Running Without A Title

August 26, 2013 — 4 Comments

You may have noticed (if you click through RSS) that there is no header anymore on the blog. Technically, that means the blog has no particular title, which given the history of my blogging makes it another phase in my search for a title. For now at least, I’ve decide to run without a title, which is kind of the story of my life for the past couple of years, at least when it comes to my relationship with the local church.

I’m pulling the phrase “running without a title” from a conversation I had with our pastor back in Dec/Jan. He had just greenlighted having a doctrine class on Sunday nights which would basically be the extent of Christian education in our church. I also still had fleeting hopes of being able to secure a staff position since our church was clearly understaffed (and still is) and I had been faithfully serving in many and various capacities since day one (which was early June 2011) and had come straight from finishing seminary training.

Those hopes would quickly be dashed, though if I were going off body language, I should have never had hopes in the first place. The ins and outs of that is probably another post entirely, and maybe one I’ll write one day. The result of the particular conversation in question was that I would be continuing to “run without a title” for a season, meaning I would be doing more than the average lay leader in the church, but with no staff association or particular recognition. The individual activities weren’t necessarily staff caliber, but when you’re teaching the only doctrine class, leading a small group, playing every other week in the worship band, and discipling a half dozen young leaders, you’re pulling at least a part-time staff workload.

I realized in the midst of it all that it was too much for a person to be doing who was looking for full-time work elsewhere (as a result of those aforementioned dashed hopes). Also, it was a disservice to my wife since none of it was helping to provide and was actually interfering with my ability to do other things that would help provide. That led to some much needed changes, but I’m still in a season of life where I’m running without a title, regardless of what exactly I do at church.

If you notice in the sidebar, I call myself a disciple, teacher, musician, and thinker. I’d love to add pastor, and really think it is a fair label since I shepherd and pastor. But at the same time, I’m not recognized as a pastor by my own church so it seems unfair to claim the label (even if I have the degree for it). I am actively looking for full-time pastoral work (and you are welcome to download my resume if you like), but in the meantime, I’m laboring titleless in the ministry. It’s awkward and I don’t like it, but that’s where God has me. There’s a lesson in here somewhere, and if nothing else, it’s great for deconstructing your pride.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s exactly what I need right now.

Back In Business

August 24, 2013 — 1 Comment

You may or may not have noticed earlier today, but the website was temporarily down.

I’m pretty sure I warned you it would happen at some point, and sure enough it did.

But now, things are mostly back to normal. I was able to import all of my posts and pages, though there was some difficulty with the media I had uploaded (still trying to figure that out). All of my visual settings and back-end widgets needed to be reconfigured, and so I’ve been doing some of that this afternoon. Poke around a bit and let me know what you think I missed. I mean, I know what I missed for the most part, but much of it is things I am debating the value of in the meantime.

I think since most people read this blog in RSS you don’t necessarily poke around the site itself unless you’re going to comment. If you wouldn’t mind though, give a quick lookover and tell if you noticed anything amiss. The only major thing I think I’m missing is the pictures that go in pretty much all but the last post.

Other than that, I should be up and running now and hopefully will not be seeing the “No Data Received” page for a good while, maybe even ever. Posting should be back on track and I even have a giveaway for Tuesday for David Murray’s Jesus on Every Page (which is a 5-star book if I do say so myself).

Until then…I’ll keep trying to be productive and not watch too many episodes of Breaking Bad.

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So…

For the past several weeks, I’ve been getting this screen, more often than not, when I try to make updates from the WordPress Admin panel. I realize some of you all might have gotten this screen when you try to access other secure sites, but I found out, after a call to GoDaddy, that it is an issue with how WordPress interacts with GoDaddy’s servers (or something along those lines).

If this were the first issue I’ve had with my webhosting, it might be forgivable. But, alas, many occasions last year my site would go down at inopportune times (is there an opportune time?) and it also loads rather slowly in general.

That being the case, I’ve decided to switch to BlueHost and initiated the domain transfer yesterday. It could take up to a week, and it also might take me an afternoon to transfer content once the domain has made the switch. Because of that, I’m going to take a blogging break this week since a) it’s been a total pain trying to update a post to begin with and b) I might get something posted only to have the site go down once the domain transfer happens and not be able to transfer content immediately. So if you get a blank blog, that’s what’s happening. Hopefully by this time next week, it will be all smoothed out and I can close this chapter in my blogging history.

And also hopefully this will just one more step toward making this blog better and more user-friendly. If my phone calls with BlueHost so far are any indication, I think we’re on the right track!

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Earlier in the week, I thought now would be a good time to explain why I don’t rate more books 5-stars. I mean read a lot. And because I track my reading with Goodreads, 1 almost every book I complete gets a 1-5 star rating.

Then, just earlier today, I found out that a publisher I work with was only going to offer books through NetGalley from now on, and so I was going to rant about how awful and useless NetGalley is for actually reviewing books. But when I declined to review any further books from this publisher, I was offered an ePub when available. That’s actually do-able for reviews (though definitely not preferable in my book) and so my rage against NetGalley subsided briefly. 2

So, back to my original post idea, which I think you’ll find helpful.

You may or may not have wondered why I often will give a book 4 stars that everyone else seems to be giving 5 stars. Recently, I was having a conversation over Chipotle with a friend of mine, and we concluded a 10-star rating system would actually be better. Many times, a book that I give 4-stars to would really be a 9 on a 10 scale system. Occasionally, a book that I give a 5 to would also probably only be a 9, but I have to decide whether to round up or down. In both cases, having a 10 star system would help gauge things better, I think. But we’re stuck with 1-5 stars, so here’s how I deal with that.

In general, I don’t give many books 5 stars (though I’ve done it twice this week and it’s not even the weekend yet), and here’s why:

Most books don’t deserve it.

I realize that’s not a satisfactory answer since most people will concede that most books are not in fact 5-star quality. If you were curious about this at all, you were probably curious why I don’t give many 5-star ratings, not why there aren’t more books out that deserve 5 stars.

So, here’s the deal. 3

According to Amazon, if you like a book, it should be 4 stars. Since I like most of the books I read (and I generally know I’ll probably like it before I read it), my usual rating is 4 stars. To me, 4 stars is a winner. That’s me saying, “this is a quality book and I’m glad I spent the time reading it.”

3-stars means “it’s ok,” which in terms of book evaluation means, either “I liked this book, but it has significant shortcomings,” or “I didn’t really like this book, but there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.”

2-stars means “I don’t like it,” and 1-star means, “I hate it.” 4 I don’t read a lot of books that get 1 or 2 stars because I can usually tell that might get that rating before I waste the time reading them. Or, in some cases, I am blown away with the awfulness of a book I expected more from. If I disliked reading a book and it had shortcomings, I give it 2 stars. If I simply loathed it (probably because it was riddled with shortcomings), it gets a 1 star. 5

That still leaves 5-stars, which again, according to Amazon, means “I love it.”

So, how does a book move from “like” to “love” in my book?

Usually it’s one of two things:

  • It met the requirements of a 4-star and it was significantly well-written such that it was a joy to read
  • It was mind-blowing in some kind of significant way

The more I read, the more I’m finding that that latter reason is harder to come by. For instance, one of the books I finished this week that I gave 5-stars to, In the Beginning…We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, was more for retroactive reasons. Most of the material in it I had presented to me during my Hebrews classes and at the time, it was mind-blowing. Since this book collected many of those insights into a handy, under-200pgs format designed for a popular audience, I felt like it deserved 5 stars.

The other book was Jared Wilson’s The Pastor’s Justification: Applying The Life and Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry. For me, it was soul-nourishing, but also, and if you’ve read Wilson’s other books you know this, his turn of the phrase makes his writing a joy to read. So it while it wasn’t revolutionary, it was very enjoyable, very helpful, and very timely.

Basically, I will give a book 5 stars if I can’t put it down and/or it totally re-frames the way I think about something (or many things). If it doesn’t do that, it’s just a 4-star book, but that still is a quality rating in my book. If you give everything 5-stars, then 5 stars really doesn’t mean anything (also, I think you’re either new to the subject you’re reading, or just not good at evaluation). I try to use it sparingly so that when I do actually give a book 5 stars, you can know that it means I think that particular book is excellent. Since I tend to give most books I review a positive review (because I kind of knew I’d recommend it before I read it), this is a way you can tell which of those books are really good.

Luckily, there is not a rating system on blog posts, so I’m just going to assume you felt like this was at least a 4 star explanation. I’m gonna get back to reading a couple of 4’s and a potential 5, and leave you to scroll through my Goodreads rating history to figure out which books to now add to your library.

Notes:

  1. Though useful, I actually don’t really like Goodreads as a reading tool. I’ll have to explain this in another post
  2. Just kidding, there was no actually rage. If you’ve met me in real life, you’ll understand there is no possible way I was raging against NetGalley.
  3. As in, this is how I do things, not necessarily how I’ve always done things. There are books on Amazon I’ve rated 5 stars that don’t deserve it because they don’t meet my current criteria. But, at least there aren’t any travesties. Like once upon a time I liked Joel Osteen or something like that.
  4. NetGalley gets 1 star
  5. The only book I’ve reviewed that I gave 1 star to was The Shack and you can read my abrasive review by clicking the link, and also free free to read why (I think) people like awful Christian books.

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Last week, I introduced the New Testament portion of the Building A Theological Library series. Just to reiterate, these are my preferences and what make up my library (for the most part). There are definitely some great resources I’ve overlooked. What I’m trying to do here is give you what I typically look for, and in the case of individual books, what I think is the best 2 commentaries for a pastor to have on each (because I think you should have at least 2) and what is the best single commentary for the interested reader to pick up (who is maybe not a pastor). What I’m listing here is a) what commentaries I currently have and b) what commentaries I’m still tracking down (gradually and systematically).

The commentaries in bold are the ones I think are your best bet if you’re just going to get one.

Today, we’ll start our trek through the Gospels. When I did the Old Testament, I had a post on background sources, but this time around, that will come at the end. Because you’re curious, here’s the table of contents:

  • New Testament Commentaries
  • Gospels and Acts
  • Paul’s Letters: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Thessalonians
  • Paul’s Letters: Prison and Pastorals
  • General Letters
  • New Testament Backgrounds
  • Essential Special Studies

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

Acts

A couple of honorable mentions that I didn’t include in the list are the the commentaries by Craig Keener on John (2 Vols.) and Acts (2 Vols published, 2 more to come). I don’t have a lot of familiarity with Keener’s work, but his Acts commentary is certainly going to be the most meticulous and detailed one available. Any serious student of Acts will need to add the volumes to his library. I’ve been aware of Keener as a scholar, but only recently taken an interesting in reading some of his work.

There are of course other commentaries I could have included, but these are my preferences and recommendations. You can see I tend to prefer certain series, but an important thing to keep in mind is that author trumps series. Several names show up in each book list and that’s because they write quality commentaries, regardless of the series that published it. Series is a good indicator of the kind of commentary you’re purchasing, while author is an indicator of the quality of commentary you’re purchasing. Certainly there are quality commentaries by authors I haven’t heard of, but some names tend to continually produce quality work. It doesn’t mean their work on every book is of equal quality, but their scholarship should be fairly consistent across volumes. As a general rule of thumb then, if you find a particular author’s work in one commentary useful, edifying, and instructive, you might check out other commentaries that author has written regardless of what series (if any) it falls into.

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Jason Helopoulos is Assistant Pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s Kevin DeYoung’s church, and he and Jason are good friends. Jason is also a graduate of Dallas Seminary (finishing the same year I started college), so we probably have some mutual professor friends. What I’m trying to tell you is, you may never have heard of Jason (unless you remember him taking over DeYoung’s blog this and last summer so DeYoung could have a break), but he seems like a pretty legit guy.

His first book, A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in The Christian Home, is rather short, but it is timely and shouldn’t be overlooked if you’re a guy. I say that because if you’re a guy, the default is to neglect family worship. Either you’re currently doing so with your wife and kids (or just wife), or you’re single and it’s not on your radar for the future. In either case, this book is for you.

As Kevin DeYoung tells us in the foreword,

I love the title: A Neglected Grace. Instead of hammering us with the heavy hand of ought, Jason holds out family worship as an example of divine kindness. Yes, we need motivation for the discipline of family worship, but the best, longest-lasting motivation comes not by feeling terrible for what we could be doing better, but by believing what good God has in store for us. The message of the book isn’t “Pray with your family or else!” but “Think of how sweet this will be.” (11-12)

That is important to keep in mind as you read. Family worship is first and foremost as grace to us. As Jason explains in his introduction,

Family worship. This glorious expression of our Christian faith used to mark Christian homes, but over the past one hundred years, the evangelical church seems to have forgotten about it. It is time for us to explore and promote family worship in the church again. We need to hear about the need for family worship in our homes. Pastors need to stress the importance of it. And laypeople need to be talking about it. But even more importantly, we need to begin to practice it, so that this silent void which has crept into our Christian homes will disappear. My hope is that our Christian homes will once again be filled with fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, children, sisters, and brothers that are worshiping to the glory of God. (13-14)

In writing about family worship, Jason hopes that “the Lord will use this book to encourage you and your family to introduce family worship in your home or to persevere in it. There is no better time than now for this time-tested and beneficial aspect of the Christian life to be revived” (15).

With that in mind, chapter 1 lays the foundation of worship as a fundamentally human activity. Jason sees worship in three spheres:

  • Secret worship (private devotions, that sort of thing)
  • Corporate worship (Sunday gatherings)
  • Family worship

A healthy spiritual life will engage in worship in all three spheres. We tend to get the second sphere, struggle with the first, and speaking from personal experience, all but ignore the third. To help with that, chapter 2 explains how family worship should be our joyful responsibility. Chapter 3 then enumerates more reasons we should want to pursue family worship:

  • It centers the home
  • It encourages our children in Christ
  • It encourages Christian character
  • It encourages peace in the home 1
  • It binds the family together
  • It provides common knowledge
  • It equips our children for corporate worship
  • It reinforces spiritual headship
  • It provides systematic discipleship

Since this is quite the list of compelling reasons (I think at least), in chapter the focus turns to the nuts and bolts of practicing family worship. Jason’s advice comes down to singing a worship song together, reading through a passage of Scripture, briefly discussing, and then closing in prayer. You can add additional elements, but the opportunity to sing, read, and pray may lead to further conversations, or it may not. At most, you’re looking at about 15 minutes to sow grace into your family life.

In chapter 5, Jason discusses the manner of our worship. He sees that it should be reverent, joyful, and regular/consistent. As he encourages readers:

Whenever you realize that your family worship hasn’t been regular and consistent lately, remember that it is a means of grace, not a burden to bear, so just pick it back up and start again. It is good to remind ourselves that every family goes through different seasons. There may be times when my family is joyful, and other times that it seems like anything but joyful. We may have a couple of weeks in which our family’s interaction with Scripture, praying of prayers, and singing of hymns seems to be marked by an uncommon reverence, and other weeks that it seems to be treated casually. Through all seasons, be patient, be gracious, and keep praying that God would bless. He isn’t looking for perfection; that standard has been met by Christ. Rest and enjoy what you have, while all the while striving and praying that your family worship becomes even more reverent, joyful, regular and consistent. (71)

Chapter 6 then clarifies what family worship is not so that there is no confusion over its function in the Christian life. Chapter 7 is Jason’s practical tid bits to keep in mind once you are attempting to regularly practice family worship and chapter 8 deals with special circumstances (single parents, feelings of inadequacy, unbelieving spouses, Christian spouse not on board, ages of children, etc.). Finally, in chapter 9, Jason closes out with and encouragement to “just do it,” and offers testimonials from various friends (and family) about their experience in regularly participating in family worship. The book proper finishes with appendices offer sample structures, resources, and creeds (and a list of catechisms).

Conclusion

All in all, I found this a very helpful book. Family worship is something we’ve been attempting to do regularly, though with unfortunately more misses than hits. I definitely want to have the habit down before we start having kids. If you’re in a similar situation, you’ll find Jason’s book both encouraging and a great resource to get your started. He pretty much covers all the bases clearly and concisely. He doesn’t beat readers over the head with their failures and is very realistic about how things will go. He provides the tools you need to get started and the tips you’ll need once the ball is rolling. If you’re a guy, you probably ought to pick up this book. That is, unless you are already a family worship master. 2 But, since we could all probably use some help with leading our families well, this a great little volume to pick up.

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Notes:

  1. Jason writes, “As a pastor, I have seen very few marriages end in divorce because of one act of adultery or some other “notorious” sin. Rather, most divorces occur because of built-up pain, a lack of forgiveness, grudges, etc., which have accumulated over time. Family worship aids a family to confront their own sin and its effect upon each other. As an example, it is awfully hard for a father to lead his family in worship when he has just yelled at his wife. If he is going to lead his family before the throne of grace, he will first have to ask for forgiveness from his wife. And she will find that it is hard to worship unless she willingly forgives him. This couple’s children will observe and learn from this. They will be encouraged to pursue peace and forgiveness as they see their father and mother model it” (45)
  2. If that’s you, maybe pick this up for a “friend” and give it to them?

About a year ago, Tim Brister wrote a post called “A Triperspectival Approach to Blogging.” In it, he explains how one could utilize the insights of triperspectivalism in the way they approach their blog. 1 The goal is balancing several aspects of blogging so that they blog itself might be better. Harnessing the three perspectives, normative, situational, and existential, here’s how Brister explains it:

The Normative perspective generally deals with content, or text. A good blog must begin with quality content.  They have something to contribute that has value, insight, inspiration, or further exploration. The content encourages to center our lives on truth and make it “normative” in our lives. Examples of this would include Trevin Wax and Tullian Tchividjin.

The Existential perspective generally deals with personal commentary, or subtext. This is where the blogger will get personal with a measure of disclosure and transparency.  The result is a greater sense of relatability with the author as he or she brings “earthiness” to the content. The commentary is an encouragement to experience the truth in real, personal, and life-transforming ways. Examples of this would include Joe Thorn and Tim Challies.

The Situational perspective generally deals with community interaction, or context. This is where the blogger will engage the audience or blog community to “hash it out” in each person’s situation. The result is a greater sense of relevance to the content as people discover ways the content fits in their respective contexts. Examples of those who do this well include Michael Hyatt and Carlos Whitaker.

I think this is a great way to process what blogging involves. Though I’m going to riff on it just a bit, first a confession.

Over the summer, I took somewhat of a break from blogging. You might not have noticed because I still posted pretty much every week. But, if you were paying attention, I really only posted book reviews. That was by design so that I could kind of clear my head about blogging. It was also because of adjustments in my schedule toward the end of the school that left me less time to blog than I’ve had since graduating seminary. Essentially I was just kind of phoning it in to take a break and I think the quality of the content dipped because of that. If you’re a faithful reader of the blog you deserve better. 2

The good news is that my hiatus from offering anything other than book commentaries has resulted in a better vision for blogging. And predictably, that vision has triperspectival contours. Though not supplanting Brister’s analysis above, I’m going to parse my approach to blogging a little differently. 3

I’ve been thinking mostly about content (Brister’s normative perspective) and specifically the kind of content I offer. While I do have a triperspectival division of blog categories, I thought of a simpler way to look at it:

  • Normative content: Anything expound doctrine, explaining Scripture, or unpacking truth. Will always be relevant whether it seems like it at the time or not and isn’t affected by the passing of time.
  • Situational content: Anything commenting on a current event, trend, or happening. Book reviews technically fall here, especially when they are new releases. May be really relevant at the time of writing, but much less so with the passing of time.
  • Existential content: Anything commenting on personal events, either stories from everyday life, or commentary on the self. May or may not have lasting relevance, but helps to establish personal connections with readers who change with the passing of time.

It is intentional that I mentioned relevance and the passing of time in each bullet. To be a bit extistential for a moment, it’s something I’ve been thinking about, especially as I realize that making book reviews a priority in blogging means that I’m shooting for being “on the cutting edge” of relevance (intentionally or not). I’m exchanging making a personal connection with readers and leaving writing of more lasting impact and that is something I’d like to change.

To be fair, I think a good blog post covers all three perspectives. Though it is primarily situated in one of the three, you cannot expound one without the other two. So, as I review books I may include theological or biblical explanations in my critique of the book, as well as my personal reactions to reading it, or how I stumbled upon it in the first place. It is a situational post (commenting on an object in the world) but is doing so with normative and existential sensibilities.

When I originally started blogging, it was primarily existential. That was the window into situational commentary and normative exposition. The bottom line is I’d like to do more of that because I think it will make this blog better. It’ll be better for me to clarify my thinking and it’ll be better for you because it means more interesting blog posts. Basically it’s triperspectivalism for the win.

I think in making that my aim in content creation, I’ll probably slide into more balance along the triperspectival lines Brister mentions. My content will improve, you’ll get more inside my head, and hopefully we’ll interact more and a bit more community will develop. Like I tell my students though, I can’t predict the future, 4 so I can’t speak with certainty as to how this will all unfold. But if you’ve noticed this week, we’re off to a great start, and I guess we’ll just see how the coming weeks and months unfold!

Notes:

  1. If you’re not familiar with “triperspectvialism” then read this article: A Triperspectival Map of DKG
  2. Though I imagine that if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you probably still enjoyed and/or looked forward to the book reviews.
  3. Which incidentally is one of the advantages of triperspectivalism as a tool: there is always another way to parse things out and highlight aspects that might be overlooked
  4. This is often uttered in reference to their questions about what will be on tests that I haven’t made yet

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Several months back, almost 6 to be precise, I finished up a series on building a theological library focused on Old Testament commentaries. I had meant to carry right on to the New, but one thing lead to another, and well here we are picking up the NT many months later.

Much like I did with the Old, I’ll be giving a short list of the top commentaries for each book. Challies is kind of stealing my thunder, but you’ll find we make many of the same recommendations. I’ll finish my series before his, but he is offering more commentary on the commentaries than I am. Instead I’m offering meta-commentary on the types of commentaries you find in each series.

So for instance, much like the Old Testament commentaries, the following series have corresponding volumes in the New:

Most of what I said in the summaries about these series also applies when it comes to the New Testament. In terms of my general familiarity, I had the entire WBC series on the NT, but sold several of the volumes. I had gotten a subscription through CBD which made each volume like $20. I then paired down what I kept to only the highest rated volumes (which I’ll share later). I’ve found the TNTC volumes helpful and have the complete collection (Old and New) in Logos. I currently don’t have any NIVAC NT volumes and only a couple of NICNT ones (Hebrews and Romans), but a few of each of those sets are on my radar.

In addition to these series, there are several that only have volumes in the New Testament:

Of these, the PNTC series is probably the most accessible, while the ZECNT is best suited for sermon development (or teaching). The BECNT is fairly technical, but not as much as the NIGTC which is specifically commenting on the Greek text rather than commenting on an English translation and bringing up language issues as needed. In Logos, I have the entire PNTC and NIGTC series (minus the most recent Romans update in PNTC, but I have that in print). I have most of the BECNT in Logos (except for a few of the most recent publications, but they’ll be added to the fold eventually) and have the entire ZECNT series in hard copy thanks to Zondervan (which means you can expect some reviews in the coming weeks/months).

That’s kind of a general lay of the land. For the average person, I’d recommend TNTC and NIVAC commentaries. For someone wanting to dig a little deeper, I’d go with a PNTC or NICNT volume. If you’re a teacher or pastor, BECNT, NIGTC, WBC, and ZECNT should be on your consultation radar as you do your exegesis. There are a few other commentaries I’ll end up recommending that are either part of another series not mentioned, or not part of a series at all. Next week we’ll start with the Gospels and go from there. It’ll probably look something like this:

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Much like his last foray into non-fiction, N. D. Wilson’s Death By Living: Life Is Meant To Be Spent does not lend itself to easy review. It is kind of a genre-breaker, but in a good way. It’s non-fiction, but it’s written in imaginative prose and contains a myriad of stories. It reads like meditations on mortality with the “point” being to live like you’re alive. It’s not a book you read and a review so much as you inhabit and apply.

In many ways, Death By Living is a sequel to Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, but a sequel in a way that it is not necessary to have read the predecessor. It’s more like a continuation of the previous thought, but in such a way that it can be read as a stand alone set of musings on how to live given the mortal coil we find ourselves traversing. While Notes focuses on a way of seeing, Death focuses on a way of living (xi).

Death By Living is a book aimed at capturing the reader’s imagination through story to make a point (which is roughly the subtitle of the book). Wilson’s inspiration springs from the recent passing of his maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother. He retells many stories from his paternal grandfather that he has been capturing via video (a good idea by the way) and tells of his own journeys in living life to the fullest.

As far as a layout goes, chapter 1 extends the introduction a bit, and then chapter 2 explains the foundational role stories play both in this book and in teaching us how to live. Chapter 3 is the first of several reminisces relating to Wilson’s grandparents (the others are chapter 7, 11, and 14). Chapter 4 is about the importance of living a story and about which story you choose to live (or “enflesh”). Chapter 5 is the first of several “city hiatus” chapters (the others being 9, 12, and 16) and retells a story from the Wilson clan travelogue. Chapter 6, 8, 10, 13, and 15 continue to flesh out this idea of living life within a story and spending it well.

Like I said earlier, because of the nature of this book, it is kind of hard to review. Hard in the sense I don’t think a typical review would do it justice since it is kind of atypical. If I would register one critique, it’s that he says “death is grace” (113). The full quote for context is:

Mortality is a consequence of sin. But it is also a gift. A mercy. A kindness. Death is grace.

Now, as I was reading this beachside a Monday past, I immediately thought of a professor of mine at Dallas who would have a cow in response to that statement.

And I think he’s right.

Death isn’t, properly speaking, grace. Wilson is right that it is a mercy of God to not condemn us to live forever in our natural bodies subject to sin and death. But death is always awful and always painful. What is on the other side of death is grace, but death itself is not. It is one of the enemies Christ died to defeat. So, while I get what Wilson is getting at, I don’t think you can use “grace” to refer to it. Even in a book like this that is imaginative and poetic in its prose, you have to be careful how you say things.

There is remarkably little else to quibble with. Perhaps someone else could find something, and I only mentioned the grace thing because I think it’s an important distinction that must not be confused. I enjoyed this book and read it relatively quick (which is one way I gauge enjoy-ability). I would recommend it to anyone really. The target audience seems to be mortals who enjoy stories so that’s pretty much everyone (or should be at least). It might not particularly change your life, but it is definitely an enjoyable ride that should provoke your thinking and maybe even motivate you to get out there and do some more living.

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Jerram Barrs is the founder and resident scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary. There he teaches apologetics and outreach as professor of Christian studies. Here, he is writing about the arts, and specifically literature. In doing so, he provides an excellent apologetic for both its value as the creation of God’s image bearers, as well as its place as a connection point in doing apologetics.

The book is informally split into two parts. The first five chapters lay a rich foundation for a “Edenic” perspective on man’s artistic endeavors. Chapter 1 explains how man, being made in the image of God, is a creative being. We function in this world as kind of “sub-creators.” Chapter 2 then explains how this makes us function as imitators of God whether we like it or not. As Barrs sees it, and this is part of where the title of the books comes from:

All great art will echo these three elements of Eden: (1) Eden in its original glory, (2) Eden that is lost to us, and (3) the promise that Eden will be restored. We will look later in some depth at this call of the artist to make “echoes of Eden.” (26)

Barrs builds on this relying heavily (and rightly so I think) on Calvin, as well as Lewis. Chapter 3 then explains how we can begin building a Christian understanding of the artist’s calling. In his vision for Christian artists, Barrs says:

At the most basic level, when it comes to the arts, we must hold Christians to the same standards of judgment as we would any other artist— just as we hold Christians in medicine, or teaching, or business, or any other calling to an objective set of standards. I would not want to take my child, ill with leukemia, to a doctor just because he claimed to be a Christian. I would try to find out whether he was a well-trained and competent physician. The same should be true if I am looking for an architect, an interior designer, music to play or listen to, a novel to read, a play to see, a movie to watch, or an artist or artistic work in any field of the arts. I will be looking first for quality rather than for the claim of faith.

This means, then, that we might do well to speak of Christian artists, or of Christians who are called to be artists, in the same way that we speak of Christians who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, homemakers, or cooks, rather than speaking of Christian medicine, Christian cooking, and so on. Then, once we learn to speak this way, our challenge to all believers will be to pursue their callings with heart, soul, mind, and strength to the glory of God so that the dedication of their lives and the quality of their work brings honor to their Maker. (42)

He follows this by offering a Christian view of what kind of “topics” an artist can pursue:

We may put it bluntly: there are no secular topics. All creation is God’s and therefore is proper material for artistic expression. But, you may respond, “There is much that is bad about this world and that therefore does not reveal the perfectly holy character of God.” This is of course true, and so we may add that the world and human life in all its fallenness and brokenness is appropriate subject matter for the Christian artist, just as it is appropriate subject matter for the Word of God. We may add further that the hope for redemption from this state of brokenness is also fit material for the artist. (43)

And he then continues:

In fact, we may propose as a principle that the themes of all great art— whether produced by Christians or non-Christians— are the world and human life as they came from the hand of God; the world and human life as they now are subject to sorrow, sin, and death; and the world and human life as we long for and look forward to their restoration. Which theme predominates will vary from piece to piece in the work of any particular artist, and will vary from artist to artist depending on his or her belief system and experience of life. I refer to this reality as “echoes of Eden”: echoes of creation, fall, and redemption in the arts. (43, emphasis mine)

With this framework in place, 1 chapter 4 turns to how we can judge the arts. Barrs gives a list of what he thinks should be the “beginnings” or appropriate criteria:

  • We need to ask whether giftedness from God is evident in the work of a particular composer or performer of music, poet or novelist, painter, sculptor, or filmmaker. (54)
  • We should look for the dedicated development of the artist’s gift through humble learning from others, through practice, and through faithful application— in other words, through hard work as the artist lives as a good steward of the gift God has given. (55)
  • We should find a commitment by artists to use their gifts for others as well as for their own fulfillment. For the Christian who is an artist, the most significant other to serve will be the Lord. (56)
  • There will be humble submission to the rules of one’s discipline, respect for its traditions, and a readiness to find freedom of expression within these forms and within the forms of God’s created order. (57)
  • We must ask ourselves, is this work of art true? (57) 2
  • We need to bring any work of art before the bar of moral criteria. (59) 3
  • We must ask questions about appropriate continuity between the form and the content of a given work of art. (61)
  • In art as in any other area of human endeavor, we need to look for technical excellence. (61)
  • We should have a concern for how well a work of art reflects the integrity of the artist. (62)
  • We should expect to see integrity in the work itself. (63)
  • We should be aware that simple entertainment is fine in almost all the art forms, for God has indeed created us to enjoy his gifts and to enjoy one another’s gifts. (63)

After giving us the start on artistic criteria, Barrs rounds out part 1 with a final chapter discussing the main avenues of God’s general revelation. In doing so, he gives more detail to how he understands the “echoes of Eden” to work. The avenues, since you are curious, are:

  • Creation
  • Human persons
  • God’s Providential care
  • God’s Rule over the history of the nations
  • The echoes of Eden

Regarding this last avenue, Barrs says,

All over the world there is a sense that our present life in this world is one of having lost our way from our original dwelling place, a place that was better and more beautiful than the place in which people now live.

All over the world there is the knowledge that our present condition is one of alienation and rebellion, that we are not all we should be, that there is brokenness and tragedy in all of human life.

All over the world there is a longing for this brokenness to be set right, and there is the hope for a redeemer. Some of these elements of the biblical story are present in almost every nation’s story about the past. Some contain very particular parts of the biblical account of our origins, like the almost universal existence of flood legends.

In addition there is the widespread presence of sacrifice as a means of atonement. Consider this example reported by a friend of mine who was an intermediate technology missionary in a remote part of Nepal. During his first years there he was astonished when the village celebrated its fall festival of atonement. The people took a young goat, a kid, tore it to pieces, and consumed it till none of its flesh was left. They did this to take away the sins of the community. (75)

Barrs sees these echoes primarily deposited in literature, which is then the focus of the second half of the book. However, before he goes there, he offers this encouragement:

Christians today need to be prepared to utilize these echoes of Eden wherever they are found, just as did the apostles Paul and John and the Old Testament prophets. The biblical authors used these echoes because pagan religions did indeed contain memories of the true story of our fall into sin and sorrow, our present plight under the powers of darkness, and the hope for a redeemer. (84)

For the final five chapters, Barrs applies this foundation to the C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, the works of Shakespeare, Harry Potter, and Jane Austen. Along the way he shows readers how to read literature well, as well as how to see the echoes of Eden. It helps that the authors he chose intentionally wove them into their writings, but Barrs method would work well with any well written literature, partly because he claims (rightly so) that great literature depends on utilizing these echoes of Eden so it will resonate with humanity. 4

Overall, I found this an outstanding book and would consider it a must read for anyone who takes the arts in general seriously, and literature in particular. It would be interesting to take Barrs’ ideas about the “echoes of Eden” and apply it elsewhere within pop culture, and maybe that’s just something I might pursue later. In the meantime, I would highly recommend reading Barrs work. It is clear and accessible, steeped in good ole’ Reformed theology of creation (specifically Calvin’s) and is conversant with other thinkers who thought well of culture. Also, his take on Harry Potter is worth the price of the book if you’ve enjoyed the series but taken flak from other Christians who still think it is somehow demonic. Don’t but the book just for that, but consider it an added bonus to a work that is a theologically rich exegesis of culture in light of God’s revelation within it.

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Notes:

  1. I am quoting from Barrs extensively both so you can see him articulate his thesis in his own words and because I have the Kindle edition where a block quote is just a Ctrl + C and Ctrl + V away
  2. As Barrs notes about this one: “Here we come to a more difficult issue. Very few artists would question the first four points that I have made, but when one begins to speak of truth, people become wary. This is especially so in our postmodern setting, where talk of truth is seen as an attempt to impose one’s views on other people. Is this another DWEM (dead white European male), or in this case another LWEM (a live white European male), insisting that everyone else think the way he does? Let me define briefly what I mean by truth. My criterion will be very simple: Is this work of art in accord with reality?
  3. Again he notes: “this is a challenging issue to set forth in our moment of history. Am I demanding a new moral police force to oversee the arts? That is not my point. I am not suggesting that we can readily judge and dismiss works because they have nudity, violence, explicit sex, blasphemy, or cursing. Our judgments must learn to be wiser than those simple tests. Basically, we must be prepared to ask questions about the moral intention of the artist. Is the purpose of a work to deprave or corrupt? If a work contains immoral behavior or evil, what is the context? It should be evident to us that the Bible contains many accounts of wicked behavior, sometimes very graphically portrayed. Works of art must not necessarily be condemned because they contain such sin and violence; rather, context and intention always have to be considered.”
  4. Incidentally, this was one of the claims of my Th.M thesis, but in relation to film. I don’t develop it nearly as well as Barrs, but then again, I haven’t been around the block quite like Barrs either