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July 01, 2009

It is Canada Day today and I’m taking the day off. My kids have been begging go to a ball game so a bit later on I’ll be taking them to see the Jays play the Rays. It seemed that on Canada Day it would make sense to write a little bit about Canada’s national anthem.

Canada may be unique as a nation that has two official national anthems. I was too lazy to do the legwork to find if there are any other nations with two, but I suspect there are not. To add to the strangeness, both of Canada’s anthems are entitled “O Canada.” Many people erroneously spell “O” as “Oh.” In reality the “O” is used as a vocative to apostrophize Canada and rather than as an exclamation. But most people prefer it as an exclamation.

O Canada was proclaimed to be Canada’s official anthem on July 1, 1980 (July 1 being Canada Day). Yet it was first sung almost exactly 100 years earlier. The music was composed by Calixa Lavallée who at that time was a well-known composer. But, as we know, popularity is fleeting and I’d guess you do not have any of his albums in your collection. The lyrics were written in French. Though it was well received on the occasion it was first performed, it had little immediate impact beyond that evening. Here is the song as it was first composed. For those who do not speak French, I’ve included a rough English translation:

Ô Canada  Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux 
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix;
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
Et ta valeur de foi trempée
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits;
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.

O Canada! Home of our ancestors,
Your brow is wreathed with glorious garlands!
Just as your arm knows how to wield the sword,
It also knows how to bear the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats.
And your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights;
Will protect our homes and our rights.

In 1908, Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson, a Toronto doctor, completed a translation into English. A quick look at the lyrics will show why we no longer use this particular version.

O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old
Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.

“Forfend this nation’s thrall?” I’m sure God is eager and willing to do that, but I can’t recall the last time I used either “forfend” or “thrall”, which incidentally mean “ward off” and “slavery” or “bondage.”

That same year Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer living in Montreal, penned another adaptation that eventually formed the basis for the song as we know it today.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

The version that was official adopted in 1980 is quite similar.

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Thus we have two official national anthems, one written in French and one in English. It must be noted that the lyrics of these songs, even when translated to the same language, bear little resemblance to each other. Beyond the first two words there is little correlation in language or underlying themes. It is also interesting to note that while the songs are written in different languages, they were also written by men of different theological backgrounds. The English version is Protestant and emphasizes hard work and duty. The French version, written by a Roman Catholic, emphasizes history and national glory.

Today it is common for performances of the anthem to mix the French and English versions of the song. This leads to a rather interesting mixture of thoughts that actually makes the song seem quite militaristic.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
Just as your arm knows how to wield the sword,
It also knows how to bear the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

In recent years the song has come under attack from various parties who claim that the anthem is either sexist or too religious. Some have suggested removing the words “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Others have suggested ways of removing the references to God. So far these suggestions have met with resistance, but it is likely only a matter of time before the changes are made. After all, this is the nation that has legalized homosexual marriage and has decriminalized marijuana. We’re on the forefront of political correctness.

In How To Be A Canadian, Will and Ian Ferguson suggest that a defining characteristic of Canadians is that they do not know their own anthem. Certainly they do not loudly sing it with pride as do our American neighbours (as I noted last night when I was at the ball game—barely a person there bothered to sing along). “First lesson as a newcomer to Canada: Whatever you do, do not learn the words to ‘O Canada’! Nothing will mark you as an outsider more quickly. Canadians don’t know the words to their national anthem, and neither should you.”

June 29, 2009

Earlier this morning I finished up Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich at War, a very long, very thorough, very interesting tracing of the rise and fall of German military might from 1939 to 1945. More than just another account of the Second World War, this book looks to battles, but also to atrocities and to the German home front. It provides an overall perspective on the German experience of war, from the men on the front lines, to the Jews in concentration camps, to the men and women who lived in the cities and worked in the factories. It goes so far as to look at German art and music during the war. It is, in a word, thorough.

Whenever I read about Germany in the Second World War, I am amazed that so many normal people, people not unlike you and me, were involved in acts of astounding evil. While many Germans disagreed with the wholesale extermination of Jews and Gypsies and people with mental disabilities, few had the will or courage to voice their disagreements. Many were complicit in these crimes, many others were actively involved, even if they did not fully support the ideology behind them. We read of otherwise ordinary men who murdered hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of helpless people. We read of monsters who found joy in torture and mutilation. We read of doctors, sworn to protect human life, who instead took the opportunity to carry out barbarous experiments on young children, torturing them and killing them with no apparent attack of conscience. Surely Satan had a field day in Germany in those days.

As I read about these crimes, these atrocities, my heart cries out for justice. This is a natural cry, I think, and a good one. Yet so often it seems that these people got away with their crimes. Hitler, the mastermind of it all, died in 1945, but did so at his own hand. A bullet to the head hardly seems to satisfy the demands of justice based on the lives of 6 million Jews and countless millions of other lives destroyed in the war he began. It almost seems that he got away with it. Or Josef Mengele who carried out ruthless medical experiments at Auschwitz and, who after the war, escaped to South America where he lived in relative peace until he died of a stroke in 1979. Where is the justice in this? Did he get away with it?

When we read in the Bible that the law of God is written on our hearts, surely this is some of what we mean—that we have a sense of justice and that we want this sense of justice to be served, to be satisfied. We also know from Scripture that justice will be served. Indeed, it must be served. And we want it to be served. Justice is “the quality of being just or fair;” it is “judgment involved in the determination of rights and the assignment of rewards and punishments.” But it is more. A Christian definition of justice goes further. Justice is the due reward or punishment for an act. God must punish evil. We know this. We tremble at this thought. Or we ought to.

God must punish evil. When we come to know Jesus Christ, we are shocked at the reality that He willingly paid the penalty for the sins of all who would believe in Him, even those who have committed unimaginable sins. When I believed in Him I saw that He suffered for me. I deserve to be punished for all those things I’ve done to forsake Him. But Jesus, through His great mercy, accepted this punishment on my behalf. Justice has been served.

But those who do not turn to Him must be punished for their own sin. And it is here that we see how justice will be served. The sin of even a man as blatantly evil as Adolph Eichmann, who relentlessly hunted down Jews throughout the Reich, differs from mine only in degree. He and I are both sinners through and through. We are both sinners in thought, word and deed. But God has seen fit to extend grace to restrain me from doing all of the evil I’d otherwise so love to do. And He has accepted Jesus’ work on the cross on my behalf. Justice has already been served on my behalf. But for those who do not turn to Christ, justice is still in the future. Justice hovers just over the horizon.

We do not look forward to the punishment of another person with a sick glee. We do not rejoice in what they must suffer. But we do look forward to the fact that justice will finally be served. God will not and cannot allow sin to be unpunished. And while we are humbled by the grace that is ours through Christ, we still thank God that there will be justice. We do not have unlimited license to sin knowing that death allows us to escape just punishment. Instead we see that death is just the beginning, just the entrance, to the courtroom where justice will be served. Death is no escape.

June 26, 2009

So the king is dead. What a sad end to a sad life; a pathetic end to a pathetic life (by which I mean to use pathetic in its true sense as “arousing pity and sympathy). I don’t know that I have ever seen, in one man, such a combination of self-love and self-loathing, shocking narcissism combined with equally shocking self-hatred. Truly Michael Jackson was unparalleled.

Andrew Sullivan offered a few interesting thoughts.

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

I loved his music. His young voice was almost a miracle, his poise in retrospect eery, his joy, tempered by pain, often unbearably uplifting. He made the greatest music video of all time; and he made some of the greatest records of all time. He was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone.

I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life. And I pray that such genius will not be so abused again.

From beginning to end, Jackson led a tortured life and he led much of it in full view of the public. As much as he was secretive, being whisked about behind masks and tinted windows, the sheer volume of cameras and the unending interest in his life meant that his every step was recorded. We saw him change his skin color, change his face, and almost change his gender. Through it all, we gasped at his obvious self-loathing, expressed in his desire to change everything he is and was and manifested in his increasingly bizarre behavior. He was a tortured soul and I doubt we can even imagine what was going on inside that increasingly twisted heart, that increasingly conflicted mind.

Michael Jackson was in so many ways a product of this sick celebrity culture (that he helped create) that will never rest satisfied until it has both created and then destroyed the newest celebrity. We want our celebrities to start strong and finish weak, to begin with a bang and then fizzle, pop and sputter, all for our enjoyment and entertainment (Susan Boyle stands as the most recent example of this). Jackson gave us so much to talk about, so much to enjoy. More than any other celebrity he embodied the “vanities” of Ecclesiastes. He was at one time known for what he did so well and then was known for being a freak; he was at one time fantastically wealthy and then utterly broke; he was once loved and then despised. He had it all and yet, it seemed, he had nothing. All of it was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Andrew Sullivan ended his reflection on Jackson by saying, “I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life.” I hope the same. Truly, I do. I never cared much for Michael Jackson. I listened to his music occasionally in life but, after losing my childhood collection of 45’s, I didn’t ever buy one of his songs or albums. But it was impossible to miss him completely as even decades after the peak of his fame, his face was often in the news and even a simple skim of the headlines would show that his strangeness was increasing year-by-year. Through all of this I haven’t ever hoped for much on his behalf. But I hope now that he has finally found peace. Sadly, though, his life showed no evidence that he had found the One who is peace, the one who offers true peace. And if that is the case, the true horror of it all is that Jackson will spend all of eternity in the same twisted mind that tortured him for most of the fifty years he was given here. Those fifty years seemed to drive him to the brink of utter insanity; the thought of an eternity in that state is too horrific to imagine. We may like to think that death inevitably brings peace to a tortured existence. But Scripture gives us no reason to find hope except in the One who offers hope by saying “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” May you find that rest today so you can enjoy that rest eternally.

June 24, 2009

June 19 marked the beginning of Toronto’s annual Pride Week. Now in its 28th year, this is a week-long celebration of diverse sexual and gender identities. Here is how the organizers describe it: “Pride Week celebrates our diverse sexual and gender identities, histories, cultures, creativities, families, friends and lives. It includes a three-day street festival with over eight stages of live entertainment, an extensive street fair (including community booths, vendors, food stalls), a special Family Pride program, a politically charged Dyke March and the infamous Pride Parade.”

My friend John Bell pastors New City Baptist Church right in the heart of Toronto and has an active evangelistic ministry within Toronto’s gay village. I asked him if he would write an article reflecting on some of the joys and challenges in this unique ministry.

*****

It is Gay Pride week here in Toronto and Tim has asked me to write a guest post detailing my evangelistic efforts in Toronto’s LGBT-oriented community [LGBT stands for Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender). I would appreciate any helpful insights or criticisms the readers of this blog can offer me, as well as your prayers.

I began this ministry two years ago while working as an intern in a downtown Toronto church. I was told that part of my internship duties would involve three hours of evangelism every week in a coffee shop or pub. This was not happy news. To be honest, I find this kind of evangelism very intimidating. “Cold call” is not my style; I’m too polite! As the pastor explained what he expected of me, a likely scenario played itself out in my mind: I approach somebody at Starbucks who is reading a book and drinking a latte. I introduce myself and ask if I may sit with them and talk. Naturally, they want to know my business, so I straightaway introduce the topic of religion or Jesus, probably sounding like the Mormons who came to their door the previous week while they were eating dinner.

Personally (and God uses all types, so I’m not making an absolute statement) I find this kind of evangelistic tactic less than ideal. I don’t know anything about this person, yet I have just interrupted their morning coffee to talk about what I want to discuss. I wanted my evangelism to get off on a better foot, to be more natural; I wanted to initiate the discussion in a way that was neither “rude” nor by way of a specious pretext (conducting a poll on spirituality, etc). Moreover, if I asked to sit and speak with a woman, she might think I was hitting on her. Of course living where I do, a man might think the same thing. Better to take the bull by the horns, I thought. I had never been to a gay coffee shop before but I thought (correctly) that gay men would want a complete stranger to sit with them and chit-chat, so that’s what I decided to do.

Toronto’s gay village is just a ten minute walk from where I live. The first time I ventured out, I prayed to the Lord that he would show me where to go and what to do and what to say. I was very nervous. I had no plan. I was certain I was going to see all manner of disgusting things and that I was going to be thrown bodily out of the establishment for disseminating fundamentalist hate. But I had to tell my pastor that I had evangelized for three hours that week, so I was stuck.

The Lord went ahead of me. I stepped into the first coffee shop I saw, a Timothy’s at Church and Alexander. I found out later that this is the gay coffee shop in all of the Greater Toronto Area. (See the Wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_and_Wellesley). Its clientele is mostly middle-aged men. I bought my coffee and looked around for a place to sit. The tables are very small and the seats are close together—perfect for evangelism, though I’m sure that was not the original intent!

The gay community in Toronto is very close-knit. Most of the men have known each other for years and everyone is on a first name basis. Many men are fixtures at this coffee shop. I have become friends with four of these fixtures: A– , who has severe cerebral palsy that confines him to a wheel chair (that does not impede his sex life, however; he told me he’s had hundreds of partners); D– , an HIV infected drag queen who was molested by a Catholic priest; J– , a civil servant, recently relocated from Ottawa; and C– , who works in the credit department of a national bank. These men have accepted me as their friend and have introduced me to other gay men, although they know I’m a straight, born again conservative Christian who does not condone their lifestyle.

I have talked to quite a number of gay men now—almost all of them white and middle aged. Many of them came out of the closet after having been married with kids. For whatever reason, 85% have come from Catholic backgrounds. That means that much of my evangelistic groundwork has already been covered. There is no need to explain that the bible has two testaments, or who Moses or Abraham were, or convince them of the historic factuality of the resurrection; for the most part, they believe it. I’m finding it’s the authority of scripture that I need to deal with the most.

When I first meet someone at the coffee shop and they ask me what I do (which is a natural “in” to introducing the gospel) they assume that I must be a liberal gay Baptist minister, because otherwise what would I be doing in their coffee shop? (The first man I talked to had only just broken up with his boyfriend, a Methodist pastor.) I begin by asking them questions. I get them to do all the talking for the next 45 minutes. I ask them about their job, their background, their family life, their personal life and what they believe and why so I can get a picture of their epistemology and worldview. Needless to say, I frame my questions in an inquisitive, slightly naive, polite fashion, not in an interrogative, formal way. Gay men love to talk (at least the ones in this coffee shop seem to) and people in general today enjoy discussing “spirituality”. Then, out of politeness, they will inevitably ask me what I believe. So I tell them the gospel, starting with Genesis 1, laying out for them the biblical storyline and worldview.

I have been able to share the gospel with many men over the past two years, even though I am saying things highly offensive to the gay lifestyle—which is actually their identity. I base everything I say on the authority of the word; that is, I make it clear to them that that is what I am doing, that I believe the bible is authoritative for all peoples in all cultures and times because it is God’s authoritative revelation to human beings. I stress this emphatically. And I tell them that the Bible condemns me, it condemns everyone. It condemns me as an idolater, someone who is selfish and sinful, who has de-godded God and installed himself in the position of “The Ruler of John’s Life.” I have done things in my life that I am ashamed of and oftentimes what I am ashamed of the bible calls my “sin” (I have found that gay men can relate very well to shame). I do not zero in on their homosexuality (which is what they expect me to do) but rather the fact that they are sinners. Now, more often than not, they will push me and ask if practicing homosexuality is a particular expression of their sinful disposition and I will not hesitate to tell them “yes.” When asked, I tell gay men that, personally, I have a “live and let live” approach to everyone’s sex life, but my personal opinion doesn’t count for anything if God, our creator, has declared otherwise. I tell them I know that I am sounding very intolerant and bigoted when I tell them that they are sinners and that their lifestyle is not pleasing to God. Who am I to tell another human being such a thing on my own authority? But then I explain that it is not on my own authority that I am saying these things. Rightly or wrongly, I am utterly convinced that the bible is the revelation of God. I am banking my eternal soul on it being so. It condemns me, but I have found salvation in Christ. It condemns you. I am here to tell you about the salvation that I have found in Jesus, that I believe you need, that the bible says he needs.

By presenting the gospel in this fashion (which is the same way I present it to heterosexuals) I have yet to have someone become outraged over my perceived intolerance—though I am sure that day is coming! In fact, being straight and conservative has worked in my favor because they see that I must really care about them to come into an environment where I’m a fish out of water to tell them a message that I know they will find offensive. And I do really care for them. Many of them come from backgrounds where they would have believed something similar to what I believe about the authority of God’s word, from a Catholic perspective, but have since “moved on.” Perhaps I am young and deluded in their opinion, but I’m a nice guy and they put up with it, because they can see that I love them, and often times they will say, “We will hear you again on this matter”. They like the fact that I am willing to be their friend, even if I don’t condone their beliefs. I think that shows an integrity and respect; they respond to it and are willing to reciprocate.

I do all this because I love the LGBT community. They are a community comprised of individual eternal souls. Sadly, they are culture that has almost no contact with biblical Christianity in any form. How many drag queens can count a born again Christian amongst their friends? Very few, to our shame.

I’m the pastor of a new church plant in downtown Toronto and it is my earnest prayer that God would use our people to impact this spiritually needy community. I pray for the day when transvestites can walk through our church doors and be greeted with genuinely warm smiles and Christian love. But before that day is likely to happen, they will need a Christian friend whom they have grown to trust; a person they know would never invite them to a place where they are going to be hurt or embarrassed publicly; a place where everyone is on level ground before the cross of Christ because all are sinners; a place where no one person’s sin is made out to be more repugnant than another’s; a place where all sinners can sit under the uncompromised preaching of holy Scripture and hear of the world’s only Savior and salvation in his name alone.

I pray that we would be more deliberate in this regard; that as God’s sovereign grace works through his faithful witness, the church, we would see more gay men and women come to Christ.

June 22, 2009

I’ve been enjoying writing these little articles titled “Don’t Take Your iPod to Church.” I’ll be the first to admit that I am overstating my case a little bit and even being deliberately vague at times. But through it all I’m seeing some great discussion and am being asked lots of interesting questions. It may be frustrating to everyone else, but I’m enjoying it, at the very least! Let’s press on.

In a previous article I introduced Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman and their contribution to my thinking on technology. From McLuhan we learn that we cannot neatly separate the medium from the message and from Postman, an interpreter of McLuhan, we learn that every medium carries with it some kind of a worldview—that every medium carries with it “a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing more than another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another.” Also from Postman we learn the simple truth that “a technology does what it was created to do.” Over time we will learn what it is that a technology was created to do; rarely do we know in advance how a technology will play out. We tend to be immediately positive about technological innovation, but from these two men we learn that there ought to be a certain caution, a hesitation that causes us to look before we leap, to think before we wholeheartedly embrace a new technology—like reading the Bible on an iPod.

So let’s look today at why reading the Bible on an iPod is not the same as reading it in print. I want to look at just two points: linearity and distraction. I’ll grant that there is much more than could be said and that my thinking in this area is undoubtedly underdeveloped. I am thinking these things through as I write them. So take this for what it is.

There is a kind of linearity in a book that is not present in most other media. This is one of the greatest advantages of books and undoubtedly one of the reasons God had Scripture committed to books (and before that scrolls and before that memory). In a book, we read from beginning to end, progressing from introduction to conclusion, from thesis to the proving of that thesis, from explanation to application. We know this is the case with a book—a book amplifies this sense, this skill, of following and grasping a linear argument. This has been one of the most common arguments against using television as a learning medium; though it can display facts, it does so in a non-linear way. The worldview wrapped up in television is one that is non-logical, non-linear. The same is true of electronic media.

Hypertext, text in a digital format, is a double-edged sword. Text in a digital environment is inherently non-linear because it is inherently interactive. Simply compare a printed Encyclopedia Britannica of old to Wikipedia of today for a stark contrast. A person reading the encyclopedia reads an entry from beginning to end, undistracted, focused on just the topic at hand. A person reading Wikipedia is constantly faced with bright blue text. Not only is the color a distraction but the reader knows that each highlighted word links to a new article. Gone is the linearity of a book and gone is the lack of distraction. You, like me, undoubtedly read a few words or a few paragraphs, before being carried away by clicking one of those blue links that demands your attention.

Reading the Bible in electronic format makes it easy to chase down cross-references, to read notes related to the content, to find word definitions and so on. But all of this is at the cost of the natural, God-given flow of the text. As we use our iPods in place of our Bibles, we begin to understand Scripture as we do Wikipedia, a text suited more to browsing than deep study. We begin to feel the Bible is interactive, that it is more for skimming, for following trails from A to B to Z than for deep study or analysis. This is all wrapped up in the very worldview of the electronic device.

At the same time, the ease of accessing the Bible using hypertext causes us, I think, to view accessing information, rather than applying information, as the noble end (see part 1.5 for more on this).

All of this to say that a book is inherently a better medium for linear study of a linear text.

And this brings us to distraction.

An iPod or iPhone or Palm or Blackberry or whatever electronic device you use to read Scripture is not a devotional medium, it is not a medium used for study or deep reflection. It is an entertainment medium or a productivity medium (or both). When I use my phone, I use it partially for entertainment and partially for business (though I like to convince myself that it is more business than entertainment). My iPod is 95% entertainment with just a small amount of productivity involved if I need to use it to check emails while I’m out and about. So even if I read Scripture on my iPod, I am reading it using an entertainment medium. Thus I am reading it in the context of entertainment. I like to think that my mind can easily make this jump, that I can use it for entertainment in one moment and devotion in the next. But I may be giving my mind too much credit (at least if Postman and McLuhan are to be believed). Can my mind, then, focus and study the text as it does when I read from a book? Or am I inadvertently viewing reading Scripture as a form of business or entertainment?

Furthermore, iPods and iPhones and all the rest of these devices are inherently distracting. They are made to be distracting, tying into one small device a variety of functions that are in constant competition with one another. The iPhone commercials teach us as much, showing a person browsing the internet and then seamlessly receiving a phone call. Multifunction is their very function and we cannot expect to escape that by using ours for a different purpose. Even when reading the Bible, we might at any moment receive a text message or phone call or a calendar notification or some other kind of an audio or visual stimulus. All the while we have information about battery life and data reception and such on the screen before us, distracting us. We cannot sit back and relax and read using an iPhone because we know that, at any moment, we might (and probably will) be distracted. The medium contradicts the message.

My Bible never rings; it never buzzes or beeps or shows up with sudden calendar notifications. It simply shows me the words given by God in a medium that is inherently undistracting.

All of this to say that a book is inherently a better medium for undistracted study of a life-changing text.

I’m done for now. Have at it.

June 20, 2009

Brian Regan is a stand up comedian and is rare among comedians in that he is both hilarious and clean. It seems there was a time when he injected a bit of sketchy material into his routines but, as he said in a recent interview with CNN, he found that he did not need to do this. “I was always 90 to 95 percent clean with my jokes anyways, and I’m kind of anal so, why be 95 percent something when you could be 100 percent something? It worked out, and people really seem to respond to it so I guess that other 5 percent wasn’t that important anyways.” What Regan does so well is comment on real life, the kind of situations any of us can identity with. Here’s a favorite example:

I found an interesting line in his CNN. The interviewer asked “How do you get your ideas?” Regan’s answer strikes me as one that offers useful counselor to bloggers, and especially bloggers who seek to offer commentary on real life. Here is what he said: “I used to try and sit down with a blank piece of paper. I would stare at the paper, and it just continues to stay blank. I’ve learned that for me, it’s easier for me to go out and live my life and do my thing.”

I am often asked for advice on finding topics to blog about. And honestly, I don’t think I can do a whole lot better than what Regan said. Go out and live, do your thing, and you’ll find lots of great material to work with. You know, like this:


June 19, 2009

A couple of weeks ago Dr. Mohler supplied a suggested summer reading list. My tastes and Dr. Mohler’s run pretty much the same when it comes to recreational reading so I thought I’d go ahead and just read this entire list of ten books. I’m now forty percent of the way through (math wizzes will do the math and figure out that this means I’ve read four of the ten) and thought I’d report in.

The Unforgiving MinuteFirst up was The Unforgiving Minute by Craig Mullaney. Mohler says “The Unforgiving Minute is in account that mixes courage with intelligence and deep patriotic commitment with a reflective mind. This book is an account of education, growth into manhood, and the demands of leadership. It unites the intensity of battle with the anguished thoughts of a young man who desperately wants to be worthy of the trust invested in him.” I found it a fascinating read and one that was atypical for war memoirs (of which I’ve read many). Mullaney is both a jock and an intellectual, a guy who is as comfortable in the halls of academia (he was a Rhodes scholar) as he is in the wrestling ring (where he was quite an accomplished athlete). He is far from a Texas Republican (like the authors of many of the memoirs I’ve read) and yet he’s also not quite the Rhode Island liberal we might (unfairly) expect for a guy who is part of the Obama-Biden Transition Team. He offers a poignant look at coming of age on the battlefield that is reminiscent of the similar memoirs of men like Eugene Sledge and Erich Maria Remarque, to whom he is clearly indebted. Forewarned is forearmed and, as Mohler noted, there is a little bit of profanity in this book, though it is mostly descriptive and happens on battlefields (where, by all accounts, there tends to be a fair bit of profanity). If you are interested in war memoirs, this one is a must-read.

With Wings Like EaglesNext up was Michael Korda’s With Wings Like Eages. I’ve always had a deep fascination with the Battle of Britain (which probably began the day I saw the movie of that name) and read this book like it was a spy thriller. Mohler says “With Wings Like Eagles is an accurate and well-written account that takes the reader into the drama of those days and the lives of the pilots. Korda places the Battle of Britain within the larger context of the war and, in the end, makes clear that, had Britain fallen, the world we know would be a remarkably different place.” It is, indeed, both accurate and well-written. It is also perfectly-paced, never getting bogged down in the details. It is deep enough to give a good sense of the ebb and flow of the battle, but not so deep that it becomes inaccessible. If I was forced to come up with a negative for this book, I’d point to the author’s esteem, and perhaps even over-esteem, for Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding. In fact, in many places the book reads almost like a biography of Dowding. While his importance to the battle and to the eventual Allied victory in the Second World War has long been under-appreciated, Korda may be just a little bit too positive toward his hero. Nevertheless, this is a very good book and one that describes an exceedingly important battle that without doubt changed the world.

Hunting EichmannThe third book I read was Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb. The book describes how a group of survivors along with a fledgling spy agency hunted down the man who engineered much of the Holocaust. And, of course, they quickly brought him to justice in a moment that was pivotal in Israeli history and in Israeli self-identity. Mohler says “Bascomb has written the only full account of Eichmann’s capture and its aftermath. He tells the story with great skill, and he sets the record straight on a number of questions. The most interesting fact about the search for Adolf Eichmann in the years after World War II is the fact that he was not even on the top list of wanted Nazi criminals at the war’s end. Eichmann’s central role in administering the “Final Solution” and the murder of millions of Jews in Germany and central Europe became evident only in the years after the war.” This is a book that reads like a novel, or close to it, in any case. It reminded me a fair bit of James Swanson’s Manhunt which also described the historical account of hunting down a notorious killer (and which is also well worth the read). Like that book, I couldn’t put it down until I had read the last page. I knew little about Eichmann and even less about his life after the war, his capture and his trial. This book provided the facts on all of these matters and did so in a fast-paced, compelling way.

War War One a Short HistoryFinally, just this morning I finished World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone. Mohler says “Without flinching, Stone tells the story of the hubris and insane optimism that brought Europe into this disaster and he recounts the blunders and grinding murderousness of this war. Most Americans want to know more about World War I and, most importantly, they want to understand what that war meant. World War One: A Short History is a great place to find those questions answered.” It is difficult to do justice to as great an event as the First World War in only 180 pages, but Stone does as well as we could hope. He does particularly well in describing the causes of the war and in showing at the end of his narrative how this war was really the prelude for the even greater, even more costly Second World War. Though it is relatively easy to read, it can be a little bit difficult to follow simply because so much had to be left out so this could be, as it claims, a short history. Still, anyone who is eager to read a brief overview of the War, or anyone who seeks to understand some of the background to the Second War, would do well to read this book.

That brings me to four out of ten. For Father’s Day I’ve requested three more from the list: Sultana, The Third Reich at War (which, based on its size, is clearly going to be a challenge) and Horse Soldiers. That will leave me with Masters and Commanders, Maverick Military Leaders and For the Thrill of It. Speaking of which, for the thrill of it, I also picked up the novel City of Thieves which Mohler also recently recommended. It’s going to be a busy summer. I’ll check in again when I’ve scratched a few more off my list.

One more quick note. While browsing the shelves of my local bookstore a short time ago, I came across What I Read, a little reading journal. It simply offers a place to record the books you’ve read along with a few brief comments about them. I’ve quite enjoyed using the journal and think it would make a perfect gift for any reader. So take a look and consider getting one for anyone you know who loves to read. They’ll love it.

June 17, 2009

Last Friday I encouraged you not to take your iPod to church. Not surprisingly, this generated a bit of discussion both at the blog and across some other social media (Twitter, Facebook, and so on). It’s a good discussion to have, I think. I realize that I am probably overstating my case just a little bit, but this is deliberate. I want to get people thinking about this issue. I offer special thanks to people who offered such incisive, head-in-the-sand feedback as this: “Maybe should worry about people who don’t bring any type of Bible to church instead of chiding technology” or “Why don’t we just go back to scrolls and the original languages, while we’re at it?” I guess it’s not worth responding to some comments.

I was quite far into a second article when I went found myself on a rather lengthy rabbit trail, writing about our love of information. Today we have unparalleled access to vast quantities of information to the point that we are nearly drowning in it. Yet we hoard it almost compulsively. So let’s call today’s article Don’t Take Your iPod to Church! (Part 1.5). It is a bit of an aside, but an important and relevant one, I think. We’ll start it this way…

I know a lot about my wife. I know what she likes to wear around the house, what she likes to wear to church and what she likes to wear when we go out for dinner. I know what she likes to eat and what she hates to eat. I know what books she likes to read, what movies she likes to watch, what web sites she likes to browse. I have all of this accumulated knowledge about my wife. But I think I could have this same level of knowledge about whoever the latest Hollywood heartthrob happens to be. This is exactly the kind of knowledge that you might find in those newspapers and magazines that clutter the checkouts at the grocery stores and it is the kind of knowledge that I might find on the hundreds of gossip blogs that pollute the internet.

I also have knowledge of my wife, knowledge that goes far beyond the facts of preferences, likes, dislikes, hobbies. I have an intense and intimate knowledge of my wife—a kind of knowledge shared by no one else in the world. She and I enjoy intimacy that transcends mere bits of information.

A trend we see today through today’s digital technology is the exaltation of this kind of knowledge, cold facts, at the expense of more intimate knowledge. This is true, I’m convinced, when we take our iPods to church. Quentin Schultze says that we have become like tourists who are so enamored by our mode of transportation that we cruise through nation after nation largely indifferent to the people and the cultures around us. We have our passports filled with the little stamps telling people just how many places we’ve been, but what is the purpose of being in places if we have not experienced them? And what is the purpose of knowing people if we do not care to know them on anything more than a surface level? The trend today is toward these fleeting, surface-level interactions.

We see this in a technology like Facebook. It is why I may have 1600 Facebook friends but no real face-to-face friends. It is why Facebook measures friendships in quantity, not in quality. And this, I think, is why so many of us love Facebook. It is a conduit for seemingly endless knowledge of the facts of the lives of our friends and families. We can log on to Facebook and at any time access a myriad of facts about our friends: what they are doing at that moment and what they have done update-by-update since they first joined; we can see who their friends are, what movies they enjoy, what books they read (or don’t read), what blogs they like, where they were born, what networks and groups they belong to, and on and on. We learn all these facts about them, even if we do not know them. These facts bring us no closer to knowledge of them—of who they really are. We have hundreds of people flitting around on the edges of our lives, but perhaps fewer than ever with whom are intimately involved. After a while we find real friendship too much, too terrifying, too intimate. Instead we reveal private details to all who will listen, almost as if those private details need to be known by someone.

But the wise observer might ask, if I have 1600 friends, why am I so lonely? Shouldn’t at least one of those 1600 friends be available when I need help painting my living room?

This trend manifests itself in other ways. We are increasingly moving knowledge to the cloud and relying on knowledge that exists in the cloud. The cloud, of course, is that sum of knowledge, or is it information?, that exists “out there.” When you just need to know what is in that bottle of pills you left in the closet and type its name into Google, you are accessing the cloud. It is convenient, to be sure. But it is encouraging us to emphasize the skill of accessing in favor of the skills of knowing and understanding. Hence we are becoming people who have little knowledge in our minds but great knowledge available with a few taps of our thumbs. And then we might ask, if we have little knowledge in our minds, how much can we have in our hearts? What use is memorizing Scripture if we can access our favorite translation faster than we begin to recite it. Why expend effort in getting the Bible into our hearts and minds if we already have it in our pockets?

The trend thus causes us to care more about accessing information that will make our lives immediately easier, that will fix our little problems, than the morality of what we do with that information. The information we access thus has no moral purpose, but instead a purely practical purpose. I need to know what the lyric is for this song, but I am not concerned about the fact that I have downloaded it illegally. This technology allows us to manipulate the world so we can get what we want and when we want it. Students increasingly see study as a means to getting good grades and making parents and teachers happy, but not as a means of acquiring knowledge that will impact their lives and benefit society. So we download essays from the internet, caring nothing of the morality of doing so or of the missed opportunity to actually know something. Says Quentin Schulze, “To know is to leverage information to accomplish instrumental goals.” (Schultze 33) Heart knowledge is downplayed in favor of using information to get what we want, now. What happens when we regard our friends in such ways? Our spouses? Our God?

Today’s digital technology is unparalleled in history as a means of communicating with others and as a means of sharing information. For this we ought to be grateful. Yet at the same time it may just be changing how we understand, perceive and gather information. We must exercise great caution that we do not lose knowledge of with our newfound ability to find knowledge about. I don’t think I even need to tell you how today’s generation differs in regard to past generations when it comes to their level of knowledge of history, language, Scipture and just about everything else. We may know how to do more, but we do not necessarily know more.

In a future article (part 2.0) I’ll return more pointedly to issues regarding digital technology and Scripture.