Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

June 2007

June 26, 2007

Anne Lamott - Grace (Eventually)I really don’t understand Anne Lamott’s appeal. I’ll grant that she is a talented writer but clearly this, in an of itself, cannot explain it. I suppose a good bit of her appeal probably stems from her gut-honest authenticity, her willingness to say exactly what she’s thinking all the time. She’s profound, she’s profane, she’s shocking and people seem to love her for it.

June 25, 2007

As mentioned in an earlier post, I read through Lou Priolo’s book Pleasing People last week. This was a book that just showed up in my mailbox. It is not one I would have chosen and even after I pulled it out of the box and set it in my “to read” bookcase I didn’t think I’d actually care to read it. I’ve got a billion other books to choose from and this one didn’t seem to offer much based on a quick perusal of the front and back cover. But eventually I began to feel guilty that I had read several mainstream books and thought that Pleasing People would be good for me to read something that might just challenge me on a personal level. So I grabbed my pencil and my highlighter (yes, at long last I’ve stooped to highlighting my books) and got to work. At first I thought my suspicions may have been correct that this book would offer me little. But as I read further and began to read about what it means to please people, and even more, what the symptoms are of a heart that desires to please people above God, I began to see glimpses of myself. And really, it has only been after I finished the book, in times of prayerful reflection, that I’ve begun to see myself even clearer. It was a valuable read and one I’m glad I made time for. It has shown me that there are areas where I seek to please people above God; areas where I seek approval and acceptance rather than seeking the Lord.

There was a little chart in the book that I found very helpful. I spent some time in Photoshop today and rigged up my own version of it and thought I’d share it with you. It comes from a chapter dealing with the question of whether we, as sinful human beings, can please God. There is a section heading entitled “The One you please will judge you not on outward appearance, but on that which is in your heart.” So, unlike people, who see only dimly, God sees with complete clarity. He sees not only the outward appearances but the attitudes, thoughts and motives that drive those outward expressions. One reason that living to please people is a dead end is simply that humans see that which is most superficial rather than that which is deepest. Actions which are based on pure motives can be misinterpreted as being spiteful and words that are said from an angry and sinful heart can be interpreted as loving, caring, godly words. But God is not so easily fooled.

We all know that others cannot see our thoughts and motives, but the Bible tells us that we can’t even see into the deepest recesses of our own hearts. As Priolo says, “the further into our hearts we look, … the more difficult it comes for us to evaluate things accurately. In other words, because they are more readily apparent to our view, our words and actions are much easier to detect than our attitudes, thoughts, and motives.”

And then he provides the following diagram. As the arrows extend downwards into the heart, they become darker and thus represent the greater difficulty in seeing with clarity.

Things that proceed out of the heart

I’ll grant that this is a simple diagram but it nicely put into a picture what before I’ve seen only in words. It shows just what the Bible says: when I look at others, I can evaluate only on the basis of words and actions and perhaps get a glimpse of the attitude. But I cannot see their thoughts or motives. When I look at myself I can evaluate words, actions and attitudes. But the thoughts begin to appear dim and the motives even more so. As well as I know my own heart, I can still not properly evaluate or judge my motives. But then there is God. God sees everything with utter clarity, judging not just words and actions, but attitudes, thoughts and motives alike. Nothing is hidden; nothing is even darkened. “God is the only one who can see and rightly evaluate all our external and internal behavior. And He assesses these things in our lives even better than we can. His ability to judge these areas is at once more severe and more merciful than our own sin-tainted capacity to discern ourselves.”

So it is God, and only God, who can truly judge whether we are truly doing what is right and good. It is only God who can see deep enough into our hearts to tell whether we are doing what we do our of pure hearts or hearts that are set on pleasing others. Thus we must seek to please Him—the One who can evaluate our hearts rightly and truly; the One who is never fooled.

June 24, 2007

The Most Famous Man in AmericaIt requires a certain amount of trust to read and to enjoy a biography. Most books are easily-verified, easily fact-checked. A book discussing a particular doctrine can be easily held up to the Scripture and seen immediately to be true or false. Biographies, though, and especially those that rely on secondary sources, are much more difficult to verify and thus the reader is left having to place his trust in the biographer, believing that she is providing the true story of her subject’s life. In the case of The Most Famous Man in America, a Pulitzer prize winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher, I was never able to reach the point where I really trusted the author, Debby Applegate.

June 23, 2007

I’ve always had a bit of a weakness for folk music (as my CD/MP3 collection can attest). So when I heard of the latest DVD from Franklin Springs Family Media, Charlie Zahm: An Evening of Classic Melodies, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. Zahm is a talented musician and an exceptional vocalist with an absolutely unforgettable baritone.

This DVD is simply a recording of a concert he recorded in February of 2007 in the Milburn Stone Theater in North East, Maryland. Charlie handles most of the singing (with his wife supporting him at times) and leads on the guitar, penny whistle or bodhran. Playing behind him in this production are a fiddle, a guitar, a set of largely acoustic drums and an upright bass. Thus he has all the makings of a folk or celtic band.

Zahm plays a variety of Irish, Scottish, Canadian and American tunes including:

  • Westering Home/Maid of Fyvie
  • Poor Wayfaring Stranger
  • All Through the Night
  • Follow Me up to Carlow
  • Loch Lomond
  • Summer Rains
  • Out on the Mira
  • Mairi’s Wedding/Mason’s Apron
  • Farewell to Nova Scotia
  • Geordie
  • Planxty Fanny Power/O’Carolon’s Concerto
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Minstrel Boy
  • Sweet Virginia
  • General Taylor
  • Lighthouse on the Shore
  • Scotland the Brave

The DVD clocks in at 98 minutes including a couple of features on Zahm. The concert itself is probably about an hour and a twenty minutes in length. Be sure to catch the “Making of a Song” feature where the band tries a new song (which is the Queensland variation of the tune for “Waltzing Matilda.” Sadly, that song did not make it into the concert.).

As a fan of folk music, I really enjoyed this production. I have watched it a couple of times and listened to it many more times than that. I’m glad to recommend it to you.

The DVD is available from Franklin Springs Family Media.

June 22, 2007

Yesterday the Resurgence blog posted an article by Greg Wright, a writer and film critic. The article was titled “Movies, Morality, and Ratings: A Hard Look at Our Opinion of Films.” He begins like this:

Consider this graphic Hollywood plotline: A man travels to Las Vegas to retrieve his cheating wife. On the way back to Los Angeles, the two stop at a rundown motel in Death Valley. During the night, a mob of sexual degenerates surrounds their cabin, threatening to sodomize the man. Hoping to appease the bloodlust, the man throws his wife outside—and when morning comes, the mob has left nothing of her but a corpse. The man cuts up her body and sends pieces of it to his friends… But that’s nothing compared to the bloodbath that follows.

No, this isn’t the synopsis for Saw IV or the latest Quentin Tarantino gore-fest. It’s an update of a not-so-familiar biblical story from Judges 20-21. But imagine if that story were made into a film. How the critics would rant, Christian and otherwise. If told without flinching, the story would earn an NC-17 rating for sure; and there’s probably no way to tell it in a fashion that would cut the rating to PG-13. Of what possible redemptive value could such a story be?

He goes on to say that we should have realistic expectations for films, knowing that they can, at best reveal only a portion of what is true. Context is everything. “No movie—no single tale in Scripture, even—can possibly tell the whole story of God’s redemptive plan.” The purpose of the article is to encourage Christians to watch movies and to do the difficult work of discernment in separating the good from the bad. “That’s no reason to shirk the task, though. We might take encouragement from the words of John F. Kennedy, who observed that we do these ‘other things’ not ‘because they are easy, but because they are hard.’”

Throughout the brief article Wright compares what is visual to what is written, the image to the word. And here is where I part ways with so many Christian film critics. I admit in advance that this article rambles a bit and that I may not even know what I’m saying. But bear with me. It seems to me that we cannot neatly separate the medium from the message. Many film critics would seem to have us believe that we can have a story in words or a story in images and it really makes little difference. We can, in other words, have the message in roughly the same way in either medium. But I disagree.

Like me, I’m sure you’ve heard people defend the violence and swearing and other ungodly behavior in film by saying, “The Bible has all of these elements!” And this is true. The Bible has many stories of violence and sexuality and just about every other manner of sin. But there is a difference.

It is all well and good to suggest that a movie based on Judges 20-21 would receive the ominous NC-17 rating. It likely would and for good reason. Yet when we read it in the Bible it would not. Why? Because words convey the story far differently than images. With words we read only what we need to know and receive little detail. We know the broad outline of the story, but the details are blessedly hidden from us. This would not be the case if the story were told in images. As film, the details would be in full view. We would see rape and bloodlust and dismemberment. We would see the parts of the story that were kept from us. If we have a high view of the Bible we have to accept that God gave us only and exactly what He wants us to know. He did not give us exhaustive truth, but did give us sufficient truth. There is a reason that God did not give us more detail about many of the Bible’s harsher scenes. There is a reason that the passages dealing with harsh sin are typically quite discreet in how they describe those sinful acts and deeds.

I suppose what I’m getting at is this: there is good reason that God gave us a book and not a movie. When we read the Book we can examine every sentence and every word. Theologians have the difficult task of picking apart the individual words, peering deep into the language looking for the most precise, most likely meaning of every jot and tittle. The written or spoken word lends itself well to this. It is fixed and constant and is well suited to examination, comparison and evaluation. Film is different. It is far different, in fact. It simply cannot contain truth in the same way that words can. It does not lend itself to evaluation in the same way. It is not as precise and, upon deep examination, muddles the truth as much as it clarifies it.

I’ve never heard a satisfactory response to this line of reasoning (and I am far from the first to suggest it). Film is a good and useful form of media, but I just don’t see that we can or should compare it to the written or spoken word. They are different. Each has strengths and weaknesses. But it seems to me that God has given the word a certain power, a certain strength, and we should not attempt to suggest that pictures can be equal. I guess this puts me in the same camp as a guy like Neil Postman believing that film and television are good at what they do best—entertainment. But they just aren’t the realm of really serious, really important ideas. We need words for that.

Wright concludes his article by saying “Discernment is obviously required, as is spiritual maturity. And when it comes to our children, parental guidance is always a necessity, whether it’s the bad theology of The Sound of Music, or the violent reality of The Passion. And guiding our children through the book of Judges—or the moral minefield that is the real world—is likely to be just as tough.” But no, it won’t be as tough. When it comes to the book of Judges we know that God gave us the story, gave us the story in a specific, perfect way and gave us the story for a very good reason. This is not true when it comes to The Passion or Evan Almighty or any other film. Yes, it will be difficult to work through Judges 20-21 with my children. But I can have confidence that God desires that I do so and that His Spirit will guide through the process. I have no such confidence when I take my children to the movies to watch Shrek III. Nor should I.

June 21, 2007

I’ve been working my way through Lou Priolo’s new book Pleasing People and it has given me a lot to think about. I don’t know that any of us are readily willing to admit that we are eager to be people pleasers but Priolo shows in this book just how prone we are all to slipping into the sin of esteeming the opinion of others higher than the opinion of God. Like so many other transgressions, at its root the sin of being a people pleaser is a sin of pride.

In a chapter dealing with clothing ourselves in humility, Priolo had some excellent things to say on the subject of forgiveness. As the father of three young children, and as the owner of a proud and sinful heart, I have endless opportunities to teach about forgiveness and to practice both forgiveness and repentance in my own life. I’ve had to tell my children that true repentance doesn’t involve the word “but” (I’m sorry but you shouldn’t have…). But then I’ve seen that I can fall into the same sin. I’ve had to tell my children that true repentance doesn’t drag up the past and use forgiven sin against others. But then I’ve seen that I can do the same thing. I am sure that I’ve got almost as much to learn as my children.

In Pleasing People Priolo helpfully portrays the heart of forgiveness as being a promise. “Forgiveness is fundamentally a promise. As God promises to not hold our sins against us, so we also must promise not to hold the sins of those we’ve forgiven against them.” This is, of course, the foundation of the forgiveness God promises to us: that He will never hold our sins against us. On the day of judgment we know that He will not suddenly charge us with sins that have been forgiven us through the blood of Jesus. We have faith in God and trust in this promise. Without this promise our faith is hopeless.

The promise of forgiveness, says Priolo, can be broken into three parts. First, you promise not to bring up the offense to the forgiven person so as to use it against him. Second, you promise not to discuss with others the sin you have forgiven. Third, you promise not to dwell on the forgiven offense but to remind yourself that you have forgiven the offender in the same way that God has forgiven you for a multitude of far greater sins. Thus when you ask forgiveness you secure these promises for yourself.

Seeking forgiveness cannot be confused with apologizing. An apology is not the means to reconciliation. If I apologize to a person I’ve offended and he subsequently apologizes to me, we still have not taken responsibility and truly humbled ourselves. We haven’t tied up loose ends and, to use Priolo’s term, the ball is still up in the air. Apologies are not enough. We must seek forgiveness and its fruit—reconciliation.

True forgiveness looks something like this:

  1. Acknowledge that you have sinned. Let the party you’ve offended know that you acknowledge wrongdoing. This is humbling but necessary. Acknowledge not only that you sin but that you have sinned against this person.
  2. Identify your sin by its specific biblical name. Do not simply acknowledge generic sin but acknowledge specific sin and call it by its biblical name (which keeps you from acknowledging something society may label as sin but the Bible does not). This ensures that you have thought deeply about your sin and have seen how it fits into what the Bible calls sin.
  3. Acknowledge the harm your offense caused. This is also humbling. You must acknowledge that your sin has had consequences and that you are owning up not only to the sin but also to the harmful consequences your sin brought about.
  4. Demonstrate repentance by identifying an alternative biblical behavior. Show that you have truly considered your sin by explaining what you should have done instead. Show what the appropriate alternative behavior would have been.
  5. Ask for forgiveness. This puts the onus on the offended party to accept your repentance and to extend forgiveness to you. It completes the reconciliation between the offender and the one who has been offended.

Simple steps, to be sure, but steps that show true humility and true repentance and can thus bring about true and lasting reconciliation.

June 21, 2007

Thursday June 21, 2007

Bible: BibleMapper is a really interesting program “that helps you quickly and easily create customized maps of the Holy Lands or study a particular period and aspect of Bible history.” It is available for free.

Contest: I have announced the winners of the Discerning Reader contest over at DR.

Blogs: 9Marks Ministries has just begun a new blog called Church Matters. I’m sure it’s going to prove worth a bookmark or the addition to your RSS reader.

Conference: Desiring God has opened registration to this year’s national conference “Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints.” Speakers are John MacArthur, Jerry Bridges, Randy Alcorn, Helen Roseveare and John Piper.

Media: I found this article an interesting perspective on the news, especially after recently reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

Books: Monergism Books is having a sale on all Banner of Truth sets. This is your chance to get books by Owen, Edwards, Sibbes, etc for lower than ever before.

June 20, 2007

Every year, when summer approaches, we begin to hear about summer reading lists. I am uncertain if this is a throwback to days gone by or if people really do try to set aside a few books to read over the course of a summer. Or perhaps it is only students who do this as they take a brief break from their studies. Certainly I always have great plans when I head away on a vacation, but life typically gets in the way and I never do as much reading as I had planned.

So let me ask you: do you intend to put together a summer reading list? If so, what do you hope to read this summer?

Since I read a whole lot I thought it might be helpful if I provided a few suggestions. So here they are, focusing on books that have been published recently (and that I have already read and reviewed).

Biography:

Summer reading wouldn’t be complete without at least one good biography. Because 2007 happens to be the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain, we are seeing new biographies of some of the key players in that battle.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas chronicles the life of William Wilberforce, the key player in the fight against slavery.

Jonathan Aitken’s John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace is a biography of John Newton who, in many ways, served as a mentor to Wilberforce, encouraging him and joining him in the fight.

Theology

If you want to attempt to make your way through a big, deep book this summer, Steve Lawson’s Foundations of Grace, the first in his A Long Line of Godly Men series may be just the thing.

Fiction

I do not read enough fiction, but one title I have enjoyed is Suite Francais the recently-discovered novel from French author Irene Nemirovsky who, shortly after completing it in 1942, was shipped to Auschwitz where she died. Intended to be a five-part series, this book combines the only two portions she was able to complete before her death.

History

I don’t know how often I can recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War but I must be nearing the limit. It really is an excellent book and a great account of the earliest settlers of the United States.

Just Because

Same Kind of Different as Me is a great choice for some light but impactful reading when you’re too tired or too relaxed to read anything that requires you to think deeply and to reach for your highlighters. It is, as the subtitle says, the true story of “A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together.”

If you want to read a book that has been a fixture on the bestseller lists, or are stuck at the airport and have only a small selection of books available to you, why not try Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. It tells the story of a boy who was drafted into military service in Sierra Leone where he witnessed and participated in the horrific violence in that nation. If that isn’t there, grab anything by David McCullough. There is bound to be at least one or two of his titles available.

What I’ll Be Reading

Since I asked about what you’ll be reading this summer, I’ll answer my own question and tell you some of the things I’ll be reading. Because of my responsibilities with Discerning Reader, I will no doubt be reading a whole lot. But here are a few of the more popular titles I hope to polish off in the next month or two.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As little as I want to read this one, I know I should just to keep up with the anti-God sentiment so popular in books these days. So I’ll read this and then read Alister McGrath’s response to it.

Einstein: His Life and Universe is a new biography of Einstein that has been published to great acclaim. I know absolutely nothing about the man and look forward to learning more about him. The book looks excellent.

John Adams by David McCullough. I greatly enjoyed McCullough’s book 1776 and am sure I’ll like this one just as much. It is, by all accounts, one of those “wish it would never end” biographies. I haven’t heard from anyone who didn’t enjoy it thoroughly so I’ve got high expectations for it.

The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism by Michael Behe looks like an interesting follow-up to his previous books dealing with intelligent design. This is one that is bound to have mostly five-star and one-star reviews at Amazon. People are either going to love it or hate it.