Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Meeting Haiku, no. 2

A friend sent me this; we were both in the same meeting:

Meeting running long
Having no Blackberry
Envying Sean Lucas.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Best Practices?

Meeting Haiku, no. 1

Sitting at table
wondering why I am here
at this long meeting.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

My preppy name

Apparently, my preppy name is "Ives Waverley Truxton the Second; but most people know you as Kip." I do have to say that I always wished I had a cool nickname--like Skip or Kip or Chip...Sean is a hard name to do much with.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Penchant for Hyperbole

Have you noticed how our public commentators have been engaging their penchant for hyperbole? For example, in the Wall Street Journal last week, an article opened with the question: "let's play this week's favorite parlor game: are we in another Great Depression?" There was a similar question asked in the USA Today this past Monday. By any measure, isn't a bit hyperbolic to compare our current financial recession (with its 6.1% unemployment) to the Great Depression (with its 24% unemployment)? When a quarter of our population is unemployed and in soup kitchen lines, then it would be appropriate to ask the question.

Likewise, with Obama's election to the presidency, the questions are being asked: is this the grand realignment, similar to 1980 when the nation turns in a particular direction? Does this reflect the new "liberal" mood of the nation? Again, this strikes me as hyperbolic: while the electoral college vote for Obama was significant, it wasn't any more impressive than Bill Clinton's thumping of an incumbent president in 1992. That year, Clinton carried Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Colorado (which also went for Obama); but also 2008 Red States Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Likewise, Clinton went in with large majorities in the House (258 seats) and Senate (57 seats); very similar to Obama's majorities (254 and 56). And yet, the past eight years demonstrated that the country can swing from side-to-side from cycle to cycle.

The real question then is why all the hyperbole (by meaning, hyperbole conveys extravagant exaggeration)? I've wondered whether this is our culture's hype machine--the only way to truly grab people's attention any more is to hype something as bigger or more significant than any other moment in time. Is it because we are so bored? Because it is so difficult to get our attention? Because we need to sell media time? Because we have a tendency to run to extremes? I don't know--but it strikes me that with the anxiety that so many feel these days, that perhaps we are engaging our penchant for hyperbole a little too much and revealing something about our hearts and our hopes.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

At Large and At Small

One of my favorite authors is Anne Fadiman. Formerly editor of Civilization and American Scholar, Fadiman came on my radar screen with her fabulous book of familiar essays on books and reading called Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. When she talked about her various book fetishes, and especially her detestation for those who mark their place in a book by flipping the book over in such a way that could potentially crack the spine--well, suffice it to say that I had a major crush on her. My wife knows that I secretly gave our daughter the middle name "Anne" to honor Anne Fadiman (and also Anne of Green Gables, but that is a different post). Because of my crush on Anne, I bought every issue of American Scholar in which her column, "At Large and At Small," appeared. Although she was forced out at the Scholar as editor, thankfully her essays have been collected and published as At Large and At Small. Once again, Fadiman demonstrates that she is the Queen of the Familiar Essay and friend of all those who enjoy the polite conversation of that form.

And so, she points the "gentle reader" to the biography of the perfecter of the familiar essay form, Charles Lamb ("The Unfuzzy Lamb"); to the champion of 19th century Romanticism and his penchant for running away ("Coleridge the Runaway"); and to her own history and biography as it merges in her passions for "collecting nature," "ice cream," and "coffee" (each with a laugh out-loud moment). But there are very thoughtful essays her as well, especially her reflections on the culture wars ("Procrustes and the Culture Wars") and on patriotism post-9/11 ("A Piece of Cotton").

These are essays to cherish not only because of the content, but because of the graciousness of form and style. I can almost imagine myself sitting across the table from her, sipping on a grande pumpkin spice latte, engaging in humorous and thoughtful dialogue (at least on her part). And in some regard, the best essay writers are able to engage in a dialogue with their readers in such a way that they take the common places of life and point them to something more. That is why they become such friends and why I return to Anne Fadiman's books again and again.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

El Hombre, no. 2

[For El Hombre, no. 1, see here]

For Cardinals fans, the season was not a complete loss (after all, the Cubs lost in the first round of the playoffs). In addition, Albert is collecting postseason awards: Sporting News' Player of the Year and MLBPA's NL Outstanding Player. Surely he is set up to win his second NL MVP this season.

Preaching what is true and precious

Wise words from John Piper:

A word to preachers. Truth and falsehood is a good pair of categories to use when deciding what to preach. Speak truth not falsehood.

But there is another crucial pair of categories. God tells Jeremiah that he must use this pair if he would be faithful: Therefore thus says the Lord: “...If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. (Jeremiah 15:19)

In deciding what to preach make these two judgments: Is it true and is it precious? Preach what is both. If it is true, preach it with authority. If it is precious, preach it with passion.

One great reason why some preaching leaves people unmoved is that preachers seem unmoved. Is this precious or isn’t it? That is the question in the hearts of the people. If it is, why don’t you sound like it?

The great battle of preaching is to see what's true and to savor what's precious. Weak seeing and weak savoring are a curse to God’s people.

Brothers, plead for deliverance from this curse. The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. They are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey (Psalms 19:9-10).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wendell Berry on the Web

For whatever reason, I've just now stumbled across Wendell's publisher website that has an excellent set of resources for his writing, especially a map of Port William and a genealogy of the town. These things were flyleaves for his recent books, but now you can print out PDF versions, which could save you having to flip back and forth to keep everything straight.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bear Market

I'd be lying if I said I was unconcerned by the eight days (counting today) of major losses that the NYSE has absorbed. Each day, I get to work and have the NYSE website up following the market; each day, I see the Dow get hammered; and each day, I go home a bit depressed.

I'm not depressed for myself--I have hardly any stocks except in my 403(b) plan and I'm young enough that I would expect that these losses will be recouped down the road. But I think about all those who are hurting as a result of these losses--a friend whose wife's stock has dropped from $59 to $2; a family member who has to guide his organization through these difficult times; another family member who just retired and now is wondering whether he left too early. I think about our endowment and the endowments of other evangelical seminaries; I think about those saints in our congregations who support ministries through their stock dividends.

No doubt there are those whose lives are characterized by greed. But it is important to remember those people (and institutions) who have invested funds in the stock market as a way of supporting their families, funding their retirements, or even supporting their biblical and spiritual mission.

It is at these times that my heart and mind are pulled back to Psalm 62: "For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him;God is a refuge for us." I take my heart to God--he is a refuge and a rock, even in a world that seems like it is shaking. I can pour my heart out to him, because he hears in his strength and his might. And I find him to be salvation and glory, even when I find I must tighten my belt a bit. I wait for God in silence and hope that he will speak.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Green Bible

I'm not sure we need this. The official website is here. The features: "Green-Letter Edition: verses and passages that speak to God's care for creation highlighted in green" and "A personal green Bible trail guide." Hmmm.

After the Baby Boomers

While American evangelical leaders pay attention to sociological data, they more typically read George Barna or Thom Rainer, church growth experts who utilize social trends to chart the way forward for churches. The person to whom these leaders should pay attention is Robert Wuthnow. The Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Wuthnow has contributed seminal books that have set the conversation for understanding American religion, particularly The Restructuring of American Religion (1988). What sets him apart from both professional sociologists and evangelical church growth gurus is his coupling together of sociological rigor with a deep love for Christianity and the church.

This combination makes After the Baby Boomers important reading for all those who desire to reach and teach our current generation of young adults. Wuthnow suggested that most sociologists of religion as well as congregational leaders still remain overly focused on the Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), both as a subject of study as well as potential influence on American religion. Against this, he noted that the current generation of young adults (those born between 1965 and 1981) represent a significant share of the population and demand appropriate research that demonstrates continuities and discontinuities with the ways their parents approached Christianity.

As the major contribution to such research, Wuthnow observed that “the single word that best describes young adults’ approach to religion and spirituality—indeed life—is tinkering” (p. 13; emphasis his). This tinkering approach was clearest in the chapter on spirituality: there Wuthnow helpfully broke down the younger generation’s tendency both to “church shop” (which “involves tinkering with one’s religious loyalties by looking for a congregation to attend” and eventually join) and “church hop” (which “involves going from one congregation to another, rather than settling into a single congregation”; pp. 114-5). He suggested that this generation of young adults is more likely to shop for a church home or hop from church to church because of greater mobility, higher social class of parents, generally higher education levels than previous generations.

Young adults’ also seem to tinker with their beliefs. While opinion polls suggest that young adults are neither less orthodox nor more secular than previous generations, Wuthnow noticed that these young people are more likely to engage in “pick-and-choose orthodoxy” that suggests a hedging that allows them to honor traditional beliefs while making their way through the modern world. For example, an young adult may affirm both that the Bible is without error and literally true and that other religions provide pathways of salvation; or he or she may affirm both the biblical account of creation and scientific evolution without worrying about how to harmonize the two accounts.

All this raises the issue of choice, which is seen as an American cultural good and a key value for young adults. Empowered to make determinations about work, schooling, marriage, beliefs, and values in ways that are fairly unprecedented in world history, this generation of young people utilizes its power to choose in ways that are creative at times and banal at others. Creativity comes in approaches to belief: while a young person may be raised in a Christian congregation, he may couple Christianity with thoughts from the Qur’an, The Celestine Prophecy, New Age, and Buddhism (cf. pp. 113-4). On the other hand, it appears that young people value popular culture—and particular streams of it—as meaningful for their spiritual journeys. For example, one of the most important spiritual contexts for prayer or meditation, more important than reading the Bible, is listening to music. And the music these young people prefer is overwhelmingly contemporary pop or rock music; far from being musical omnivores, this generation speaks the language of (generally banal) pop music.

That said, surprisingly, this generation does not want contemporary Christian or gospel music in their worship services. While Baby Boomers overwhelmingly prefer that kind of music for worship, the younger generation does not. In fact, only 12 percent of those in their twenties whom Wuthnow surveyed said “they would like to see their congregation have a service featuring contemporary music” (p. 224). However, young adults see culture as providing important means for answering the deeper questions of life and desire their congregations to engage with contemporary music, movies, and the arts as important for spirituality.

In the end, the most important factor for involving young people in congregations resides with young people themselves: marriage and children. Wuthnow’s study showed the least represented age group within congregations to be twenty-somethings; these young people come back to the church in their thirties as they married and had children. However, Wuthnow pointed out that the thing that should give congregational leaders pause is that this generation is either marrying later and having children later or not even marrying or reproducing at all. In addition, this generation is even more committed than their parents to the type of lifestyle which demands two incomes in the household. As a result, churches must be creative in figuring out how to minister to single adults in their twenties while preparing to assist them as they marriage and have children in their thirties.

Often witty, always insightful, I found Wuthnow’s book a rich feast for thinking about the generation of students which I teach. But I also found it interesting to read about my own generation; as a Gen Xer (born 1970), it was fascinating to see attitudes which I shared as well as ways in which I differed. There were so many places that I said to myself, “Yes, he’s got that right.” As a result, those who care about this rising generation of young people cannot afford to miss this book.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New Covenant Seminary websites

Today, we launched three new websites in place of our previous websites. We know have a new Covenant Seminary-specific website with new faculty pages; a redone "Worldwide Classroom" site (that replaces our Covenant Worldwide site); and a new Living Christ360 website, which is the media ministry of the Seminary with daily broadcasts and devotionals from Bryan Chapell. Obviously with any new website, we have some kinks to work out; still, they are wonderful upgrade over what we had previously.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

American Denominational History

Yesterday, in my mailbox, a copy of a new book arrived to which I contributed an essay, American Denominational History: Perspectives on the Past, Prospects for the Future, edited by Keith Harper (University of Alabama Press, 2008). These are mainly historiographical essays on denominational history that chart the past fifty years and propose new directions for the future:
  • Catholic Distinctiveness and the Challenge of American Denominationalism by Amy Koehlinger
  • New Directions on the Congregational Way by Margaret Bendroth
  • Presbyterians in America: Denominational History and the Quest for Identity by Sean Michael Lucas (you can read this essay here, here, and here)
  • From the Margin to the Middle to Somewhere In Between: An Overview of American Baptist Historiography by Keith Harper
  • "Everything Arose Just as the Occasion Offered": Defining Methodist Identity through the History of Methodist Polity by Jennifer L. Woodruff Tait
  • Black Protestantism: A Historiographical Appraisal by Paul Harvey
  • Mormon Historiography by David J. Whittaker
  • Interpreting American Pentecostal Origins: Retrospect and Prospect by Randall J. Stephens
  • "We're All Evangelicals Now": The Existential and Backward Historiography of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism by Barry Hankins

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Seen on the web

This is a new semi-regular installment of things (TV voice, please) "SEEN...ON THE WEB":

Carl Trueman's brilliant piece on Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, especially the end: "Theological students should reach for Machen's little book every year to remind themselves that orthodoxy does not equate to obscurantism, but that there is something really at stake here in the struggle between orthodox, supernatural Christianity and everything else. Indeed, I would venture to say that this is the second most important book that theologians could ever read."

The online conversation over the Denenominational Renewal conference talks, which on the whole has been wonderfully civil thus far. Yours truly posted today in response to Jeremy Jones' thought-provoking piece on "Renewing Theology."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Culture Making

A couple of days ago, I had some time to read on a flight to Philadelphia, and so was able finally to finish Andy Crouch's new book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. I have to admit that the pre-pub buzz around the book didn't make me very hopeful; as I've noted before on this blog, I'm a bit of a contrarian when it comes to various cultural phenomenon. If people tell me that something is a must-read, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

That said, I was pleasantly blown-away by Crouch's book. Several quick thoughts:

Divided in three major sections (Culture, Gospel, and Calling), he covers all the major ground in ways that surprise and often delight. For example, his working definition of culture ("culture is what we make of the world" p. 23) is helpfully teased throughout the book, especially in the "Gospel" section where he provided a biblical-theological telling of culture.

Not only this, but it strikes me that seeing culture as a human artifact coheres nicely with anthropological and various theological understandings of culture (thinking of Clifford Geertz and H. Richard Niebuhr). Thankfully, Niebuhr's taxonomy doesn't appear in the book until the book is 2/3rds through; this has the salutary effect of actually doing "new" and helpful work on the issue outside of the conventional wrestling with the classic taxonomy.

I loved the approach of talking about "postures" and "gestures" toward culture. To me, this seems to incorporate George Marsden's observation (to which more people need to pay attention) that the Niebuhrian taxonomy is limited because the various "Christ v. culture" approaches can actually occur at the same time. Crouch recognizes this when he talks about postures as our "learned but unconscious default position" and gestures as an appropriate move or response toward particular opportunities and/or challenges. And so, condemning, critiquing, copying, or consuming culture can all be appropriate gestures or even postures depending on circumstance and the cultural good considered.

One of the best sections on the book was the chapter on "power." So many unconsciously imbibe the postmodern critique of power without recognizing the reality of power and authority when it comes to culture. Not only does Crouch defend well cultural power as a "good," granted by God, but also suggests a Christian approach to the use of power, namely service. Helpfully juxtaposing Princess Diana and Mother Teresa as types of power, I found this to be an extremely helpful and important chapter.

One last thing to praise was the chaste humility of the book. The chapter, "why we can't change the world," was exactly the right tonic for so much of evangelical (and Reformed/Kuyperian) cultural transformation rhetoric. Rather, God is the one who is transforming culture; that is his mission, not ours. [One place that is starred in my copy: "Beware of world changers--they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin" p. 200] God's call to us is to pay attention to what the Maker of the world is doing in his world and to join in his culture making. While some may find this chapter deflating, it was actually quite encouraging to me--I could never figure out how to change the world anyway.

All to say, Culture Making probably is one of those rare must-read books that comes along every so often. A book of rare learning, helpful and accessible synthesis, and godly humility, it might actually change the evangelical culture on how to make and engage culture. If so, all I can say is thanks be to God.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rock n' Roll and Redemption

In yet another book that attempts to find all the redemption offered beneath a dirty hood, here is a new book on The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen (somewhere my dad is groaning). Although I'm not sure how much a Unitarian Universalist minister-author really gets "the Gospel," these ten themes look intriguing enough to make me buy the book. I've done a talk on a similar topic, "A Reason to Believe: Spiritual Longing in the Music of Bruce Springsteen," so I think there is something to do this. Suffice it to say, I'm intrigued.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Keller and Edwards

If one needed more proof that Tim Keller has undeniable links with Jonathan Edwards, (try to) read his sermon notes here. Trying to discipher this reminded me of many hours trying to figure out JE's abbreviations and other preaching "symbols." (to put it kindly).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Observations from the BMW Champsionship, no. 2

Some observations from being at the BMW Championship yesterday:

Cool: old skinny guys wearing slouch hats with logos from tournaments thirty years ago; players who are willing to sign autographs during practice rounds; people who know who Bubba Watson is (unlike the guy I was sitting next to on the second hole); BMW owners (they get to park very close to the entrance); tournament planners (the first thing you walk into past the entrance is the merchandise tent--cha-ching).

Drool: tee-shirts; untucked shirts (this is a golf tournanment; tuck your shirt in and wear a belt); people who don't know anything about golf (I think it should be a requirement for people to know the four most recent major winners to go to a golf tournament); people who press up against the lines while sitting on the fairway so that you can see the tee box.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Observations from the BMW Champsionship, no. 1

Instead of buying Cardinals tickets this year, I dumped the whole amount into buying a week pass to the BMW Championship, which is being played in St. Louis this year. For those of you who follow golf, you know that the BMW is the renamed Western Open, which had been played in Chicago from 1962 to 2007. Now, it is a rotating tournament, moving between Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis.

I thought that buying the tickets was a no-brainer. They were allowing juniors to go free with a paying adult and this would be our big chance to see Tiger Woods (I followed Tiger and Jack at Jack's last PGA Championship in 2000 at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky). Well, obviously, following Tiger is not possible this year.

And it struck me that if Tim Finchem (commissioner of the PGA Tour) wanted to know what life would be like in professional golf without Tiger Woods, he is discovering it right now. Once Tiger had surgery on his knee in the days after his ridiculous victory at the US Open, it sucked the life out of the golf season. And it sucked the life out of important tournaments like the BMW Championship.

I mean, this should be important--the third of four playoff tournaments for the FedEx Cup with $10 million in the balance, tickets should have continued to sell, buzz should still have been generated, etc. But wandering around the golf course today, I was struck by how few people there really were there for a practice round and how little buzz there was on the course. Granted, the Deutsche Bank Championship just got done last night; the players arrived last night and this morning; and perhaps over the weekend, people will get into it. And granted, it is not fair to compare this to a major championship--I went to the Monday practice round for the 2000 PGA and the excitement was palpable.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder if Tiger were coming, whether it would have been different. I think it would have been: St. Louis has never seen Tiger up-close and personal (we would have in 2001, but the AmEx Championship was canceled because of 9/11). We would have gone crazy with Tigermania. There would have been 40,000 tickets sold (as opposed to 25,000) and people would have wanted to be there, even for a practice round.

Instead, it felt less like an important tournament and more like a side tour stop, less playoff and more John Deere Classic. It is a shame, really. I'll still be going to as many tournament rounds as possible. But it would have been great for St. Louis golf if it had been what we thought it was going to be.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


My favorite program, Pardon the Interruption (PTI), is always better when both Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon are present. They were very funny today...

The Surprising Work of God

Over vacation, one of the books I finished was Garth Rosell's new book, The Surprising Work of God. Rosell, former director of the Ockenga Institute at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, uses the relationship between Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham as a lens through which to understand modern evangelicalism. Suggesting that the period right around 1950 was crucial for contemporary evangelicals, Rosell explores some of the forgotten names and personalities of the period.

This book has some real strengths and stunning disappointments. For the strengths: 1) Ockenga deserved a book like this; a fascinating figure, the book reads like a biography for the first hundred pages. Rosell clearly has mined the riches of the Ockenga personal papers in order to present a compelling picture of this quintisential evangelical. 2) The focus on the 1950 Boston Crusade provided an interesting lens on Graham's ministry. My only regret here was that Rosell doesn't appear to have interacted with Peggy Bendroth's brilliant Fundamentalists in the City, which closes with the Graham campaign.
But the disappointments, candidly, outweighed the strengths. 1) There was a bit of distracting filler in the book: the lengthy introduction to historic evangelicalism (pp. 22-35) and the discourse on Charles Finney's contribution to education (pp. 189-95) serve as examples of material that a good editor should have removed. 2) Even more, while the 1950 Boston meetings were interesting, it wasn't clear that Rosell made the case that these meetings launched a worldwide movement. If anything, one could make that case for Graham's 1954 Harringay meetings or the 1945 Youth for Christ meetings in Chicago or a range of other important crusades.
3) Yet more, the book felt like it lost focus. While the main focus was Ockenga, the book spends the last three chapters outlining his vision for evangelicalism (Reclaiming the Culture; Renewing the Mind; Reaching the World); and then, it just stops. We go from the late 1950s to his death and the book is over. No mention, really, of the Fuller years (so interestingly covered by George Marsden in Reforming Fundamentalism that my wife actually read the book); no mention of Ockenga's presidency at Gordon-Conwell; no mention of Park Street's continued pulpit ministry in the 1950s and 1960s. The book just ends.
And that seems like the missed opportunity of this book. While Rosell could have painted a compelling picture of evangelicalism through the ministry of Harold John Ockenga, for whatever reason, the book's thesis became divided and ultimately lost. While it proved an interesting read for a summer vacation, it was not the important book on one of twentieth-century American evangelicalism's most important leaders that it could have been.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Finally saw the Boss

This past Saturday night, I was able to fulfill a long-standing desire and saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. It was an amazing concert--29 songs, almost three hours and fifteen minutes. I've clipped in what my favorite Springsteen website, Backstreets, wrote about it.

A real humdinger, and I like it like that. As the last notes of "Twist and Shout" died away, the buzz and general consensus was "best night of the tour." Of course, comparing these final Magic nights to performances from 2007 is like apples and socket wrenches. But no question, St. Louis was a peak performance, with a mind-blowing setlist and the energy to match. As the show stretched to three hours and 15 minutes, with two false endings to "Badlands," Mighty Max simply tearing up the drums, and three songs after "American Land"... Bruce didn't want to get off the stage, and the energized crowd didn't want to let him go.

It all started with "Then She Kissed Me," Bruce's spin on the Crystals classic that he last broke out in 1975. A delirious opener, a song I thought I'd never hear, but hey, we've come to expect such things this month. What I didn't expect was that it would be just the first of five classic covers in the set -- six, if you count the resurrected "Not Fade Away" intro to "She's the One." After granted requests for "Rendezvous" and a full-band "For You," Bruce returned to the signs and said, "As soon as we started doing these requests, people started getting very sassy. Very sassy. Trying to stump us with stuff we played 23 or 30 years ago. Tonight we'll challenge the band... and probably most of the audience, too!" Harold Dorman's "Mountain of Love" followed, a wall-of-sound cover that put me firmly on the path to Springsteen fanaticism when I first heard it on the Main Point '75 recording so many years ago. And in the nine-song encore, three more rock 'n' roll rave-ups -- "Detroit Medley," "Little Queenie," and "Twist and Shout" -- took it over the top.

But the oldies were only part of what shot this one into the stratosphere. Sizzling guitar on the return of a revitalized "Gypsy Biker," "Adam Raised a Cain," and the tour premiere of a muscular "Cover Me," Bruce taking two leads. And then there were the epics: "Backstreets," "Jungleland," and "Drive All Night." Traditional sing-alongs like "Hungry Heart" and "Sunny Day" went out the window to make room for this trio, and judging by the reaction, they were just as crowd-pleasing, if not more. "Backstreets" was played for a sign after "Mountain of Love" -- Bruce laughed, "We know this one!" After "Mary's Place," Steve could be seen miming a steering wheel to get the word around the stage. Bruce showed the "Drive All Night" sign to the crowd, and after an initial cheer there was an extraordinary hush, the whole place seeming to sit back to let it wash over. With the stage bathed in purple and blue light, it was a magical performance -- soulful, understated playing from the band led to tremedous crescendos, and then, if anyone had forgotten, Clarence reminded us of his power on that horn. "Better than Giants Stadium," a friend said to me halfway through the song... and it only got better from there.

For the first "extended play" song after "American Land," Springsteen decided to set a wrong right. "We got the hometown of Bob Costas here, am I right?" In case you haven't followed the corrections coming out of NBC, both Costas and Brian Williams have offered mea culpas for reporting that Springsteen dedicated a song to Olympic wunderkind Michael Phelps -- "news" that thrilled Phelps himself -- when no such thing ever happened. Well, it hadn't happened until St. Louis. Costas had conculded his correction by writing: "Now if The Boss could just cover our butts by giving Mr. Phelps a shout-out on Thursday night in Nashville, or Saturday night in my hometown of St. Louis -- a show I’d definitely be at were I not in Beijing -- I think I'd feel a lot better." Though he didn't have a sign, Bruce decided to grant that request. He made good retroactively on the news reports, continuing with a knowing smile, "We're gonna send this one out to Michael Phelps. Eight golds -- whew!" And again, very deliberately, "To Michael Phelps," before launching into "Thunder Road." Not "Born in the U.S.A." as reported, but Bob, Brian... butts are covered, you're in the clear. (And Brian, thanks for the shout-out.)

From there, the whole place was fist-pumping go! go! go! for "Little Queenie" -- hey, this is Chuck Berry's hometown, too. And no one actually expected the band to stick around for yet another one, but a prominent sign reading "Sophie loves Bruce" was just the excuse Springsteen needed to keep things going. "We gotta do one for Sophie!" he shouted, kicking off "Twist and Shout" to wring the last drops of energy out of the Scottrade Center. Bless you, Sophie, wherever you are, and hail, hail rock 'n' roll.

Setlist: Then She Kissed Me/Radio Nowhere/Out in the Street/Adam Raised a Cain/Spirit in the Night/Rendezvous/For You/Mountain of Love/Backstreets/Gypsy Biker/Because the Night/Not Fade Away/She's the One/Livin' in the Future/Cover Me/Mary's Place/Drive All Night/The Rising/Last to Die/Long Walk Home/Badlands* * *Encore: Girls in Their Summer Clothes/Jungleland/Detroit Medley/Born to Run/Dancing in the Dark/American Land/Thunder Road/Little Queenie/Twist and Shout

Dr. Wilber Wallis (1912-2008)

It is with great sorrow that we announce the recent passing of one of the Seminary's founding fathers and a great man of faith: Dr. Wilber B. Wallis, who went to be with the Lord on Wednesday, August 20, 2008. Dr. Wallis, who had been in declining health for several years, died peacefully in St. Louis, Missouri. He was 95 years old. The entire Seminary community grieves with Dr. Wallis's family and friends at the loss of this faithful servant of God, yet we rejoice as well that he is now face to face with the Savior whom he loved so much.

A founding member of the Covenant Seminary faculty, Dr. Wallis had a full and illustrious career as a pastor, scholar, administrator, and dedicated churchman. He taught in the Seminary's New Testament department from 1956 until his retirement in 1982, when he was granted emeritus status. In addition, Dr. Wallis translated the book of Acts for the New International Version of the Bible, was a contributor to the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible and the NIV Study Bible, and, along with his wife, Marie (who preceded him in death by several years), the co-author of Troop School for Christian Soldiers, a manual for instructing children in the Christian faith.

We extend deepest sympathies to the family, friends, and colleagues of this remarkable man. Though he will be sorely missed by all who knew and loved him, we celebrate his life of faithful service and look forward to the day when we will be reunited with him in glory.

A memorial service for Dr. Wallis will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 28, at The Covenant Presbyterian Church, 2143 North Ballas Road, St. Louis, MO 63131. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Wilber B. and Marie C. Wallis Scholarship Award Fund at Covenant Theological Seminary.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Back in the saddle again

Well, I'm officially back at work. Actually, that happened on Monday, but today was the first day that I was able to get away to blog. Our vacation was wonderful--I got up Mt. Pisgah, went to Devil's Courthouse, had lunch on Sam Knob, and prayed Psalm 8 on John's Rock. We splashed in Courthouse Falls (and Hooker Falls; Triple Falls; and Bridal Veil Falls); played lots of Rook; and watched the sun set each night beyond Toxaway Mountain. It was a very good time away.

Also read a bit. I took all those books, but only finished four: Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible; Eugene Peterson's Working the Angles; Garth Rosell's Surprising Work of God; and William Guthrie's The Christian's Great Interest. Now, it is time to crank up for the semester--this is retreat week when the Seminary President's Cabinet retreats on Monday and Tuesday; the faculty on Thursday; and we welcome the new students on Friday. We are also moving into our new Founders Hall (I'm sitting on the floor in my current office right now; my secretary thought it was so funny, she took a picture). Sometime I need to finish my syllabi (I'm teaching Ancient and Medieval Church History; Story of Christianity; and Jonathan Edwards).

It was good to be back home on Sunday, to worship at our church and to preach there in the evening. And it was good to sit at a meeting today with faculty and enjoy the brotherhood we have. Even though I miss the mountains, it is good to start a new semester and to appreciate God's calling to this place and task at this time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh my sweet Carolina

By the time you read this, we'll be on the road heading to western North Carolina for three weeks of vacation time. Week one will be at Ridge Haven, where Covenant Seminary's dean of faculty, Jimmy Agan, and I will be teaching/preaching. Weeks two and three will be on top of a mountain at an undisclosed location outside of Brevard, NC.

I've been collecting some books to read while we are on top of the mountain. Here's what I've got:
Previously started:
Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible;
William Guthrie's A Christian's Great Interest;
Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers;
Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care.

Not yet started:
N. T. Wright's Evil and the Justice of God;
Garth Rosell's A Surprising Work of God;
Samuel Bolton's The True Bounds of Christian Freedom
I don't know exactly what will get finished (or what will get added to my piles). But it will be nice to meander through these books. I've also been plugging away at the first volume of The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales; that is good put-me-to-sleep reading.

I'm also looking forward to hiking this summer. Over the past several weeks, I've rediscovered hiking again; slowly working my way through 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: St. Louis. We've been building up stamina so that we can tackle some longer hikes. I especially want to hike Mt. Pisgah and some of the other trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway as well as trails off US276 between Brevard and the BRP. My 10-year old hiked with me this past Saturday (in 95 degree heat); all of us hiked a trail last night (in the rain). I'm sure my kids will tell stories of this when I'm old and decrepit.

This year I decided to try to avoid doing any teaching or preaching over vacation (except for Ridge Haven, which gets us a third week in WNC). I'm not very good with "boundaries" (I know for some that is a controversial word; oh well); but I'm trying to communicate to my family that when I'm on vacation with them, that I'm with them entirely (or as entirely as possible). So, very, very limited email; no blogging or facebook; no speaking. Lots of Dutch Blitz, hiking, swimming in the lake. Should be fun; see you all when I get back!

Friday, July 25, 2008

New Wendell Berry story

I don't know if you saw this new Wendell Berry short story in the current Atlantic Monthly, but it is very, very good.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why bother?

Okay, I'm a big U2 fan, but this 30-second video purporting to give me a "peak behind the scenes in Dublin where the band is making their new record" does nothing for me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Watching Joel Osteen

Last night as I was flipping the channels during a second straight depressing late-inning loss by my Cardinals, I happened onto Joel Osteen's program. As someone professionally-trained as an American religious historian, it was striking to watch Osteen once again and note both the themes of his message and the manner of his method. In both respects, his popularity is not the result of originality, but his skillful repacking of positive thinking/self-esteem and Pentecostal/charismatic elements. [On this particular episode, his wife Victoria was presiding at the Lord's Table. While watching that gave me the shivers, it was also striking how much less skillful and how much more plastic she was compared to Joel.]

While there were a lot of things to critique, I couldn't help but ask the historian's analysis questions: why does this message appeal to so many (upwards of 15,000 attend services at Lakewood Church each weekend)? what are the verbal and facial cues that draw people in? why does it seem that Lakewood is amazingly interracial (a fact that is much more common in Pentecostal-oriented churches than Reformed); how do you account for that?

I think the driving reason that Osteen is hugely popular is that he sells hope. Books like Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You provide a message of hope that my life does not have to be the way it is right now; that God is powerful and able to change my life; that God is profoundly interested in my life and is near to me. And while that message of hope is packaged in the code language of the prosperity Gospel and positive psychology (like the phenomenally successful book by Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier), at the end of the day, people leave Lakewood feeling as though there is a greater meaning and purpose for their lives.

As I thought about all this, though, I couldn't help but think about John Piper's question from God is the Gospel (and other places): do you delight more in the fact that God makes much of you in the Gospel or that the Gospel frees you to make much of God? The fault in Osteen's message is that it overplays and wrongly prioritizes the fact that God makes much of us (and God does make much of us: as I read in my morning worship today, God cried out to a wayward Israel, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim?...My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender" Hosea 11:8).

The biblical priority is that God in the Gospel rescues, delivers, frees and sustains us to make much of God. He is the great good in the Good News--and it truly is amazing: that God would save his wayward children for the fame of his name; would shape worshippers who will find their deepest satisfaction in making much of God; and would gather together a worldwide body of worshippers who hallow his name!

And that is the great hope: not that our material position would be better or our relationships grow stronger. Rather, our great hope is that the steadfast, committed love of our God is transforming us into worshippers who find their hearts satisfied in God himself.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coalescing Conservative Dissent

I gave a paper for the Westminster Confession for Today conference at the 2007 PCA GA in Memphis entitled, "Coalescing Conservative Dissent: Southern Presbyterians and Confessional Revision in the 1930s." Those who want to hear the talk and the Q&A can find it here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

10 Reasons Gen Xers are Unhappy at Work

A fascinating take from Harvard Business Publishing; the ten reasons:

1. X’ers’ corporate careers got off to a slow start and many are still feeling the pain.

2.When you were teens, X’ers witnessed adults in your lives being laid off from large corporations, as re-engineering swept through the business lexicon. This engendered in most X’ers a lack of trust in large institutions and a strong desire for a life filled with back-up plans, just in case.

3. Most corporate career paths “narrow” at the top – the perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X’ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path.

4. Just your luck – the economy was slow when you entered the workforce and now its slowing once again – just as you are standing at the threshold of senior management.

5. And then there are those pesky Gen Y’s. Many X’ers are charged with “managing” Y’s which – let’s face it – is an impossible task, at least if you define “manage” as controlling their channels of communication.

6. X’ers are, in fact, surrounded by a love fest – and not feeling the love. Boomers and Y’s are learning from each other – and enjoying their interactions. It’s easy to feel left out.

7. X’ers are the most conservative cohort in today’s workforce – and you’re surrounded by “shake ‘em up” types on both sides.

8. Many X’ers’ are guarding a closely held secret: you’re not all as comfortable with the technology that is changing the way things are done as everyone seems to think you are.

9. And if Boomer colleagues are annoying, the Boomer parents of your Y reports are down-right over-the-top.

10. Finally, your own parenting pressures are at a peak.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Not sad to see this

Billy Packer, notable apologist for Kansas, UNC, and Duke, is leaving CBS to be replaced by Clark Kellogg. Whenever Packer is doing a game, I generally turn the sound down, especially during the Final Four. Now if only Dick Vitale, the other Duke apologist, would retire...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Resurrecting Excellence

Over the past few days, I've been posting quotes from L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong's book, Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (you can find these here, here, and here). This morning I finished the book and found it a valuable piece of work and useful for a variety of applications.

The book appears as part of the Pulpit and Pew series, a publishing partnership between Eerdmans and Duke Divinity School's Pulpit and Pew: Center for Excellence in Ministry. The books in this series are important investigations into the lives of clergy from a variety of angles: historically (Brooks Holifield's new book God's Ambassadors), sociologically (Jackson Carroll's God's Potters and Dean Hoge's Pastors in Transition), and theologically (Resurrecting Excellence). The entire series will repay thoughtful reading and reflection by church leaders, sessions, and theological educators.

Resurrecting Excellence not only plays a role as the theological statement for the series; it also serves as the key book summarizing initial findings in Lilly Endowment Inc.'s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program (SPE). As I've noted previously, Covenant Seminary has participated in SPE and recently received a major re-grant to sustain the programs associated with our programs. As a result, this book is vital for developing a theological understanding of what the endowment (and its major partner, Duke Divinity School) hoped to accomplish through the program.

Because the book is written for these purposes, it is written in a style that may turn some readers off. For those of us in the academic world and especially the world of the Association of Theological Schools and other accrediting agencies or the world of various endowments (whether Lilly, Pew, or Luce), the style is familiar. However, if one simply sticks with the book (I read a chapter a morning for six consecutive mornings), there are enough jewels (as I've already posted) to justify the effort.

At the center of the book is the multivalent metaphor, "resurrecting excellence." Playing off the theological theme "resurrection," Jones and Armstrong note both the power of the resurrection is necessary for pastoral excellence as well as the need to resurrect excellence in ministry, especially among mainline Protestants. The way to see such a resurrection is through a vision of pastoral ministry that "inhabits the intersections" between faith and life (chapter 2); an embrace of a richer and more thoroughly developed sense of Christian and pastoral vocation (chapters 3 and 4); a focus on lifelong learning to sustain pastoral ministry over the long haul (chapter 5); and care for those institutions and resources necessary to support pastoral ministry (chapter 6).

For pastoral leaders who often don't spend much time thinking about their callings from a macro-perspective, this book would be a brief yet useful conversation starter. In addition, for pulpit committees or sessions who are thinking through pastoral leadership or for struggling congregations that need to move from ministry mediocrity to excellence, there were a number of helpful thoughts here that would stimulate greater reflection and creativity. I particularly profited from the stories (especially the final story on pp. 175-6) which stirred the imagination or gave voice to my own pastoral longings.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Necessity of Institutions

In a day when people question whether institutions (whether denominations, seminaries, or so-called "big-steeple churches") are worth sustaining, I found these words helpful: from Jones and Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence, 127-8:

Too often, and particularly in recent decades, Christians in America have taken the wrong things for granted: the existence of religious institutions, for example. We have presumed that their permanence is a given and that our key task is to manage them as the regrettably necessary structures for the practices and friendships that really give life to Christian community. The unfortunate result is that many of them have lost their Christian vitality, their Christian focus and direction. This is true of congregations as well as judicatories, of seminaries and colleges as well as health care institutions--indeed, whole networks of religious institutions whose ecology has been crucial to shaping Christina life and imagination.

Part of the problem, as we have already suggested, is that we have too often accepted the romantic view that real vitality is to be found in practices and friendships, and institutions are at best necessary evils...We carry with us a mistaken myth that institutions are at best the necessary chaff that we must winnow in order to find the pure wheat of the gospel. But that is not faithful to Scripture (it ignores Israel and its institutions, among other things), and it is not faithful to the empirical realities of our life together. We need to reclaim an understanding of what is involved in the creation and renovation, sustenance and extension of institutions that do need criticism from time to time. But the romantic notion that we are somehow going to find a purer community apart from the reality of institutions is fallacious.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Spiritual Ministry of Administration

From Richard Lischer, "The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation," Interpretation 59 (2005): 173.

Administration, so despised by the high-minded and neglected by the seminaries, takes on real meaning when it is understood as an extension of the most important administrative work of all, the administration of the sacraments. The unproductive hours and busy work that all pastors complain of can be traced to the broken connection between administration as a secular tool and the administration of word and sacraments as a spiritual discipline. Pastoral administration, or stewardship, begins with stewardship of God's mysteries.

Pastoral vocation and the ministry of the Word

From Richard Lischer, "The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation," Interpretation (2005): 168:

Today we find the church cautiously distancing its ministry from the word of God. It does so under the modern pressure of professionalism and the postmodern impulse to pluralism, both of which are offended by spoken affirmations of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a matter of public policy, the wider culture still wants something like ministry, much in the way it encourages volunteerism and philanthropy, but it thinks it can have it without the word of God. Faith-based initiatives are welcome; preaching is not.

Stripped of its word, however, the ministry disintegrates. Without its organizing principle of acknowledgement, the pastor's calling relapses into the chaos of busywork. The minister is sliced, diced, and cubed into a thousand contacts and competencies but left without a heart of passion in the word, without a vocation.

Discerning Who (and Whose) We Are

One of the hardest things for me, as well as the students whom I serve, is to discern accurately our own gifts and callings. Attending to God's own guidance in that process of discerning is particularly challenging. However, it is far more important to be able to move from our own (perennial?) confusion about our gifts and callings to rest in the confession that "whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine" (Bonhoeffer).

These helpful words focused my heart this morning; perhaps they will yours. From L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (2006): 100-1

We human beings tend to be a complicated mixture of self-assertion and self-abnegation, caught in webs of self-deception of which we are unaware. So also do we tend to fail to discern accurately our own gifts and calling. We often get the discernment partially right, but also partially wrong. Over time, we seek to learn how to narrate our lives truthfully in ways that will enable us to discover the life that is really life.

We do so by locating our relation to God. Only God knows fully who we are. As we seek to identify how God is calling us to live by patterning our lives in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we discover how the particular, distinctive story of each of our lives can be returned to us redemptively.

Holy Friendships

From L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence: Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (2006), 65:

Why do we call them "holy" friendships? We do so for two reasons. First, these relationships are often unlikely to be developed apart from a mutual attraction to the gospel life. They bring people together from different backgrounds and histories, with diverse hopes and fears. And, second, they are oriented toward discernment and deepening of Christian vocation, as well as nurturing growth in the Christian life, toward our learning how to live as holy people. It is not that these friends must already be holy; indeed, given the shape of Christian life, that would be impossible. Holy friends are our companions on the journey of learning to desire and love God truly and faithfully.

How do holy friends shape us in our discernment, and in our growth? Holy friends are those who, over time, get to know us well enough that they can challenge sins we have come to love, affirm gifts we are afraid to claim, and dream dreams about how we can bear witness to God's kingdom that we otherwise would not have dreamed.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The "Good" in the "Good News"

From Jonathan Edwards, "God Glorified in the Work of Redemption," in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, et al (1999): 74-5:

The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ has purchased. God is the inheritance of the saints; he is the portion of their souls. God is their wealth and treasure, their food, their life, their dwelling place, their ornament and diadem, and their everlasting honor and glory. They have none in heaven but God; he is the great good which the redeemed are received to at death, and which they are to rise to at the end of the world.

The Lord God, he is the light of the heavenly Jerusalem; and is the "the river of the water of life" that runs, and the tree of life that grows, "in the midst of the paradise of God." The glorious excellencies and beauty of God will be what will forever entertain the minds of the saints, and the love of God will be their everlasting feast. The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things; they will enjoy the angels, and will enjoy one another: but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace

One of the great joys of the past couple of weeks of "summer break" has been all the books which I've had a chance to read. It has been like PhD studies, where one book led to another book which led to another book. An example of this kind of reading is the way Andrew Purves' Reconstructing Pastoral Theology led me to read (and finish before Purves) James B. Torrance's Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. I found the Torrance book to be thought-provoking and useful when read with a certain measure of discretion.

The useful emphasis is Torrance's repeated insistence that "Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son's communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession" (p. 15). By insisting repeatedly that Christian worship is Trinitarian (not unitarian), that the movement in worship is two-fold (from the Father through the Son in the Spirit to us; and from us in the Spirit through the Son to the Father), that the sole priest is Jesus Christ himself who mediates God's Word and presence to us and our prayers and praises to the Father, Torrance offers a richer theological framework for Christian life and worship.

In addition, I very much appreciated Torrance's emphasis upon baptism and the Supper in the context of worship and how his theological framework enriches our understanding of these sacraments. Especially important was his connections among water baptism, Christ's water baptism, and the Cross (pp. 74-81). I did wonder, however, how the ministry of the Word fit into all of this, especially with his strong advocacy of the Supper as the centerpiece of Christian worship ("The trinitarian view sees the Lord's Supper as the supreme expression of all worship" [p. 23]).

Discretion is needed at times. For example, while I agree that repentance is always a response to(and never the cause of) God's grace (as it is in our Standards; repentance follows effectual calling--God's move toward us is always first), I wondered a bit at the presentation (pp. 54-7). I also wondered when Torrance observed that "God is always the subject of propitiation, never its object" (p. 60). This seems to tie with his negative assessment of penal substitutionary atonement, but his own theological structure undercuts this. After all, if Christ is a priest who offers himself on behalf of his people, then to whom is Christ's offering himself? Whom is Christ propitiating? With whom is Christ an advocate (1 John 2:1-2)? Isn't it God himself?

Still, in the first 100 pages or so (the final chapter on gender, sexuality, and the Trinity seems a bit out of place), Torrance manages to provide a very important corrective to our understanding of Christian worship, enabling us to bear the name of Father, Son, and Spirit in a more consistent and authentic way. This little book will bear repeated re-readings and would provide good fodder for a conversation among those responsible for planning weekly Sunday worship.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace

I admit it--I'm a big Martyn Lloyd-Jones fan. As I've already noted previously, his Spiritual Depression was life-transforming, a book that God used to lead me into a deeper sense of assurance of God's love for me personally. I've also waded through Iain Murray's two-volume, authorized biography of Lloyd-Jones (hereafter MLJ), which I enjoyed thoroughly, and sundry other books. So, it was with great excitement that I bought the new Iain Murray book, Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace.

Though a collection of odds and ends (including an analysis of MLJ's sermons on Ephesians and an inventory of MLJ sermons), the emphasis in this book is on MLJ as "messenger." This is particularly the case in the first four chapters, which along with chapters 7 and 8 (the one on MLJ's book Joy Unspeakable, which has been a bit of an embarrassment for some Reformed types, and the other on the 1960s fracas with John Stott and J. I. Pakcer) justify both the existence and purchase of this book.

I found the chapter on the "Lloyd-Jones Legacies" particularly insightful; Murray noted that MLJ's legacies included:
  • an example of what a Christian minister ought to be
  • the truth that Christianity is a God-centered religion
  • local churches are always the primary means of evangelism
  • true preaching of the Word has life-changing power
  • the key to the times is the state of the church
  • the growth of the church depends on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit
Pretty good legacies all. Would that all of our ministries be characterized with similar legacies! Also valuable was the chapter on "preaching and the Holy Spirit," which focused on MLJ's thoughts regarding "unction." Woven through out this and other chapters was an emphasis upon prayer as the great necessity of effectively pulpit ministry; there is a reason why the apostolic commitment and order was to "prayer and the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4).

All in all, this is a valuable book, especially for those who find encouragement from the ministry of MLJ. One of the most valuable parts is the inclusion of a MLJ sermon on CD, enclosed in the back cover. Hearing MLJ made me want to purchase more Lloyd-Jones sermons from the MLJ Trust and to download regularly the MLJ broadcast from

Friday, June 27, 2008

Earthen Vessels

I'm going to stop referring to my original summer reading book list after this, because it is clear that I have no self-discipline when it comes to reading the books on that list! As another example, this morning I finished the new book by Dan Aleshire, Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools.

Aleshire is the executive director for the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), Covenant Seminary's main professional accreditor (ATS accredits over 250 theological schools which serve Roman Catholicism, mainline Protestantism, and evangelical Protestantism). While this book was a give-away at the ATS meeting this past weekend, I was glad to have it. For me, at least, the highlight of every ATS event is Aleshire's "state of the union" address, which typically closes each event; I have used his talks for faculty meeting or other smaller faculty development events. And so, it was with great anticipation that I started reading Earthen Vessels after I got home Monday night.

And I was not disappointed. In five readable and brief chapters, Aleshire offers nothing less than a primer on theological education, one that will immediately find its place on the Covenant Seminary faculty mentoring plan and its way into countless faculty, board, and administration hands. At its broadest, Earthen Vessels makes a case for theological education as vitally necessary for the spiritual formation necessary for religious vocation; but along the way, the book serves as a virtual commentary on the heart of key ATS accrediting standards.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say, "Wow, Sean; that's real exciting," it is important to recognize that accrediting standards are not merely rules, something like canon law or the rulebook for Major League Baseball or the United States Golf Association ("You violated rule 1.3.6a.8z; you are penalized two strokes"). Rather, at their best, accrediting standards embody educational aspirations; and at the heart of the ATS standards is this "overarching goal": "the development of theological understanding, that is, an aptitude for theological reflection and wisdom pertaining to responsible life in faith." In other words, the overarching goal of theological education is discipleship.

And the means for accomplishing the goal of discipleship are teaching, learning, and research. Seminaries serve as teaching and learning centers, in which faculty and students work together to gain the habits, attitudes, skills necessary for theological reflection and wisdom. So, while I may teach Ancient and Medieval Church History, what I'm really doing is partnering together with my students to learn habits of thought, attitudes and skills, which will ultimately produce wisdom and insight. As I typically say at the beginning of class, the basic questions I'm trying to answer are who are we and what has God called us to do in this world; history serves as a venue for asking and answering those questions. One could say that I'm engaged in historically-informed discipling.

In order to provide the necessary structures and processes for such discipleship, good governance and administration are required. As someone who spends far more of his time administrating than teaching or researching, I was particularly encouraged by this section. I think Aleshire is right when he observed that "leadership in the context of theological education guides the school in identifying the vision it should pursue and orchestrates the multiple tasks necessary to implement it" (p. 119). It is always striking to me how much of my own work as academic dean is incremental and process oriented; there are a huge number of tasks necessary to implement a single curricular or program change, hire a single faculty member, or produce the class schedule for the next year. But what I'm trying to do is to facilitate the growth and flourishing of others in appropriate ways; hence, administrative leadership is important for a Seminary (or any organization) to flourish.

Still, if this was all theological schools did--discipling students in order to provide them with wisdom and insight--it still might be hard to justify their existence. The fact is that theological schools, and their work of discipleship, exist for the church. It is easy for both the schools and the church to forget that reality; and yet, as Aleshire pointed out, "The church is necessary for the seminary, but the seminary is not necessary for the church" (p. 129). If the church were to stop sending students or hiring our graduates, Covenant Seminary would cease to exist. Hence, theological schools must see themselves as partners, and ultimately servants, of the church.

That is why I believe it such a blessing for Covenant Seminary to be the church's (as in the PCA's) seminary. It provides us with such a clear sense of mission; our sixth core value puts it this way: "We believe that, as the seminary of the PCA, it is our responsibility to provide intellectual training and ministry models that are true to the Westminster Standards and the historic distinctives of Presbyterian orthodoxy, while equipping the next generation of Christian servants for effective church leadership in a changing world. At the same time, because we recognize that a seminary alone can never fully equip students for these tasks, we seek to work in partnership with local churches to accomplish our purpose."

Not only does this provide a sense of mission, there is also a real accountability. Each General Assembly, key administrative staff meet with the Committee of Commissioners who review our work; our president gives a report to the entire body; and the Assembly elects teaching and ruling elders who make up our board. The entire church holds our school accountable to teach, learn, and research in ways that our consonant with our approved mission and core values. What a wonderful blessing this is! And how vital, as Aleshire points out, for the future, not only of our school, but of all theological schools--to remember that seminaries exist for the church and its mission of Gospel proclamation. We are discipling future ministers who will in turn disciple others for the extension of the church and its Gospel around the world.

And so, I found Earthen Vessels to be both an excellent summary and hopeful case for theological education. It will find a place in our key administrators' hands over the next school year and will serve to orient our faculty to this unique ministry in the years to come.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Faith as a Way of Life

Well, I finished another book this morning that wasn't on this list: Christian Scharen's Faith as a Way of Life. Originating out of Yale's Center for Faith and Culture and funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.'s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) program (Covenant Seminary also participates in this program), this book could serve as a summary report of Yale's SPE project. At the heart of the project and book is the conviction that pastoral excellence is "the ability effectively to mediate faith as an integral way of life to persons, communities, and cultures" (ix).

Scharen observes, however, that there are two major cultural obstacles that prevent such a vision of pastoral excellence: North Americans' commitment to compartmentalized and self-maximized lives. Even Christians allow their lives to devolve into separate spheres with religion serving as one of several; in response, pastoral leaders often serve as religious managers, assisting people manage that particular sphere without demanding any changes in others. And even Christians allow their focus to be on their own individualized success and comfort; in response, pastoral leaders often serve as therapists, providing unconditional love without necessary change. The obvious problem with these pastoral responses is that they reinforce cultural barriers to taking faith seriously as an integral and integrated way of life.

In order to model how faith can serve as an integral way of life, Scharen moves to four spheres that are often cordoned off from faith: kinship and family; work and economics; citizenship and government; and leisure and the arts. Through a process of theological reflection, Scharen offered particular practices that could serve as pastoral strategies as well as pastoral models that could stimulate pastoral imagination for the integration of a faithful way of life. The book concludes with a thoughtful reflection on pastoral leadership itself as a modeling of a faithful way of life, one that is drawn into God's own life and scattered into the world.

There was a great deal here which was helpful: gracefully written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, intellectually-grounded and yet accessible. However, since I'm also reading (another book not on my first list!) Andrew Purves' Reconstructing Pastoral Theology (a more complex and detailed version of his Crucifixion of Ministry), I was struck by how theologically thin this book felt at times.

For example, in each of the four spheres, Scharen offered discrete practices (table fellowship; testimony, communal discernment, making music), all of which may be pastorally appropriate. And yet, I wondered several things--how do these particular practices find their grounding in and flow from rich theological traditions? How do they reinforce a particular view of the world? What stories make sense of these practices over others--why these practices?

As with a great deal of the literature over the past ten years that emphasize practices or rituals (ranging from Dorothy Bass to Catherine Bell), there is almost a misbegotten faith that if we can simply inculcate practices that we will form people in appropriately spiritual ways. My contention is that practices divorced from a grounding in a thick theological tradition--a vision of who God is and who humans are, of sin and redemption, of things past and things to come--will not sustain people in the faith for the long haul. Rather, all they can produce is religious nominalism, which is a far cry from religious or pastoral excellence.

In this regard, I still think that Neal Plantinga's Engaging God's World serves as a model. Rooted in the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption-consummation, the practice of Christian vocation in this world has texture--we are living in this time between times as hope-filled signs of the new creation; we are participating in God's reconciling the world to himself; and we work under Christ's Lordship knowing that we are pleasing to him. That is not to say that the book I wished Scharen had written already existed; it is to say, however, that it would have been good to root pastoral excellence in a larger theological framework that would have made sense of the practices he chose.

In the end, I was glad to have read the book. As I said, it was well-written and very thought-provoking (more so than my 4th-grader's baseball game last night). In pointing to the goal--pastoral direction which assists Christians in living faithfully integral lives--Scharen has served us well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

One book that I didn't list here but bought at the airport before leaving for Atlanta on Thursday was Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. I've almost bought this book countless times and I'm glad that I finally did. In the best spirit of my favorite American author, Mark Twain, Bryson tells the story of his adventures on the Appalachian Trail (AT), accompanied by his trusty sidekick Stephen Katz. Undoubtedly the two most unlikely hikers on the AT, the adventures and hi-jinks had me chuckling all the way to Atlanta (to the annoyance, I'm sure, of my seatmate). Interspersed with the stories were historical tid-bits about the AT, environmental reflections on the regions the trail transversed, and well-aimed shots at the federal government's mismanagement of the park system. Perhaps the best praise for the book which I could offer was that it made me wish that I could hike parts of the Trail.

There were also a few poignant moments, especially when it was revealed that Katz, a recovering alcoholic, "fell off the wagon" and began drinking again. When confronted, Katz confessed:

"I never had more than three, I swear to God. I know what you're going to say--believe me, everybody's said it already. I know I can't drink. I know I can't have a couple of beers like a normal person, that pretty soon the number will creep up and up and spin out of control. I know that. But--" He stopped there again, shaking his head. "But I love to drink. I can't help it. I mean, I love it, Bryson--love the taste, love that buzz you get when you've had a couple, love the smell and feel of taverns..." (p. 258).

To me, this was so similar to what I've heard others say, to what I've said myself: people can't give up their addiction to sin because they love it far more than any alternative. For Katz, if the choice was lonely nights eating TV dinners by himself while sober or destructive nights drinking beer, wine, and booze with friends, it wasn't much of a choice. I kept wishing that someone could pop into the story with the Gospel, to tell Katz and Bryson that there was a deeply satisfying alternative: the steadfast love of God (Psalms 16:11; 63:1-3; and 90:14). This divine love has "explusive power" (as Thomas Chalmers would say); all broken and defective loves are driven out and all legitimate yet lesser loves are satisfied by God's own gracious love.

In the end, aside from a few crudities, I found this a very enjoyable read, a travel narrative that informed as well as teaching larger (and perhaps unintended) lessons. For summer reading, for what more could you ask?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Deliberate Church

As I noted here, one of my summer reading books was Mark Dever and Paul Alexander's book, The Deliberate Church. While some of my Ref21 colleagues get their reading done on long airplane trips, I finished this book sitting around the hotel at the Association of Theological Schools meeting in Atlanta over the weekend. What I discovered was a thoughtful and thought-provoking manual on pastoral theology, similar in nature and topic (though briefer and more focused) as Jay Adams' Shepherding God's Flock.

Dever and Alexander focus the deliberateness (or, as we Presbyterians might say, orderliness) of their approach on a consistent application of the Word of God to gathering the church and elders and organizing the work of the church and elders; as they put it, "The deliberate church is careful to trust the Word of God, wielded by Jesus Christ, to do the work of building the local church" (p. 21). Though Baptists, there was a great deal in the book which was readily transferable to Presbyterian contexts (the notable exception being chapter 10 on the role of the ordinances). If I were ever to return to congregationally-based pastoral ministry, here are three of my take-aways:

1) I very much appreciated the first chapter (the four Ps). There, Dever noted that when he interviewed at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, he didn't talk about a program that would revitalize the church; instead, he said that he would preach, pray, practice discipleship, and be patient. I don't know if you could have a better definition of pastoral ministry than that; but what was even better was the consistent confidence that if pastors focused on what God called them to do in dependence upon God's Spirit, God would honor his Word and gain glory for himself by granting health to congregations.

2) The centrality of God's Word in worship was a wonderful reminder (preaching, praying, singing, and seeing the Word). But so was the need to weave God's Word through all our relationships--discipleship relationship; elders (or what we would call "session") meetings; staff meetings. Over and again, we are servants of God's Word who come to know Jesus through the Spirit using Holy Scripture to transform hearts and lives. Our only hope of godly community and healthy churches will not come from programs, but from a thorough-going commitment to God's Word.

3) The stress upon church health as true "success" was also an important reminder. Dever and Alexander noted that "it's tempting to think that we should just pray that God would make our churches bigger. But what we're really after is health, not just size. Churches can be incredibly unhealthy even when they're big. A small, healthy church is better than a big, unhealthy church. That's right. A bigger church isn't always a better church. It may make us look better as leaders, but size doesn't always indicated health" (p. 176). Wise pastors know that sometimes ministries can experience addition through subtraction; genuine health can often be the result of divine pruning and human departures. At the end of the day, what we want and what God wants are healthy churches.

I found this a very helpful book, one that would be useful for ministers and elders as well as for future ministers and elders. It should find a place in many of our elder training venues as well as session reading.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What is the essence of Christianity?

A pretty good one-sentence definition from Herman Bavinck, "The Essence of Christianity," in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, ed. John Bolt (Baker, 2008), 47:

Christianity is no less than the real, supreme work of the Triune God, in which the Father reconciles his created but fallen world through the death of his Son and re-creates it through his Spirit into the kingdom of God.

The Wide World of Sports, no. 2

I must admit that I enjoyed seeing this smackdown of the Lakers last night.

The Wide World of Sports, no. 1

This news makes Tiger's triumph at Torrey Pines even more amazing and ridiculous.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Other Big 5: (Influential) Books Not Read or Finished

This was a great post from Richard Mouw. Particularly after writing the previous post, to read that Mouw has not finished Augustine's Confessions was particularly liberating (especially because I've never finished it either--and I'm a church historian!).

It made me think about all the other classics that I've not finished--because I got distracted or bored and just gave up. And so, in the spirit of the previous post, I thought I'd over my "big 5" classic books that I never managed to finish and yet have to act like I know what they say:

1) Augustine, Confessions (read first 50 pages or so)
2) Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (read first 50 pages or so)
3) Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (read first 200 pages and last 50)
4) Dickens, Great Expectations (I've started this book at least five different times)
5) any David Wells book (I own them all, but never finished any of them)

The Big 5: Books worth regular re-reading

Reformissionary has an interesting post: I remember sitting in Mark Dever's office and asking him what books have been most helpful to him personally, books that he would read more than once. He pointed to a little swiveling bookshelf with five (if I remember correctly) well worn books that he reads every year (I think). What big 5 books do you think are worth regularly rereading? Try to avoid devotional books, unless there is one that really knocked your socks off and you reread all the time. There will be a separate list for devotional books at some point. These books will likely be in the personal walk, Christian life, holiness kinds of categories. Don't list books of the Bible. If someone lists some of your big 5 books, please go ahead and list them again. This isn't about mentioning the books no one else has, but listing your big 5. After all, if one book is mentioned again and again that will add weight to that book. Go!

It is a thought provoking question, one that I have tried to answer in different ways before (see here and here). What makes this question different is the "re-reading" angle--what books would I (or have I) read more than once? Here are my five:

1) D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression
2) John Piper, When I Don't Desire God
3) Bryan Chapell, Holiness by Grace
4) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress
5) C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The 36th PCA General Assembly

As I noted in the previous post, I'm back from the General Assembly in Dallas. For some good analyses of the "main event," namely the discussion of overture 9 which sought a study committee to examine the issue of deaconnesses, see these posts from the Jolly Blogger and this from Ligon Duncan on Ref21.

I was a member of overtures this year and helped to craft the grounds for the majority's response. I'm pleased to say that the debate in overtures (which, if you include all the "deaconness" overtures, extended from 8am to 4:30pm with a 90 minute lunch break) was actually very congenial. There were only three comments that made me wince and two of those brothers cycled back around and apologized to the body. All in all, it was a good process.

Perhaps my only complaint was that only 80 elders (out of the 1100 who came) got to see and experience that good process. And perhaps this is part of the struggle with the new structures that we put into place three GAs ago. While this new "senate" (an overtures committee that has the potential of having a TE and RE from every presbytery; hence, up to 150 men) allowed good and substantial debate, with much parliamentary procedure involved, very few of the commissioners attending the assembly actually experienced or participated in it.

That was why I was a bit frustrated that we didn't extend the debate on the floor. I wished that the stated clerk had set overtures as an order of the day with a two-hour block of time to allow the rest of the fathers and brothers an opportunity to voice their perspectives. We may not have used it all, but since we finished GA early anyway, it strikes me that we could have allowed a more substantial floor debate than we did. Even though I was with the majority, I especially wanted the minority report to have a full conversation so that we could have had a good process that included all the fathers and brothers.

My other great joy during the Assembly came from all the brothers that I had the opportunity to meet and with whom I hung out. To me, one of the wonderful parts of our connectional polity is this: coming to a national assembly and realizing that Christ's work is bigger than my church or presbytery, but that it extends across North America and around the world. Every year, I remember how this is a foretaste of that eschatological moment in Revelation 7, when we will see "a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (Revelation 7:9-10). The foretaste which is our assembly causes me to long for the last days and this scene of worship! It will be glorious!