Chesterton Mystifies and Alludes

Chesterton ReviewGilbert K. Chesterton. 2018. The Man Who Was Thursday (Orig Pub: 1908). Overland Park, KS: Digireads.com Publisher

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

No one understands life’s minutiae like a novelist. It is one thing to experience a trifle; it is another to describe it and the emotions conveyed therein with a minimum of words. The reader thus inherits the author’s inner life’s ruminations and is then free to explore another. The more spirited the writer, the greater the inheritance.

Introduction

Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday sets the stage for his tale with a curious mixture of personal and grandiose observations:

“A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather, year, sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together. Science announced nonentity and art admired decay; The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay [happy].”(1)

This odd description appears either primordial or simple gibberish. If primordial, our minds run to the creation account:The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” (Gen 1:2 ESV) Yet, the object being described is not the earth, but the “minds of men”and we are immediately told that the world is old, not new, as might be true during creation. What is new is that “we were boys together.” Enigmatically, science shows no interest and art is only interested in decay. But “you and I”read on happily perhaps more out of curiosity than out of comprehension.

Still, we soon catch an allusion—“Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind believed”—to Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas (John 20:29) that comes across as a promise to readers that we will soon understand what it all means.

Poetic Duel

The second scene sprints from one end of creation to the other:

“This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world.” (5)

In this strange end time saga, we are introduced to two poets:

“For a long time the red-haired revolutionary had reigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that his solitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by the name of Gabriel Syme was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he was less meek than he looked. He signaled his entrance by differing with the established poet. Geogory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He said that he (Syme) was a poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said, he was a poet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as if he had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky. In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the two events.”(6)

The two poets now contend for supremacy, one representing chaos while the other order, suggesting tension between the primordial muck and the created order introduced by God (Gen 1:1-2). Syme pokes fun at Lucian, describing his anarchy as dull, vomitus, and revolting (7). Lucian is irritated and invites Syme to visit his lair, scene three, where he proves himself to be a real anarchist, not just an angry poet. Further on we learn that his name, Lucian, is aptly chosen.

Assessment

Gilbert K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is on the surface a quick, page-turning mystery novella set in early twentieth-century London, but on deeper inquiry proves to be a metaphysical allegory filled with biblical allusions. It got me thinking; you might also find it fascinating.

Chesterton Mystifies and Alludes

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Schaefer’s Shane: Best Western Yet

Schaefer's Shane: Best Western YetJack Schaefer. 2013. Shane (Orig Pub 1948). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

I grew up loving films and books about the old West. In the 1960s shows like the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers enjoyed a dedicated following because they embodied the ideals of self-sufficiency, development of character, and manhood that most boys aspired to. Often these stories featured corporate villains whose greed and corrupting influence on local police needed to be exposed by individuals with unwavering character and a steady draw.

Introduction

Jack Schaefer’s western novella, Shane,starts simply with a touch of mystery: “He rode into our valley in the summer of ’89.” (1) We immediately ask: who is this “he,” where is “our valley,” and, by the way, what century are we talking about?

This first, declarative sentence accordingly has the flavor of a series of questions prompting interest. The second sentence introduces the narrator who introduces himself as a kid and indirectly describes himself in the first person as between four and five feet tall: “barely topping the backboard of father’s old chuckwagon.” We know from this description that this story takes place in 1889, not 1989, when horses and chuckwagons were more common.

The second paragraph talks about “clear Wyoming air” that places this story on the frontier when many adult men were veterans of the Civil War and shortly after most Indian wars were over. The third paragraph shows our horseman taking a fork in the road choosing between a road leading to “Luke Fletcher’s big spread”and one leading to where “homesteaders”had staked their claims. Choosing the latter foreshadows later tension between the two.

Fastidiousness

The remainder of the first scene introduces our horseman, Shane, to our narrator, Robert MacPherson Starrett (Bob) and to his parents Joe and Marian Starrett (6-7). Along the way, we learn that Shane and the Starretts share the common virtue of fastidiousness about all that they do, which we learn from the dialogue offering introductions:

My name’s Starrett, said father. Joe Starrett. This here, waving at me, is Robert MacPherson Starrett. Too much name for a boy. I make it Bob.  

The stranger nodded again. Call me Shane, he said. Then to me: Bob it is, You were watching me for quite a spell coming up the road.  

It was not a question. It was a simple statement. Yes… I stammered. Yes. I was.  

Right, he said. I like that. A man who watches what’s going on around him will make his mark.

This fastidious watchfulness sets each of our characters apart from everyone else around them and instinctively draws them together. This watchfulness is like in the story of Gideon who selects an elite team of soldiers based how they drink water from a stream—like a dog lapping it up—so that they would remain aware of their surroundings (Judg 6:5-7).

Tension

Shane is drawn to the Starretts because of their common fastidiousness and willingness to take him on as a hand even though he claims no expertise in farming.

Schaefer introduces inner tension into our understanding of Shane in sharing his relationship with his gun. Bob observes that unlike other men who considered a gun a token of virility: “Share carried no gun.” Yet, Shane owns a beautiful, well-balanced, “single-action Colt” with an ivory grip that he keeps wrapped up in his saddle-roll (52-53). Shane never displays his gun, even in the face of obvious threats.

Bob’s discovery of the gun hints at Shane’s background as a gunfighter and foreshadows later tension between farmer Joe Starrett and rancher Luke Fletcher, but for now we are left to wonder why Shane is so evasive about his past and so thankful for Joe’s willingness to teach him farming. Is Shane ashamed of his past?

Christ Figure

Shane’s inner tension gets pressed several times when he is goaded into fights that he wins through seer tenacity. When he breaks the arm of young man Chris, one Fletcher’s men, in a fight, he is truly sorry and tells one of the townsmen:

“Take good care of him. He has the makings of a good man.” (87)

Later in confronting a gunfighter hired by Fletcher, Shane takes up his gun, seeks him out, and shoots him and Fletcher both, a fight not his own that leaves him wounded and forced, in his mind, to leave town. His sacrifice, not unlike the American self-image during the Second World War, gives this reluctant gunslinger the appearance of a Christ figure, something seldom seen in more recent fiction.

Assessment

As a young man, I remember watching a movie, Shane (1953), drawn from Jack Schaefer’s 1948 book, Shane. The movie won a number of awards and nominations.[1]Unlike most of today’s police shows and space adventures that feature adult themes, Schaefer wrote targeting adolescent boys who today are mostly forgotten in the effort to sexualize youth and be inclusive. I loved reading Shane and found it a reminder of all that is good and decent about America, something we seemed to have forgotten or no longer believe.

Footnotes

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shane_(film).

Schaefer’s Shane: Best Western Yet

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Worden Explains Grief

Worden reviewWilliam Worden.[1]2009. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner.New York: Springer.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The problem of unresolved grief could reasonably be described as posing a silent healthcare crisis. When I worked as a chaplain intern at Providence Hospital about half of the patients that I visited had presenting diagnoses brought about or complicated by resolved grief. This outcome is no doubt related to the unwillingness of American culture generally to respect the grieving process and of many people to participate in organized religion where they might better share their grief with a support group. Unresolved grief may lead to anxiety and depression or simply be confused with both.

Introduction

In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, William Worden writes:

“In this book I am using the term ‘mourning’ to indicate the process that occurs after a loss, while ‘grief’ refers to the personal experience of the loss.”(37)

He further explains:

“I make a distinction between grief counseling and grief therapy. Counseling involves helping people facilitate uncomplicated, or normal, grief to a healthy adaptation to the tasks of mourning within a reasonable time frame. I reserve the term, grief therapy, for those specialized techniques, described in chapter 6, that are used to help people with abnormal or complicated grief reactions.”(83)

Worden spends the first half of the book explaining the process of mourning and dealing with uncomplicated grief. The second half of the book focuses on complicated grief and special situations that arise.

The Mourning Process

Worden (39-50) divides the process of mourning into four tasks:

  • Accepting the reality of the loss,
  • Working through the pain,
  • Adjusting to a world without the deceased, and
  • Finding connection with the deceased while moving on.

The first task is to get beyond denial—a funeral with an open casket helps mourners get over the denial. The second task has to deal with the pain that may be accompanied by anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. The third task is to account for all the activities that the deceased shared with you and to find alternative arrangements. The fourth task is the re-evaluate your relationship with the deceased while moving on.

Challenging Grief Situations

Getting stuck in any one of these four tasks may flag a case of complicated grief. Generally, complicated grief is a consequence of having a complicated relationship with the deceased. Complications might include unfinished business, broken relationships, co-dependencies, or psychiatric issues. Factors inducing guilt or shame normally complicates the mourning process.

Special circumstances arise when the grieving person is prevented from participating the normal mourning process, such as suicide, physical absence, death from AIDS, or death of someone involved in an affair. Sudden death or multiple deaths pose other special circumstances.

Background and Organization

William Worden has most recently been a professor of Psychology, Rosemead Graduate School of Professional Psychology, California. He has taught and practiced psychiatrics at a number of institutions. His doctorate and final post-doctoral work were at Boston University. He also has a seminary degree.

Worden writes in ten chapters:

  1. Attachment, Loss, and the Experience of Grief
  2. Understanding the Mourning Process
  3. The Mourning Process: Mediators of Mourning
  4. Grief Counseling: Facilitating Uncomplicated Grief
  5. Abnormal Grief Reactions: Complicated Mourning
  6. Grief Therapy: Resolving Complicated Mourning
  7. Grieving Special Types of Losses
  8. Grief and Family Systems
  9. The Counselor’s Own Grief
  10. Training for Grief Counseling(ix-xi)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface and introduction and followed by an appendix, bibliography, and index. In view of the media handling of mass shootings and other disasters in recent years, I wish that Worden had also written a chapter on secondary trauma, a kind of vicarious loss.

Assessment

William Worden’s Grief Counseling and Grief Therapyoffers a thorough understanding of mourning and complicated grief. Since 2011, Worden’s advice and counsel has informed my pastoral approach to grieving people and I frequently go back to refer to the chapters. Although Worden writes to professional counselors in an academic context, his writing is accessible and understandable.

Footnotes

[1]http://media1.biola.edu/talbot/faculty/cvs/william_worden_1.pdf.

Worden Explains Grief

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Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 2

Holt reviewBradley P. Holt.[1] 2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity is boring from an Eastern perspective because God created us and, in Jesus Christ, provided the means of our salvation—we must simply accept God’s gifts of creation and salvation. The role of pilgrimages to holy places; special clothing or food; knowledge of the divine; and the spiritual disciplines are presumably incidental for Christians. We must merely follow Christ’s example and live it out in our relationships with others. These other activities have entered some Christian traditions, but they often differ radically between groups.

 Introduction

In his book, Thirsty for God, Bradley Holt surveys a wide range of Christian traditions with:

“…a conviction that Christianity is not only Western religion, that the old books are still worth reading, and that Christians are often unaware of the great resources available to them from sisters and brothers of distant times or places.”(xi)

This survey is helpful in distinguishing among more familiar traditions and adding others that are less familiar from years past or from non-Western sources. In this respect, Holt reviews these categories from the ancient church to offer a template—themes—for distinguishing traditions:

“We see in the first six centuries the beginning and development of certain themes in Christian spirituality that are significant to the present day: worship and sacraments, charisms, witness unto death, spiritual disciplines, monasticism, and mysticism.”(59)

If we take the sacraments as an example, the Protestant churches have fewer sacraments than the Catholics and sacraments play a more important role in Catholic services and pastoral care than in the Protestant tradition. Thus, focusing on the sacramental theme, it is easier to distinguish Protestant and Catholic spirituality.

Celtic Spirituality

One aspect of my personal journey of faith in seminary and beyond has been to understand my own history and spirituality better as I learn about other practices. My mother’s family, for example, is Scotch-Irish and rather less than observant in their religious affiliations while my father’s family is uniformly Dutch with strong commitments to the reformed tradition.

When I write:

Myself, when I am anxious at the end of the day, I retire with a good book to my front porch to enjoy a cool breeze, listen to the birds, and watch the sun set through the trees. Here God’s presence comforts me.

such observations seem a bit out of place in the highly rational reformed tradition, but the Celtic tradition is long known for its special fondness for God’s creation. Holt wrote an entire chapter on “Christian Spiritualty and Ecology,”which aptly described a part of my own spiritual experience that remained implicit, not explicit, in my thinking and writing.

One of the many fun facts that Holt offered was that private confession, now practiced by the entire Roman Catholic church, started in the Celtic tradition (79).

The Jesus Prayer

I found Holt’s discussion of the Jesus Prayer most interesting. In English, the most common form of the Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”(97) This breath prayer closely resembles the prayer of the Publican in Luke 18:13: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”(ESV) The Jesus Prayer is attributed to various monks going back to the fifth century, especially Evagrius, who would repeat the prayer constantly throughout the day (98) following Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17).

While I have been aware of the Jesus Prayer for many years, its use only became significant to me when I worked in a psyche ward at Providence Hospital. Psyche patients often obsess about traumatic and perceived traumatic events in the past, a problem known as rumination. Because such patients have trouble distinguishing fact from illusion, such ruminations about the past amply their perceived trauma and divert them from thinking more productively about their own present or future. Sister Maureen advised me to instruct such patients to substitute the Jesus Prayer for this negative self-talk and thereby to break the rumination cycle, a kind of cognitive therapy for these patients. It works for the rest of us as well.

Assessment

Part one of this review gives an overview while part two will provide more detailed examples.

Bradley P. Holt’s Thirsty for God provides a thorough overview of Christian spirituality with a rich, annotated biography of significant authors in the field. Western and non-Western authors are discussed. Among the Western authors, Holt is balanced in his treatment of Protestant and Catholic influences. Although he writes for an academic audience, his writing is accessible and informative.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.augsburg.edu/faculty/holtb.

Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 2

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Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 1

Holt reviewBradley P. Holt.[1]2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I began writing about Christian spirituality in 2013, I was deeply frustrated with the church’s superficiality and lack of interest in theology. My seminary professors strived to teach me the pastoral arts and how to read and interpret the Bible, but as my relationship with God deepened, I wanted to know still more. Ultimately, my writing helped to address some of these concerns and to share what I learned with others. Still, my soul doth pine for more.

In his book, Thirsty for God, Bradley Holt shares similar concerns:

“…a conviction that Christianity is not only Western religion, that the old books are still worth reading, and that Christians are often unaware of the great resources available to them from sisters and brothers of distant times or places.”(xi)

The depth of Christian spirituality is often lost when pastors focus almost exclusively on the double love command (love God; love others; Matt 22:36-40) reaching out primarily to “seekers” rather than addressing the deeper spiritual yearnings of the majority of their congregation. Holt describes this yearning as: “the living water of God fresh and sparkling and pure”, a thirst (5)

What is Christian Spirituality?

The word, spirituality, often conjures up the image of an exotic Eastern sect where adherents dress funny, chant strange phrases, live in communes, and find religious excuses to use drugs. While it has been years since we last observed such people hanging around airports handing out pamphlets, this backdrop has spoiled many people’s images of spirituality.

Holt reminds us that the root of spirituality is the biblical word, spirit, that in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) means breath or wind (6). Holt sees three uses—capacity, style, and academic discipline—but goes on to cite the Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality definition: “Christian spirituality is the domain of lived Christian experience.” (6-7)

Perhaps more interesting, Holt see biblical spirituality comprised of four basic relationships: “relationships to God, to self, to others, and to creation.” (31) In my own writing I have followed Nouwen (1975, 20) in focusing on the first three so the fourth attracted my attention. The relationship with creation is, of course, highlighted in Celtic spirituality’s attention to nature and the life and witness of Saint Francis of Assisi who was known to preach to birds and animals. Creation has more recently come up again in discussions of environmental concerns.

Background and Organization

Bradley P. Holt is a professor emeritus at Augsburg University, where he also studied as an undergraduate. He is a graduate of Luther Theological Seminary and received his doctorate at Yale University. Holt writes in ten chapters:

1.    What is Christian Spirituality?

2.    The Bible and the Four Relationships

3.    The Beginning of a Global Community

4.    The European Era

5.    Protestant and Catholic Reform

6.    The Modern Era

7.    The West Since 1900

8.    The Non-Western World Since 1900

9.    Interfaith Spirituality for Christians

10. Christian Spirituality and Ecology (ix)

The chapters are proceeded by acknowledgments and an introduction and followed by an afterword, appendix, and several indices.

The Spiritual Side of Creation

Creation formed perhaps the most interesting aspect of Holt’s treatment of spirituality, who writes:

“God intends humans to care for the earth, not destroy it, and that an exclusive other worldly focus on salvation in Jesus can distract us Christians from our responsibilities to the creation.” (264)

Although I have devoted the past six years to writing about Christian spirituality, this point escaped me, but not because I was unaware of his point. For me, it was an idea that simply occupied another room in mind, not labeled spirituality.

One of my earliest and most enduring influences was Henry David Thoreau’s Waldenwho begins:

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner to civilized life again.”(Thoreau 1960, 1)

He goes on to explain:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce to its lowest terms…”(Thoreau 1960, 62-63)

The idea of a Spartan existence, which he immediately related to reformed spirituality paraphrasing the Westminster Shorter Catechism,[2] always had a special appeal to me. Exposed to the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and to Thoreau, I have always implicitly associated creation with spirituality.[3]⁠ However, it took a recent reading of Holt (31) to remind me of my own spiritual roots in this regard.

Assessment

Part one of this review gives an overview while part two will provide more detailed examples.

Bradley P. Holt’s Thirsty for Godprovides a thorough overview of Christian spirituality with a rich, annotated biography of significant authors in the field. Western and non-Western authors are discussed. Among the Western authors, Holt is balanced in his treatment of Protestant and Catholic influences. Although he writes for an academic audience, his writing is accessible and informative.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1960. Walden and Civil Disobedience (Orig pub 1854). Edited by Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.augsburg.edu/faculty/holtb.

[2]Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (PCUSA). 1999, 7.001)

[3]I went on to earn a doctorate in agricultural economics, possessed as it were of a strong desire to deal with the world food problem following the 1970s concern for limited resources and limits to growth (MMRB 1975). This background does not make me an environmentalist, but it gave a deep appreciation for our role as stewards of creation.

Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 1

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Bridges Practices Godliness

GodlinessJerry Bridges.[1]1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

If you are like me, I always confused the words holiness and godliness, thinking that they were synonyms. Apparently, we are not alone. Bridges explains: “This book is a sequel to an earlier book, The Pursuit of Holiness. In Ephesians 4:20-24, Paul urges us to put off our old self and to put on the new self. The Pursuit of Holiness dealt largely with putting off the old self—dealing with sin in our lives. The Practice of Godliness focuses on putting on the new self—growing in Christian character.”(7)

This explanation made perfect sense to me because I read one right after the other.

 What is Godliness?

Bridges describes the Bible as “a book on godliness.” (11) He highlights these verses:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”(Gal 5:22-23 ESV)

Other such lists can be found in Colossians 3:12-16, Ephesians 4:2-3,32, James 3:17, and 2 Peter 1:5-7 (7). I have always associated these lists as practical translations of Exodus 34:6, where God describes his character:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”(Exod 34:6)

Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), our utmost desire is to emulate God in all we see him doing, which leads us to godliness because of his own self-disclosure of characteristics.

Rejoice Always

A key aspect of godliness in life and in ministry is the gift of joy. Bridges writes:

“But we are not to sit around waiting for our circumstances to make us joyful. We are commended to be joyful always. (1 Thes 5:16)”

Sometimes we need to give ourselves and others permission to be joyful.

Bridges sees four stumbling blocks to joy: (1) sin, (2) misplaced confidence, (3) God’s disciplining, and (4) trials and tribulations (109-112). He advises another four practices in practicing joy: (1) confess and forsake sin, (2) trust in God, (3) take the long view in life, and (4) give thanks in all circumstances (115-117). If we practice joy, he sees two benefits: (1) God is pleased and (2) we will be strengthened physically, emotionally, and spiritually (117-118).

This is interesting advice because I have prayed for strength daily for several years.

Background and Organization

Jerry Bridges (1929 – 2016) studied at the University of Oklahoma, served in the U.S. Navy, and worked on the staff of The Navigators, an evangelistic Christian group headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.[2] He authored numerous books on the Christian life. Bridges writes in eighteen chapters, each centered on a particular passage of scripture. These chapters are preceded by a foreword and preface, and followed by a postscript.

This is almost the exact same format as Bridge’s other book and, as such, NavPress later issued the two books together with a Bible study as a compendium (2001).

Assessment

Like his earlier book, Jerry Bridges’s book, The Practice of Godliness, is destined to be a Christian classic. The wisdom found in this book has informed my walk with the Lord for almost twenty years. It is easy to read and well worth the effort.

References

Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress. (Review)

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Bridges. [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Navigators_(organization).

Bridges Practices Godliness

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Bridges Breathes Life into Holiness

HolinessJerry Bridges.[1]1996. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

As an author, I sometimes find reading good books difficult because I catch myself comparing my own writing to that of the author. Some authors recall details of every book they ever read; others write with such flair that every sentence reads like poetry; still others peer into the soul and catch points so profound that nothing appears unexplored. In a world of such genius, I think to myself, why do I even continue to write? The answer is that the call of the Christian writer is specific to our own talents and audiences, much like our call as Christians more generally is to glorify God with the gifts and calling that he has given us.

Introduction

In his book, The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges writes about a similar dilemma when it comes to holiness:

“We Christian greatly enjoy talking about the provision of God, how Christ defeated sin on the cross and gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to victory over sin. But we do not as readily talk about our own our own responsibility to walk in holiness.”(10)

Pursuing holiness is a lifelong task for which diligence and effort are required (Heb 12:14), much like the effort required to a develop a talent like writing. Bridges writes: “…the holiness of Jesus was more than simply the absence of actual sin. It was also a perfect conformity to the will of the father.”(43) He refers to holiness as the throwing off of sin, while the putting on of Christ he calls godliness.

Background and Organization

Jerry Bridges (1929 – 2016) studied at the University of Oklahoma, served in the U.S. Navy, and worked on the staff of The Navigators, an evangelistic Christian group headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.[2] He authored numerous books on the Christian life.

Bridges writes in eighteen chapters, each centered on a particular passage of scripture. These chapters are preceded by a foreword and preface, and followed by a postscript.

Why Worry About Sin?

Bridges poses an important question:

“If holiness, then, is so basic to the Christian life, why do we not experience it more in daily living? Why do so many Christians feel constantly defeated in their struggle with sin?”(16)

He cites three reasons.

First, “our first problem is that our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered.”(16) Obedience, not victory, is God’s will (17).

Our second problem is that we have misunderstood ‘living by faith’ (Gal 2:20) to mean that no effort at holiness is required on our part.”(17)  

“Our third problem is that we do not take some sin seriously.”(18)

All sin is rebellion against God’s will for lives, which is why it is somethings compared to yeast that acts like an infection that spreads fast with devastating consequences.

Bridges makes an important point: “God does not require a perfect, sinless life to have fellowship with Him, but He does require that we be serious about holiness, that we grieve over sin in our lives instead of justifying it, and that we earnestly pursue holiness as a way of life.”(36) We need to cling to Christ’s mantle, like the woman who suffered from bleeding (Matt 9:20-22)

The Journey

This is a book that I read in 2002, almost a decade before I attended seminary. As I reviewed my notes for this review, I was struck by how many insights that I have found myself repeating since then. One that my wife and kids even remember is this: “How do we view those who do not show love for us? Do we see them as persons for whom Christ died for or as persons who make our lives difficult?”(46) I cited this idea in a sermon only two weeks ago (link), not remembering where I got it.

Assessment

Jerry Bridges’s book, The Pursuit of Holiness, is destined to be a Christian classic. The wisdom found in this book has informed my walk with the Lord for almost twenty years. It is easy to read and well worth the effort.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Navigators_(organization). [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Bridges.

Bridges Breathes Life into Holiness

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Buechner Paraphrases Jesus’ Life Deeply

Buechner reviewFrederick Buechner.[1] 2014. The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story.Brewster: Paraclete Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

At one point several years back, I received a mailing from an offset printer in Michigan, Thomson-Shore. Traditionally, publishers ordered a batch of several thousand books where type was set and each page printed a set number of times. Then, another page had the type set and was similarly printed. This is a cheapest way to print books when you know how many books are needed and you need thousands of books.[2]  In this mailing, Thomson-Shore included a sample of their work, a short book by Frederick Buechner, The Faces of Jesus.

Introduction

Buechner invites us to reflect on the face of Jesus. He writes:

“See it for what it is and, to see it whole, see it too for what it is just possible that it will become: the face of Jesus as the face of our own secret and innermost destiny: The face of Jesus as our face.”(xv)

For those theologically inclined, Buechner is using the imago dei(the image of God) as a mirror into our souls. He does this by paraphrasing the life of Jesus as revealed in scripture and other writings.

Background and Organization

Frederick Buechner is a graduate of Princeton University, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, and a prolific author. He writes in six chapters:

  1. Annunciation (3-12 pp)
  2. Nativity (15-39)
  3. Ministry (43-81)
  4. Last Supper (85-108)
  5. Crucifixion (111-134)
  6. Resurrection (137-161; v-vi)

The longest chapter is on Jesus’ ministry. These chapters are preceded by an introduction. The book is 4 by 6 inches, double-spaced, and making liberal use of white space, which publishers will recognize as a format typical of poetry and devotionals because it is easy on the eyes.

Voice

Buechner’s voice is important in interpreting Jesus and the reading experience, something not typically commented on in reviews.

Consider the opening paragraph in the chapter on the annunciation:

“Before Abraham was, Jesus said, I am. [John 8:58] Who can say what he meant? Perhaps that just as his death was not the end of him, so his birth was not the beginning of him.”(3)

We do not expect this cite to begin a discussion of Mary’s encounter with an angel informing her of Jesus’ coming. Yet, Buechner speaks here with a deeply theological interpretation of divine sovereignty: as creator, God stand’s outside of created time and space speaking in a divine present encompassing our past, present, and future (4). This cite arises late in Jesus’ ministry and presents a divinity claim—I amis the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush—for which Jesus was almost stoned.

A more typical paraphrase of the life of Jesus might be found in the Apostle’s Creed:

“I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.”

In the Creed, we are given basic facts of Jesus as revealed in scripture; in Buechner, we are introduced to deeper reading and interpretation of the scripture itself.

Assessment

Frederick Buechner’s The Faces of Jesus: A Life Story is simply written, but is far from simple minded. Paraphrasing the life of Jesus, Buechner reveals a complex Jesus not well understood by his peers and even less well understood by ours.

Footnotes

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Buechner. [2]Today, most books are printed individually in a machine resembling a huge photocopy machine, a process known as print on demand. Print on demand is more expensive, but allows books to be published in relatively small numbers. Offset printing normally presumes that you are willing to print large numbers of books and maintain an inventory.

Buechner Paraphrases Jesus’ Life Deeply

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Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Tietjen Introduces Kierkegaard

Tietjen reviewTietjen, Mark A. 2016. Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

An important motive for devoting the last six years to writing about Christian spirituality has been the premise that many Christians have lost touch with their spiritual heritage. In more than one denomination, the basic teachings that launched the denomination are no longer given even cursory attention from the pulpit and synchronistic practices are widely believed to be Christian. Faced with a church that has lost its way and offers little help in dealing with life’s challenges, many young people who grew up in the church understandably see no reason to continue attending. In reading about the such issues, one name gets repeated a lot: Kierkegaard.

Introduction

In his book, Kierkegaard, Mark Tietjen writes:

“My goal is to convince Christians as I have been convinced that Soren Kierkegaard [1813-1855] is a voice that should be sought and heard for the edification of the church.”(25)

Merold Westphal, who wrote the foreword, describes Kierkegaard as a prophet who rails against cheap grace and encourages Christians to think of faith as harder to deal with than it is commonly sold in three ways: (1) it is a lifelong pursuit (2) focused on beliefs and actions (3) that takes sin seriously (12-14). A fourth ways arises in that pastors need both to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, where most focus exclusively on the former (17).

Cheap Grace

Railing against cheap grace is today more normally associated with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who may have picked up the idea from Kierkegaard. Bonhoeffer (1995, 44-45) wrote:

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate.”

The Apostle Paul put it this way: we were bought with a price (1 Cor 6:19-20).

If this critique of the church seems harsh, I remember attending an inquirers weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2003. At a closing dinner, the dean asked each inquirer to talk about why they had come. All but about 2 of the sixty inquirers were fresh out of college and typically answered something like this: I enjoyed my youth group in high school and just want to continue that experience by working for the church.

Cheap grace? Yes, because many churches seek out such young candidates for ministry hoping to attract their kids back into the church. Ironically, the church requiring the most devotion from their members often have the highest retention rates among their kids.[1]

Background and Organization

Mark A. Tietjen received his doctorate from Baylor University and is a director at Stony Brook School in New York. He is the former secretary of the Soren Kierkegaard Society and has written another book: Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue: Authorship as Edification (2013). Tietjen writes in five chapters:

  1. Kierkegaard: Friend to Christians?
  2. Jesus Christ
  3. The Human Self
  4. Christian Witness
  5. The Life of Christian Love.

These chapters are preceded by a foreword and introduction and followed by conclusions, suggestions for the further reading, and indices.

Missionary to Christians?

In his conclusions Tietjen offers a number of reasons why Christians may need a missionary. The most controversial one might be that some Christians may “have inherited a perverted form of Christianity.”(161) He offers three views of such perverted forms:

  1. The liberal theology view. Traditional Christian views on sin and the divinity of Christ are unnecessary even though Jesus can help us live a more moral life.
  2. The Pelagian view. Grace is overstated and unnecessary because we can help contribute to our own salvation.
  3. The grace-abuse view. Because of God’s grace, we need not practice God’s law or pursue holiness. (56-57)

While one can argue the need for missionaries to the church, the modern and postmodern church appears to have inoculated many to traditional Christian faith. Tietjen refers to them as Christian admirers who fail to take the life of Christ as something to be imitated. Admirers look on the imitator as a: “religious fanatic, Jesus freak, fundamentalist, and so on.” (74) Thus, the Holy Spirit’s intervention, not better apologetics, seems to be required.

Assessment

Mark Tietjen’s book, Kierkegaard, provides a basic understanding of Kierkegaard’s writing and times. Tietjen is well versed in Kierkegaard’s work and offers many interesting anecdotes.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich 1995.The Cost of Discipleship(Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster—A Touchstone Book.

Footnotes

[1]A similar phenomenon has occasionally been observed by marketers when the highest priced good is perceived by consumers to be the highest quality—discounting in such cases may actually lower sales revenue. The classic example of this phenomenon is Lite Beer which has frequently sold at a premium to regular beer even though it is essentially made by adding water to that same beer. Part of the mystique is the higher price.

Tietjen Introduces Kierkegaard

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Robinson Captures Iowa Psyche

Marilynne Robinson. 2004. Gilead: A Novel. New York: Picador.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My clearest memory of November of 1974 when I returned to finish out the last two years of college at Iowa State University involved the need to learn the fine art of conversation. When offered a bar or cookie and a cup of coffee, one had to respond with a lengthy discourse on topics roughly summarized as small talk. This would not be gossip, nor items fit to appear in the Oskaloosa Herald, but mostly glimpses of life to acquaint those present with family matters missed due to the passage of time and travesty of distance. No one out East tutored me in coffee time etiquette 1.0 so for this class, required for graduation, I proved a slow learner.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead,takes the form of a lengthy letter from John Ames, a third-generation congregational pastor, to his son. Ames is dying of a heart condition at the age of sixty-seven while his son, the only child of a younger second wife, Lila, is still a preteen.

Gilead, Iowa

Gilead is an unincorporated town in southwest Iowa just south of Fontanelle along route 92 in Adair County. I last drove through this region in 1982 on a trip from Oskaloosa, Iowa to Omaha, Nebraska while I was researching beef packing plants for my dissertation. This area left two distinct impressions on me. First, between Indianola and Omaha along route 92 one could find no McDonald’s restaurants, my measure of an area’s poverty. Second, along the way, I had to stop to round up some pigs that got loose from a local farm—I never did see the farmer—and had wandered into the road.

For purposes of the novel, Gilead’s location put it close to the Missouri state line where Ames’ grandfather had participated in partisan fighting leading up to the Civil War. West of Gilead is Nebraska, but west of Missouri is Kansas Ames’ grandfather later absconded and died. Ames’ father also left Gilead to retire in the South. The fact that John Ames faithfully remained in Gilead and retired as one of its pastors speaks to his grit and the strength of his faith.

Poverty

My father’s hometown of Oskaloosa, population 10,000, has not grown in a generation and occasionally appears on television as a location kids grow up and leave. Oskaloosa, with its McDonalds, high school, hospital, and indoor mall, is a big city compared to Gilead. Abject poverty is a theme in the book and Gilead remains a metaphor for poverty.

Robinson makes many references to this poverty. One that sticks in my mind is: “I am old enough to remember when we used to go out in the brush, a lot of us, and spread out in a circle, and then close in, scaring the rabbits along in front of us, till they were trapped there in the center and then we would kill them with sticks and clubs. That was during the Depression and people were hungry.”(198)

Robinson’s gift as a writer arises in her ability to paint one word picture after another.

John Ames Boughton

Another important theme in Robinson’s writing is the relationship between John Ames and his best friend’s son, John Ames Boughton. The best friend, a local Presbyterian pastor who grew up with John Ames, is normally just referred to a Boughton, but the son is also called Jack. As suggested by his name, John Ames Boughton has a father-son relationship with John Ames and is estranged from his biological father.

He plays out the rebellious pastor’s kid (PK) role virtually his whole life. For example, we read:

“His transgressions were sly and lonely, and this became truer as he grew up. I believe I said earlier that he did not teal in any convectional sense, but by that I meant he stole things of no value except to the people he stole them from. There was no sense in what he, unless his purpose was to cause a maximum of embarrassment and risk a minimum of retribution.”(182)

As a teen, this kid impregnated a local girl and later in life he took a black woman as his wife. Perhaps his worst sin was not being available when his mother and father died.

Ironically, this rebellious PK is so polite that strangers, including his future wife, assume he is a pastor. John Ames refers to him as a son and the boy refers to Ames as Papa. This odd relationship seems like a counterpoint to Ames himself, who never played out the PK role and remained a faithful pastor in the face of much adversity.

Assessment

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead,is an engaging read that won the Pulitzer Prize. I picked up the book as a summer read because I have spent a lot of time in Iowa and heard that Robinson taught at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop.[2]The conversational style of Robinson’s writing reminds me of that of my own grandparents and their siblings in Iowa. Some may not catch all her biblical and theological allusions, but for me they added a depth seldom seen in Christian literature.

Foonotes

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilead_(novel) [2]https://writersworkshop.uiowa.edu.

Robinson Captures Iowa Psyche

Also See:

Meredith: Robots Gone Wild

RPC Sharpens Shorts; Gets Buy 

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