin ‘manners’ before God, and rebuke the lack thereof:

Malachi 1:6 ” A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If then I am the Father, Where is My honor? And if I am a Master, Where is My reverence? Says the LORD of hosts To you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised Your name?’

Exodus 20:7 ” You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.

Psalm 114:7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, At the presence of the God of Jacob,

Hebrews 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.

Ezekiel 23:39 39 “For after they had slain their children for their idols, on the same day they came into My sanctuary to profane it; and indeed thus they have done in the midst of My house.

If there are manners before God, how would we know what they are? Are the applications for these manners spelt out in Scripture? What are we to make of this? Do manners in God’s presence differ from culture to culture? How does this relate to the current worship wars? How do we learn manners before God? How should Christians teach younger Christians their manners before God? We’ll attempt some answers to these questions in this series.

Trinitarian Reflections, Ancient and Modern

March 14, 2013

No part of theology delights me as much as the doctrine of the Trinity, with all its implications for our salvation, sanctification, and glorification. Here is a list of some of the works I’ve worked through, or become aware of, as helpful texts for the study of this supremely sublime doctrine. This is a list of books which concern themselves directly with the Trinity, for which reason I’ve left out those systematic theology volumes in which the Trinity is treated as part of a larger body of doctrines. It’s also a mixture of theological, philosophical, and devotional works.

The Athanasian Creed. This condensation of orthodox trinitarianism is the essential starting place for us all.

Against Praxaeus – Tertullian. The first to use the word persona in this debate, Tertullian charts a course between tritheism and Sabellianism.

An Unpublished Essay on the Trinity – Jonathan Edwards. Edwards lays out how our fellowship with God consists in the Holy Spirit Himself, who is the delight of the Father and the Son in each other.

The Deep Things of God – Fred Sanders. Sanders seeks to show how evangelicals are (or should be) functionally trinitarian, but need to become more explicitly cognisant of and delighted in the doctrine of the Trinity.

 Jesus In Trinitarian Perspective (several) Here is a satisfying exploration of Christology in light of trinitarianism on several levels: the relationships within the Trinity (a defence of eternal generation), the person of Christ being the Logos, the defence of Christ’s person having one will, the relationship of the Trinity to the atonement, and Christ’s relationship to the Father and the Spirit during the Incarnation being our model of spirituality.

Communion With God – John Owen. Owen unpacks the distinctive offices of the three Persons, written to aid devotional communion with each Person.

 Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis. In the later chapters, Lewis seeks to explain trinitarianism, perhaps coming closer than any other to supplying a helpful analogy.

 Making Sense of the Trinity – Millard Erickson. A short, layman’s guide to understanding the doctrine. Unfortunately, Erickson is a believer in the incarnational Sonship of Christ, and so needlessly denies eternal Sonship, and eternal generation.

The Hymns of Frederick Faber. Faber’s Romanism did not impede his ability to write superb verse, particularly on the Trinity.

The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts – Doxologies. At the end of Watt’s collection are at least twenty hymns, of which Watts writes:
“I cannot persuade myself to put a full period to these Divine Hymns till I have addressed a special song of glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Though the Latin name of it, Gloria Patri, be retained in our nation from the Roman church, and though there be some excesses of superstitious honor paid to the words of it, which may have wrought some unhappy prejudices in weaker Christians, yet I believe it still to he one of the noblest parts of Christian worship. The subject of it is the doctrine of the Trinity, which is that peculiar glory of the Divine nature that our Lord Jesus Christ has so clearly revealed unto men, and is so necessary to true Christianity. The action is praise, which is one of the most complete and exalted parts of heavenly worship. I have cast the song into a variety of forms, and have fitted it, by a plain version, or a larger paraphrase, to he sung either alone or at the conclusion of another hymn. I have added also a few Hosannahs, or ascriptions of salvation to Christ, in the same manner, and for the same end.”

 The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship – Robert Letham. I have not read this, but this is supposed to be one of the best contributions to trinitarian theology by an evangelical.

Product ImageEnlightenment and Alienation: An Essay Toward a Trinitarian Theology – Colin Gunton. Gunton was one of the twentieth century’s most renowned trinitarian theologians, and saw trinitarianism as an answer to much of the barrenness of modernity.

Cheap Thrills – 8 – Concluding Thoughts

March 8, 2013

As Kaplan concludes, he considers the social functions of popular art. He sees its appeal in finding a common denominator among people. It is popular because it appeals to almost universal tastes. As to its function, popular art is no longer associated with serious cultural concerns, such as religion, love, war and politics, and the struggle for subsistence. Instead it has become, in Dewey’s words, “the beauty-parlour of civilization.” In other words, popular art is where we go to indulge our love of self, to enjoy ourselves, to escape into worlds of our own making.

Kaplan does not feel particularly alarmed by the rise of popular arts, seeing a limited place for it. He ends by saying, “If popular art gives us pleasant dreams, we can only be grateful-when we have wakened.” In other words, popular art is no more real (or significant) than our own night-dreams, but if they are pleasurable, who’s to complain? As long as we wake up, Kaplan seems to urge. A life lived in dream-state is pitiable and sad.

Of course, Kaplan is arguing as an aesthetician, and not as a Christian defending worship. While Kaplan is enormously helpful in identifying the nature of popular art, he cannot help us determine its appropriateness for worship. Here we must take his descriptions of popular art, and then compare it with our mandate for worship. To summarize Kaplan’s argument, popular art

* schematises and reduces art into an easily recognisable stereotype. Whether musical, poetical, literary or visual, the art is pre-digested so that its consumers instantly recognize the stereotype and fill in the outline with their own feelings.
* replaces perception with mere recognition. Popular art is essentially formless, it is simple in the sense that it is easy. It reminds us of what we know, it prompts us to feel what we already feel. Our familiar feelings are simply reinforced. Through its stereotypes, we associate certain feelings with the work, while not being transformed in our own emotions.
* moves in a close circle around the self. The art only has significance in light of the viewer. He sees himself in its materials, with the art providing easily recognizable prototypes to project himself upon. The result is wallowing in our own feelings: feeling, without understanding of our feelings. This is sentimentalism.
* creates an escape into childish versions of reality which exist nowhere, and which return us to reality unchanged.

In essence, popular art represents childish and immature taste. It appeals to narcissism and infantile self-obsession. It flatters an impulse in every human.

Here we would do well to ask ourselves several questions about worship:

1) Should worship transform the worshipper? If so, how does this occur?
2) Is worship a response to revelation, or a record of my experience?
3) How is a worshipper’s experience of God to be related to worshipping God?
4) Should a worshipper be aware of his feelings while worshipping  or does this detract from the authenticity of worship? If this awareness is needful, describe what this awareness is like.
5) How should the imagination be used in worship?

Once we’ve answered the questions regarding what kind of event worship is, and once we’ve considered how an artist has used his materials, we’re in a position to evaluate if it is appropriate in the life of a Christian. If popular art really is an exercise in narcissism, sentimentalism, and escapism, and if it dulls and flattens us, it is hard to see how much of this can be healthy for the life of a worshipping Christian.

Cheap Thrills – 7 – Escape to Never Never Land

March 1, 2013

Popular art is accused of being escapist. Kaplan agrees and disagrees. He argues that popular art seeks to escape the ugliness or troubles of this world, but it does so differently to serious art. Art may give us an idealized depiction of the world, but it seeks to transform the reality of the world. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.

It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.

Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.

Just as in the discussion of sentimentality, the problem may not be too much, but too little. Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.

Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred. It is, as Kaplan puts it, the difference between masturbation and a mature love that reaches outside the self.

Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.

***

Here are three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Each calls us to escape. Where do we escape to, in each one? Which returns us with a deepened sense of what such anguished grief feels like? Which actually prettifies the pain?