Saturday, July 14, 2012

North or Be Eaten--A Review

North! Or Be Eaten. Book 2 of The Wingfeather Saga. By Andrew Peterson. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2009, 323 page, $13.99.

I picked up this book because it was there. It wasn't given to me. I wasn't asked to read it or review it. My wife had it, said she couldn't get into it, so I thought I'd give it a try. I hadn't read any fiction in several years and felt I could use a break from academic reading. For those who are interested in fantasy literature, this review will give you some idea of the overall contents of the book and what I believe are its strong points and weaknesses.

North! Or Be Eaten fits neatly in the genre of fantasy literature. Peterson creates a world with a variety of strange but vaguely familiar creatures. The society is pre-industrial (for the most part), and there are talking lizards (called "Fangs") that have invaded and routed the world of men. The war is brutal for everyone, but especially for children, who are captured and forced into slave labor making weapons for the Fangs (the part of the book that hints at some industrial complex). They have a mysterious master called "Gnag" who seems to be a malevolent spirit of some kind. The purpose of the war on the world of men focuses on capturing the young heir to a throne from a land across the sea that many believe is only a myth, and his brother and sister. Being the second book in the series, there are gaps in knowledge for a reader like myself who has not seen the first volume. Footnotes in some places refer back to the first volume.

There is a broad variety of the society. Before the invasion of the Fangs there are towns and cities of respectable folk, but there are also towns filled with more seedy people, and then wild, roving bands of highwaymen known as "Stranders" because they live near the main road that passes along a strand of  a major river. The main characters are Tink (Kalmar Wingfeather, heir apparent to the throne), his brother, Jenner  (Throne Warden, charged with keeping Tink safe at all costs), Leeli (the sister and Song Maiden, who plays a semi-magical "mouth-harp"), Nia (the Queen Mother), Podo (Nia's father, a former pirate with his own secrets to keep), Artham Wingfeather (Throne Warden to Tink's father), and Ozkar (a bookseller). The story takes the reader on a journey of escape from the Fangs and also from each of the character's own past transgressions, failings, and fears. One harrowing escape after another move the action from beginning to end.

In terms of strengths, the book moves quickly. It is an easy read with short chapters. Character and plot development, overall, are well done. It is a tale of failure and redemption in the end, and of the importance of family and learning what really matters in life. Ordinary people do extraordinary things, things they didn't know or think they could do. Pride more than once leads to missteps and failures. As with most stories set in a mythical world, good wins out in the end, but in this instance, it is mixed with a great deal of pain and sorrow, and an odd turn in the plot at the end. Line sketches throughout the book help readers envision some of the odd creatures that inhabit this world.

What weaknesses are there in this book? Well, the most significant weakness is the final plot twist. It simply does not seem to contribute to the story in a meaningful way, unless it is to highlight the power of love to overcome failure. The ending is bitter-sweet, and the plot twist seems contrived somehow.

So, would I recommend this book? Well, maybe for older teen readers. It really doesn't seem to be a book intended for an adult audience, and if  you're accustomed to reading J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Donaldson, or C. S. Lewis, this book will come across as a pale imitation of great fantasy literature.

Baptist History Guy

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Liberty's End

On the eve of the celebration of my ancestors' arrival on these shores in 1739, and just days before our annual celebration of Independence from a paternalistic and oppressive government, the Chief Justice of the Supreme, Justice Roberts, effectively sided with government tyranny over the rights of the people and the states in his historic swing vote decision on what is commonly called ObamaCare. Why? I have no idea. Of all the justices on the court, he was the one least likely suspected to have favored this far reaching power grab on the part of the federal government.

What I know is that no matter how long he sits as Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, his legacy will be forever marred by the events of this day. The press may praise him today, but history will not. The people of the Republic looked to him to uphold their rights and the rights of the states against an ever growing centralized power, and he betrayed us. Unless the next Congress and the new president repeal this horrendous law, we are doomed as a nation to the fate of Greece, Portugal, and Spain--socialist nations reeling under the weight of overwhelming debt, joblessness, and insufficient revenues to support their well-intentioned but failed programs of public assistance. May God spare us from ourselves and give us a Congress and President in the next election who will turn back the hand of tyranny and restore to us the guarantees of our Constitution and limit federal powers.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tribute to Dad

Father's Day is a mixed day for me. On the one hand I reflect on my own father, who died when I was 14. Dad was a great man in my eyes. He only completed the 8th grade but was full of traditional wisdom. Few people I've known knew their Bibles as well as he knew his. He worked hard all his life, often 16 hrs a day. He was what we call today a "bi-vocational" pastor. He served as pastor of a small church on the edge of town and had a paint contracting business. Dad encouraged all of us to get a good education--something he never enjoyed the benefits of. He emphasized learning proper English, math skills, and history.

My dad's passions were the Bible and Baptist history. Granted, my dad grew up in a generation saturated with Trail of Blood landmarkism as the lens through which all church history was interpreted. His Bible was the 1906 C. I. Scofield Reference Bible. He would have nothing to do with the revised Scofield Bible that came out in the late 1960s. All attempts at modern language translations were, to him, a corruption of the Bible. From my dad I learned to love and trust as inerrant and authoritative God's word, and I learned to love Baptist history, even if we would not see eye to eye on every point now.

Dad taught me the value of hard work. From a very early age I worked, helping in my spare time with painting houses and learning the trade. He encouraged each of us to learn other skills as well. In addition he encouraged me as I went out in the neighborhood mowing lawns in the summer. Work was a part of life for us, and we never resented it.

He loved music, had a ringing bass voice and could sing almost to the bottom of the piano keyboard. I'm still envious of his voice. He learned music in a day when people learned by "shaped" notes rather than "round" notes. He could not read lines and spaces on a score but knew pitches by the shape of the note (each note in the scale has a different shape). I learned to love music from my dad.

Dad loved the outdoors. He loved fishing the most, but he also taught us to hunt. Gun safety was a big issue with Dad because his Uncle John Land was killed as a result of a hunting accident. Every year, at the beginning of hunting season, Dad would tell us how Uncle John reached behind the seat of his Model T truck, grabbed his .22 by the muzzle thinking it was unloaded, and the trigger hung on a spring and it went off. Uncle John lay in a hospital in an "iron lung" for two weeks before finally dying. Dad would talk about sitting on a bench outside the hospital on a moonlit night, listening to the sound of the iron lung and Uncle John fighting for his life. What did we learn from that? Two things. First, no gun is ever "unloaded." Secondly, a gun can get you killed. Treat it with respect.

Most of all I learned that spending time with God, my wife, and my kids is more important than time spent at work. Work will always be there. My kids will be grown and gone some day. God's word is my treasure, and my wife is the one who makes me complete. What's the point of working 60--80 hours a week if you miss seeing your kids grow up, your wife becomes a stranger, and the Bible is squeezed out of your schedule? Thanks, Dad, for some great life-lessons.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Trusting in the Dark Times

"Save me, O God,
For the waters have threatened my life.
I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me."
Psalm 69: 1--2, NASB

Have you ever felt overwhelmed with trouble? Have you ever felt the darkness of despair closing in around you? Recently I have.

In the last 12 months my family and I have been through one tumultuous crisis after another. Every door of opportunity seemed to close and one major crisis after another has befallen us. This time a year ago my brother lay dying from a rare and untreatable disease. It was the most powerless feeling in the world. After he passed, work and the hectic nature of life prevented me from being able to grieve and move forward. For months I felt like I was in a mental fog. Just as I began to pull out of that, one of my children became seriously ill. After seeing many different kinds of doctors we began to see improvement but still had no diagnosis. Then this same child developed pneumonia. That's when the darkness really closed in. She and her mother were awaiting ambulance transport to a dedicated children's medical facility and I was driving ahead of them with packed bags. Alone in my car, the darkness began to close in. I had seen the x-ray of her chest. I had seen the blood oxygen count. This was not good. And this child was supposed to have been baptized on that very day. Would I lose her? I fought back against that darkness and poured my heart out to God for mercy for my child. Thankfully, she's home from the hospital and recovering. But still we face the same issues we faced before she developed pneumonia. There are still tests to be done and answers to be sought.

And still the darkness lingers. Always it is just there, hovering around the edges of my psyche, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. I feel like a man drowning, sunk in deep waters, with no place to get a footing. Every where I turn seems to be the wrong direction. But I have this promise: "All things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are the called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8: 28). And I see the bright rays of his providence, even in my trials. In the midst of all of this my child came to faith in Christ. In the midst of her physical pain as she recovers, she hopes that her brother and one of her dear friends will come to faith in Christ in time to be baptized with her when she recovers. These are bright rays of God's grace in the midst of the darkness. So in all this I am reminded of the word of God that came by Isaiah:

"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
For I am the LORD  your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior" (Isa. 43: 2--3a, NASB).

In remembering these precious promises I know that God will deliver me and my family from all these trials. The hardships are proving grounds, and the reward will be worth all the struggle because the battles, like our very lives, are sanctified by his grace.

"I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made the heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121: 1--4 NASB).

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday Meditation

I know it is late on Palm Sunday, but the idea for this meditation came to me during the worship service this morning at my local church as I waited for my pastor to begin the sermon. I began thinking about the "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem. I looked up the passage in Matthew and found the corresponding Old Testament prophecy in Zechariah 9: 9. Then I read the surrounding verses, looking for clues as to how I would preach this Old Testament text in a Palm Sunday service. From that came this meditation for Palm Sunday.

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim And the horse from Jerusalem; And the bow of war will be cut off. And He will speak peace to the nations; And His dominion will be from sea to sea, And from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of My covenant with you, I have set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to the stronghold, O prisoners who have the hope; This very day I am declaring that I will restore double to you" (Zech. 9: 9--12, NASB).

What is the promise of these verses? It is the promise of peace and deliverance. Prior to the invention of the stirrup the preferred animal for a king was a donkey because it is a sure-footed beast, unlikely to throw its rider. Kings in battle rode in chariots. Kings coming in peace rode donkeys. Here the promised Messiah comes in peace. He comes in humility, not in pomp and circumstance. He comes to end warfare and bring peace to the nations. His dominion will cover the earth. He comes to set prisoners free and to restore to us what has been lost. Let's unpack that just a bit.

The promised Messiah, we are told, is the Prince of Peace (Isa 9: 6). He brings shalom to his people and his world. Shalom is more than merely the absence of hostility. It is wholeness in our relationship with God that enables us to have wholeness in our relationships with each other.

The promised Messiah needs no pomp and circumstance to establish his presence. He is God incarnate. He does not need the testimony of men to support his claim to be Lord of lords and King of kings. Because he is God come in the flesh he possesses a unique sense of self-identity that has no need to be puffed up. He comes in humility, dressed in the style of a peasant carpenter-rabbi. But there is no mistaking that there is something radically different about this Jesus. He speaks with certainty, with authority, and yet condescends to the lowest people in society with love, mercy, and forgiveness.

Jesus came to bring peace to a world torn by strife, and yet it is not the kind of peace we imagine. Wars have continued since his coming. He even predicted that wars and rumors of wars would continue until the end. But the day is coming when the King will return, and when he does he will bring the final conflict to a swift conclusion and usher in the reign of the King of Peace, and then warfare will be ended forever.

The prophet promises that the reign of the Messiah will encompass all the earth. He is the supreme sovereign. As such he has entered into a covenant for the redemption of his people. He has promised to set the prisoners free and restore what was lost. We are prisoners of sin, and we have lost the beauty of our original holiness, and with it we have lost ourselves, our true selves. By the blood of his covenant, which he sealed on the cross, he has purchased us from the slave market of sin and is restoring in us by his grace the beauty of holiness that marks us as persons created in the image of God.

What is our guarantee that this is all true and that we will one day enjoy the full measure of this promise? He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Danger of Prosperity

We are conditioned to look upon prosperity as a good thing, a positive blessing from God. Our culture, our society is driven by materialism, and popularity and success are seen as good things. Kept in perspective they can be a great benefit, but too often our sinful nature feeds on blessings and perverts them into shackles that bind or curses that destroy. God, through Moses, warned ancient Israel about this very thing:

"But Jeshurun (i.e., Israel) grew fat and kicked--
You are grown fat, thick, and sleek--
Then he forsook God who made him,
And scorned the Rock of his salvation" (Deut. 32: 15 NASB).

Today the Southern Baptist Convention, on paper, is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States with over 42,000 churches and some 16--17,000,000 members. Only 200 years ago Baptists were a small and despised minority in North America, just beginning to organize for global missions, In 1814 Baptists organized their first national body on American soil, the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions. With a name like that you can see why it was quickly shortened to the nickname "Triennial Convention" (it met every three years). From that original Convention two major Baptist bodies emerged: the American Baptist Churches, USA (formerly the Northern Baptist Convention, then the American Baptist Convention), and the Southern Baptist Convention.

At the beginning of the twentieth century both the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions were approximately the same size, but in the course of the twentieth century the SBC far outstripped its northern counterpart in conversions, churches, and missionaries on the field. The SBC has held, in the main, to a more conservative Baptist theology and retained more commitment to the Baptist confessional heritage. And yet, as I look at my beloved SBC, I see signs that all is not well, even in the wake of our Conservative Resurgence.

A colleague of mine commented one day that unless we also reclaim biblical authority the battle for biblical inerrancy will have to be fought all over again. We are all to ready to declare the shibboleth of inerrancy, but are we ready to come under the yoke of biblical authority? I've been reading Baptists of the nineteenth century, and I find a different "spirit" (for lack of a better term) at work among them than we see today. These were people who took the Bible to be the Word of God written--inerrant to be sure. But they also understood it to be God's authoritative law for the churches. A "profession of faith" meant something different to them. It was not a mere "decision" made by reciting a prayer and filling out a card. It was something you stood before the whole church and declared in your own words prior to baptism. A lifetime of godly devotion was expected of every church member. Failure to bring forth continual fruit in keeping with repentance meant being lovingly confronted with church discipline.

Today's apparent numerical success has become a hindrance to the hard work of church discipline and associational discipline. We dare not withdraw fellowship from wayward members for fear of what it would do to our numbers (only about 30--40% of our total members attend church regularly). We dare not withdraw fellowship from churches that have deviated in doctrine or practice for fear of what it would do to our numbers (upwards of 70% of our churches are not effectively reaching the lost). And so we allow people to remain on our rolls who give no credible evidence of genuine conversion and churches to remain in good standing that have long since ceased to be New Testament congregations. Success has become a shackle that binds us and is holding us back from being the people of God we are called to be.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Friends, the last few days have been very frustrating for me. I have watched as a recurring debate has erupted, both on the social networks and in Baptist newspapers over whether and to what extent Baptists should or should not be disturbed by a resurgence of Calvinism in our seminaries and pulpits. I'm not going to get into who I think is right or wrong. That would only fuel the debate even more, and to no good purpose.

Why, I ask, are we debating this when 70% of our SBC churches are either plateaued or in decline? This sad state of affairs cannot be blamed on resurgent Calvinism because the best estimates I've seen put Calvinists in pulpits in the SBC at only about 10%. Something else is driving the downward spiral of our churches. But rather than try to face and deal with that we choose to debate theological minutiae like the Medieval Schoolmen who debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

It's time to set aside the theological wrangling for a minute and refocus on the Gospel. Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC (at least the ones I know) believe in the free offer of salvation to all who hear the Gospel. Both believe that it is the responsibility of every believer to share his/her faith with unbelievers and call them to repent of their sins and trust in Christ for salvation. Both believe that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Both believe in biblical inerrancy and justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Both believe in the substitutionary atoning work of Christ on the cross.

How can we show a lost world the love of Christ if we can't even show it to each other? It's time to refocus on the main thing. We've got a lot of churches that are dying. Why? Each church has its own particular pathology that must be faced and dealt with. But behind it all may lie a kind of subconscious hardshellism that says "our four and no more." Oh, we would never state it so blatantly (okay, so I've heard of one church that did), but it prevails, I suspect in many of our churches. We say "Everyone is Welcome", but are they really? Do we want drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and swindlers (you know, the people Jesus went to) coming through the doors of our churches? Our priorities are out of focus, and repentance needs to start with us if we're going to reach a lost nation and a lost world.

Monday, February 6, 2012

God's Sovereignty, Human Responsibility, and the Molinist Position

I've been reading the recently published book, Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue, edited by E. Ray Clendenen and Brad J. Waggoner.  On the whole this is a book worth reading, especially if you are a Southern Baptist with questions about Calvinism. The book presents an irenic debate between Calvinists and non-Calvinists in the SBC on the role of Calvinism in Southern Baptist life, past and present. The authors of the various essays are well chosen and articulate. They share a common commitment to the Gospel and the evangelistic mission of the denomination.

Some chapters I found somewhat lacking were the two chapters on the extent of the atonement, and then a later chapter on a Molinist interpretation of God's sovereignty. David Nelson sought to make a biblical defense of general atonement and for the most part he succeeded. However, at one point he raises the issue of God's love in relation to the Calvinistic position of particular redemption (the idea that Christ died particularly to redeem the elect; 132). He implies that the doctrine of particular redemption indicates God does not love all people, at least not in the same way. At the same time he admits to holding unconditional election (131). But does not his affirmation of unconditional election raise the same questions regarding the nature and extent of God's love for sinners as does particular redemption? It is a question worth asking.

In the next chapter Sam Waldron set out to present a "biblical" defense of particular redemption. However, this chapter, rather than building on key biblical passages that affirm the definite nature of the atonement, argued primarily from logical deductions and inferences for the doctrine of particular redemption. Waldron most commonly cites the Puritan John Owen and the twentieth century commentator John Murray, with an occasional nod to B. B. Warfield.

For me, however, the most interesting and troubling chapter is the one by Ken Keathley on Molinism as the best solution for the tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. For Keathley logical consistency is a driving force. He wants to find a way to make the infralapsarian position logically consistent, and for him Molinism is the key. Molinism was first advocated by a Jesuit priest named Molina. His position has been roundly criticized by all sides as giving too much ground to the other side and so has never enjoyed a great following among either Catholics or Protestants, Calvinists or Arminians. Essentially Molina argued that God knows at three levels. He knows what is necessarily true, he knows what will be, and he knows what could be if circumstances were different. This third knowledge is said to be "middle knowledge" and stands between God's necessary knowledge and his knowledge of what will be. In the Molinist system God employed his "middle knowledge" or knowledge of what would be in any given circumstances, to plan the course of creation to accomplish his perfect will by establishing the circumstances in which free moral agents would free choose to do what God intended. At first glance this looks like a good proposal. Bruce Ware has also argued for God's use of middle knowledge (God's Greater Glory, chapter 4, although Keathley doesn't present Ware as holding to middle knowledge). A thorough and much more capable critique of middle knowledge can be found in John D. Laing's "The Compatibility of Calvinism and Middle Knowledge" in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 3 (Sept 2004): 455--67. My only observation is that, looked at carefully, Molinism doesn't really resolve the tension. It only moves it back one step. As I understand it (and maybe I don't, really; Molinism always gives me a headache when I try to look at it too closely), in the Molinist schema, God simply governs the universe with a stacked deck, so to speak.

God determines the context in which we live and move in such a way as to secure our doing his will because he knows perfectly how we will each respond in a given circumstance. In one sense this is little different than the Arminian view that God merely ratifies our choices through his foreknowledge. In another sense the hard determinism of some forms of Calvinism are maintained, except this time God is merely manipulating his creation to achieve his goals.

Herein lies the problem of a theological system too slavishly devoted to human logic. God says, "For  My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways" (Isa 55: 8 NASB). I find pure, supralapsarian Calvinism, pure Arminianism, Molinism, and Open Theism to be far too committed to perfect internal logical consistency. They all share a common arrogance--that the human mind can fathom the mysteries of God through logic. Can I resolve the tension between God's sovereign rule of the universe and the free moral agency of humanity and angelic beings? No. Is that a problem for me? No. I assume that God has the issue resolved in his mind, and that satisfies me. I don't need for my system to be perfectly symmetrical. Let me rest in the biblical witness. Those who are saved are saved completely owing to God's grace--his undeserved favor freely given for reasons known only to God (Eph 1: 4--6). Those who are lost are condemned for their sins and for no other reason than that they die in a state of unbelief, unforgiven and unregenerate (Rom 3: 23; 6: 23). Some say this makes God unfair. If God were fair and if every individual received his proper due, we would all be lost. None would be saved because no one of us deserves even the next breath of air we breathe (Rom 3: 10ff). I'll take his mercy over fairness any day. "God, be merciful to me, the sinner" (Luke 18:13, NASB).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Reflections on the New Year

I don't make new year's resolutions, at least, I haven't since I resolved never to make them again. It's the only resolution I've managed to keep. But the turning of the year is a good time to think about the future while reflecting a bit on the past. In many respects 2011 was quite a mixed bag for me. I lost my brother unexpectedly. My family finished the year coping with some unexpected stress. On the other hand, I was elected president of the Association of Baptists for Scouting ( and both my older son and my older daughter have excelled in their respective Scouting activities (Boy Scouts and Venturing Scouts, respectively). I've enjoyed being part of a great praise team in my church and have launched, by God's grace, a wonderful Bible study class of very caring and devoted people. Memories of the past are a great gift because they anchor us--give us a context in which to face the future. There is a danger, however, in dwelling too much on the past. An anchor can give stability in times of storm, but it can also become a burden that impedes progress.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3: 13--14, NASB). Paul, here, is clearly not saying to forget completely the past, for in this very chapter he reviewed his past in Judaism and his role in persecuting the early church. So what is he saying? He is saying that the past doesn't have to define our future. We who are followers of Christ have been called by God through his Spirit and his Word to become more and more like Christ. That is the goal of our salvation (Rom 8: 28). Because God has called us to this, and because he both works the will to be Christlike in us (Phil 2: 13) and dwells in us by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8: 9), then we are both willing and able to strive to be more like Christ in our daily lives (Phil 2: 12). What Paul is saying here is that we should not become fixated on the past in such a way that it keeps us from reaching for the goal of becoming like Christ. Don't let your past sins and failures define the limits of your future growth in Christian maturity. Rather, with gratitude to God for his indescribable gift, press on toward the goal of being like Christ.