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

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter


April 03, 2008


This marks the third interview I’ve completed with artists involved in various disciplines. I first interviewed Max McLean about performance art and then Makoto Fujimura on his abstract art. Today I turn to photography and interview Lukas VanDyke, a photographer I have met at several conferences. Lukas is an exceptional photographer and I enjoyed his responses to these questions. I hope you do too!

Tell me a little bit about yourself—who you are and what you do.

Who I am? I tend to be very introspective and have piles of journals to prove it. So I will keep this short. I’m a Christian, and want to live a life to glorify God. There are two general questions I often ask myself. First, what am I known for right now as I live. And secondly, what will be I remembered for when I die. And for both questions I want the answer to be that I am living/lived my life with the kingdom of heaven in mind. To God be the glory.

Practically I am 26 year old guy who lives in Los Angeles and loves everything about his life. I love living in LA, I love my church, I love my friends, and I love my work. I started out in the Midwest when I was little, but ended up in Los Angeles in 2nd grade. I have been at John MacArthur’s church since then and can’t express my debt to the teachers there for the clear exposition of the scripture and its application on my life. The fellowship, love, and God centered focus of the body of believers I am part of makes me long to spend eternity with them doing what we do every week only free of our imperfections.

Vocation wise I actually do a number of different things. I am currently the Senior Network Analyst at The Master’s College. I’ve worked there consistently for the past 7+ years. However, ever since I opened my photo studio I have cut back my time there to give me the chance to shoot more. I love the impact I am able to have at the college and it is definitely a ministry which is worth ones time, but I also have a passion for photography. When I am fully engaged in a shoot the whole world around me disappears and it almost feels like magic. I guess it’s the thrill and passion of creating art. I love the experience. Which would lead one to ask what I shoot? Mostly I do fine art wedding coverage and couples portrait sessions. But I also do enjoy the abstractness of doing the cover art for various bands and other musicians. It’s a charge listening to the music and attempting to create images which define the music without sound. I also do some family portraits and free prayer cards for any missionaries who ask me. And within the major categories of what I do one of my favorites in conference coverage. I cover the Shepherd’s Conference at Grace Community Church every year, I also cover the Resolved Conference, and have done coverage at Steve Lawson’s church. And recently I got asked to start doing coverage for Ligonier Ministries and have emails to potentially do a few others. I love the conferences because I love meeting new people, and being able to help in any way with the impact these conferences have on the world.

Tell me how you came to be a Christian.

When I was five my Dad explained that if I were to die I would go to hell, and then explained a basic gospel. I repented and prayed a prayer to God. After that point all through my childhood I remember seeing consistent fruit in my life. I think I probably became a Christian at the point. However, I did still have a lot of doubt all through grade school and junior high. I prayed the prayer of salvation almost every night. I think this was probably because although I had an understanding of the tenants of gospel I couldn’t clearly articulate it with scripture. It wasn’t until I got into a small discipleship group when I was in junior high that I became surer of my faith. In small group we systematically went through some different core truths. We discussed God and who He is, memorizing verses such as Gen 1:1: and Acts 17:24-27 showing God is the creator of the universe. We talked about man and his sins and memorized Rom 3:23, 6:23 and other such scripture related to our total depravity and inability to come to God. We dived into Christ’s death and redeeming work on the cross in John 3:16 etc… And finally we talked about how man through nothing in himself can accept this gift and memorized Eph 2:8-9. We also practiced role play situations and learned how to clearly articulate this to others. It was a wonderful experiencing bringing me to a more scriptural based understanding of my sanctification. I also learned the 5 points of Calvinism and their scriptural basis in junior high. This clear teaching at an early age built a foundation for the growth and struggle for sanctification I have seen since then.

How is photography a form of art?

lukas3.jpgPhotography is an art in one sense of the word in that it requires skills on a multiplicity of levels. The creation of fine art images requires technical speed and skill with the camera. It assumes understanding of the complexity of color and light and how to use and bend such to make an image bleed with color. It necessitates an ability to understand and capture or evoke emotion from the subject or situation. This is followed by the process of fine-tuning the hues, saturation, and overall feel in post processing. All of which is just a brief synopsis of the complex mental and emotional process which goes into the creation of images. In the above definition of the word “art” my aim is to create images which, I hope, will take on an objective quality of excellence.

But overlying the technical aspects of image creation my internal validation stems from a different goal. I think the following really defines photography or anything else as art. I strive to create images which bring people into a realm which they have not yet or currently are not experiencing. I want to introduce them to a reality outside the mundane, bending their emotions, and driving them to an action which otherwise may have never caressed their mind. My passion draws the fibers of my inner being to produce, create, and define people’s conception of reality with the truth of things which exist outside the mundane of their world. In the case of fine art portraiture this might be as simple as conveying expressions of love or joy between couples in a beautiful way. However, in the case of international photos essays I bleed to show people the existence of the church, and people’s lives around the world. A life exists within the people I photograph. A life behind their eyes. Yearning hearts exist beyond the stereotype we throw at one another. Though the appearance of a person I photograph often shows their personal manifesto towards life, it isn’t always fair to classify every individual within that social group as one holding to those ideals. Are they not still people? I want to bring the world beyond their conception of the ordinary into the unseen and unheard and unspoken of.

Is photography your only artistic outlet or do you enjoy creating other kinds of art as well?

lukas4.jpgAlthough I would consider myself weak in the area, I do enjoy writing. For the same reason as I love photography, I love creating visual pictures that move people to see the pleasure I find in so many things.

When did you first discover your abilities in photography and your love for it? Have you received any formal artistic education?

During high school and in my first year of college I had tinkered with a point and shoot camera and I guess someone liked my work and asked me to shoot their wedding. All of a sudden something snapped in me and I decided to go all out. It’s actually a lot of really amazing stories which would take to long to write here. But in the course of a few months I started working for another wedding photographer and ended up with a good set of professional equipment and was shooting like crazy. I took a few basic classes to learn how to shoot manual, use studio lighting, and some journalism related classes, but for the most part it’s just been thousands of hours of work. Looking at other images and absorbing the feel and what I like about them. Doing intense criticism on every aspect of my own work looking for any area I could improve, and adjusting pushing myself and learning. I shoot around 200,000 images a year right now. I love it!

How do you seek to bring glory to God through your art?

Well I think anyone from custodial to the corporate executive can bring glory to God through their work. It’s working with fervor, with excellence, with diligence, with a love for those around us which shines the light of Christ. But aside from the above I specifically seek to bring glory to God through art by building bridges from the mundane to the passionate. God has given each person an allotted amount of time in life. We all have the choice as to how we use this time. I strive to show images which make people want to act. It’s actually been really amazing over the last few months, I have been see how emotional God has created us, and really starting to understand more the joy, sorrow, and passion we can live our lives with. God has given us an amazing world.

Which of your photos or series of photos are your favorites? Why?

lukas2.jpgA few years ago I went to Berlin, Germany for a couple months to do some work with our missionaries over there. While I was there I started a project photographing extremely close face shots of the beggars all around the urban center of Berlin. A year later I did a second series of beggars in the heart of Mexico City, Mexico. I took all these images with a wide angle lens from within 18 inches of my subjects face. These are by far some of my favorite images. They are context free portraits of people’s eyes. All of these eyes have a story behind them which I don’t know now nor will ever know. They are representative of lives filled with love or hatred, dreams or despair, hope or misery. Each has a story, each has a reality, and each has a need for a savior. I currently have an entire wall in my office filled with 16x20 inch prints of this series. But I love any image which has emotional passions, from images of prayer meetings in the mud brick slums of Brazil, to a crowd of anxious Russian seminary students leaning over Rick Holland to hear about the Word.

What are your hopes and dreams for your photography? Do you hope to build this into a full time occupation?

My hope would be to use something I love to further the Gospel of Christ. Right now this is a two part goal. One I want to be able to impact people for ministry through visual images. Second I like it because it gives me the flexibility to volunteer my time for missions for months at a time when the need arises. And obviously those things don’t generate any income, but I LOVE shooting weddings, and portraiture, and commercial images also. So for now it is just expanding what I do in every direction!

March 02, 2008

I met Ben Zobrist while in was in Nashville speaking at the Nashville Conference on the Church and Theology. The conference was hosted by Community Bible Church, the church he and his wife, Julianna, call home (Julianna is a professional singer and musician. You can visit her MySpace). Ben was pointed out to me as the shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays (apparently they are no longer the Tampa Bay Devil Rays). I know the Rays well as they share a division with my hometown Toronto Blue Jays. Ben, who was the opening day shortstop for the Rays in 2007, but who finished the season with an injury, is currently on the 40-man roster and is looking good to earn a spot on the 25-man roster (and hence a position on the major league squad) to begin the new season.

Ben ZobristThough Ben’s major league career has been short, he has already been involved in a play that is unique in the annals of professional baseball—a triple play in which the bat never touched the ball (a player struck out, a runner was caught trying to steal second and a third player was subsequently caught trying to steal home). If you’re a baseball fan and haven’t yet seen the play, you’ll want to! You can do so here.

Ben was kind enough to answer a few questions I sent to him, even though he is just settling into training camp.

How did you come to know the Lord?

God brought me to Himself at about the age of 4. My parents were devout believers and my Dad was in Bible College at the time. I remember hearing the gospel in Sunday school and I talked to my Mom about it one night before bed. It was clear to me that I was a sinner and I was not going to heaven if I died without accepting Jesus Christ and what He did on the cross for me. I was brought to Christ out of fear of going to hell. I didn’t want to go there after I died, and there was only one other choice in my mind as a 4 year old. I wanted to go to heaven. It was and is that simple.

How do you seek to bring glory to God through your career as a baseball player?

First of all, I try to be excellent at my job, because I know God wants me to give my best to be a walking witness and ambassador of the excellence of Jesus Christ. My teammates and coaches are watching to see if my relationship with Christ makes me any different on the ballfield, and I pray that God will be represented in my play as excellent. At the same time, I am seeking to be an active part of the body of Christ among ballplayers by using the spiritual gifts God has given me to encourage and build up my fellow teammates as well as the Baseball Chaplain that ministers to us on a weekly basis. We have weekly bible studies and Sunday morning chapel services. The nature of the game also gives me great opportunity to visit and share my faith in Christ on a regular basis with individuals, schools, and churches. So I try to use that platform to give glory to God as well.

Do you feel any particular kind of increased responsibility as both a Christian and an athlete?

I do sense an increased responsibility as a Christian athlete in our culture, because our culture exalts performance so much. There are many kids and adults alike who dream of being in our shoes. I believe as a Christian athlete, we are called to use that highly respected platform to deflect any praise to Whom it really belongs and to help people see beyond the glory of a man-made game or ballpark.

As a baseball player you have to be away from home for months at a time. How do you maintain your spiritual health while you are on the road and unable to be a part of a church? How do you maintain family relationships?

My wife and I are still learning how to do this effectively. Playing on Sunday afternoons (required to be at the park in the morning) creates an even more difficult situation than just being away from our Home church. Not only is it near impossible to be involved at a local church where we are playing, but we play at nights during the week until Sunday when we have an afternoon game, after which we usually have to travel to the next city right after the game. This makes it almost impossible just to attend any service. Baseball Chapel, an organization which provides an on-call minister in each baseball community, has been a great help with bible study during the week as well as ready networking among Christian ballplayers. We attend a service when we can. We take advantage of what Baseball Chapel offers. We read as much scripture personally as we can. And we also try to listen to podcast sermons as much as we can. To stay connected to family, we spend a lot of time talking on the phone and friends and family come visit us at various cities when they can. We are blessed to have great family and friends who encourage us in Christ throughout the baseball season.

Ben Zobrist

How do you stay connected to your local church during the baseball season? What role does your home church play in your life during the season?

We listen to our home church pastor Byron Yawn’s sermons through podcast. I am part of a men’s Theology class at church as well, and one of the men sends me an mp3 of the study that week. We keep up with prayer requests and activities through massive church emails. Pastor Byron calls every so often to check on us to see how we are doing. We also try to do a mass update to everyone every so often to let everyone know how we are doing and how to pray. Prayer is the main role the local church plays in our lives during the season. Prayer is powerful and much needed as it seems there are few ballplayers that have a strong connection to a local church back home that is praying for them.

How can we pray for Christian athletes? What particular needs or challenges do athletes have that require prayer?

Pray first and foremost against idolatry for us. It is easy to make success in our sport an idol when you want to be excellent. It is easy to set ourselves above others and most grievously above God when people treat you “special”, almost like an idol. Pray for right perspective and constant humility against our prideful flesh. Pray against temptation of all things worldly. And pray for spiritual openness and conversation amongst believers. Athletes tend to have hard outer shells and they think it is weak to share their hearts.

How does an athlete - someone who people know and recognize - handle being in a local church without being a distraction?

I wear a hat and glasses…just kidding. People don’t know who I am when I go to church. I guess I’m not bigtime yet…Ha! Seriously though, I think when you go to worship the Lord with His people, if you bring an attitude of humility, and it is obvious what you are there for, people get it. I love that our local church treats us no different than any other, and I’d be worried if it was any other way. I believe we are best as the body of Christ when we show absolutely no partiality among the saints.

Who are your main spiritual influences?

My parents and my wife’s parents have been incredible examples in our lives. There are some great Christian men in my life that I look up to on a regular basis. My accountability partner, my Chapel leader and his family, our pastor and local church back in Nashville are other main influences. Others include pastors I’ve listened to personally and through podcast that faithfully preach the Word of God.

What are a few good books you’ve read recently? What are a few you’re hoping to read soon?

The Saints’ Everlasting Rest by Richard Baxter
The Measure of a Man by Gene Getz
The Attributes of God by Arthur Pink
How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler
Overachievement by John Eliot

Soon, I hope to read…

Famine in the Land by Steven Lawson
Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley
Humility by CJ Mahaney
Cinderella Man by Jeremy Schaap
Oh yeah……and uh Spiritual Discernment by Tom Challies or somebody like that.

Should I draft you to be the cornerstone of my fantasy baseball squad this year? Are you willing to make me any performance guarantees?

You should definitely draft me, but I can’t guarantee a lot of points. Draft by faith.

February 29, 2008

Os Guinness is the author of nearly twenty books, the most recent of which is The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on it. Guinness was kind enough to answer several questions I posed to him after the publication of this latest title. This has already been posted on Discerning Reader, but I wanted to post it here to be sure you were able to read it. Also, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the interview, the book, or the topic in general. The topic we spoke about is somewhat foreign to me (pun intended), as it focuses on the United States. This interview was unique in that it was a Canadian interviewing a Brit about America. Read on…

The thesis of your book is that the challenge of living with our deepest differences—that is, our religiously grounded—differences, is one of the world’s great issues today. The book’s subtitle is “And why our future depends on it.” What is at stake as we look to recover civility in America first and then in the rest of the world?

Two things are at stake in the issue of re-forging a civil public square. The primary issue is the freedom of followers of Christ to be faithful to him in every area of our lives, including our freedom to enter and engage public life. The secondary issue is the health and viability of the American republic. I am a great admirer of this country, but as a European the second issue is obviously secondary. I trust it is secondary too for Americans who love their country, but love Christ first and foremost.

But let me make clear that I am arguing for a civility that is far more than nice manners. I am talking of re-forging a ‘civil public square’ as opposed to the present extremes of a ‘naked public square’ on one side and a ‘sacred public square’ on the other. I am not saying that the issues at stake in the culture wars are unimportant - they are very important - but that the way we are fighting them is wrong and also destructive to freedom in the long run.

Take the simple fact that Europe is the most secular continent in the world, and much of this secularity is in direct reaction to yesterday’s corrupt state churches. The U.S. never had this problem because of the genius of the First Amendment - until recently that is. Yet over the last generation, as the culture wars have intensified and in direct reaction to the perceived extremism of the religious right, we have seen a mounting American equivalent of the European repudiation of all religion, at least among the educated classes (for example, the new atheists). If this reaction hardens in concrete, it spells disaster for Christians and for the U.S.

In the past did other nations look to the United States as the model for living together despite deep differences? Do they continue to do this today? Why do you feel the United States is uniquely able to model civility?

The framers described the United States as a ‘novus ordo seclorum,’ or new order of the ages. More recently it has been described as ‘the first new nation’ in the sense that the U.S. wrestled with many of the key issues of the modern world from the beginning. In the past, most other nations dismissed this claim as American self-congratulation and irrelevant to them. What did the First Amendment mean, for instance, to nations that were happy with their established church? That complacency has been shattered in the last generation. Other nations are now wrestling with issues such as immigration and exploding religious diversity, but without models such as the melting pot and principles such as freedom of conscience. The English and the Dutch, for example, being liberal and tolerant, took immediately to ‘multiculturalism,’ only to breed enclaves of home-bred terrorism. The sad irony, however, is that just as many in the rest of the world begin to appreciate what the U.S. has been wrestling with, mostly successfully, for 200 years, they look across the Atlantic and the U.S. is not doing so well today - for instance, in the endless recently culture-warring.

Are both secularists and those who hold to a religion contributing equally to the breakdown of civility? Or is the breakdown coming more from one side than the other?

It depends who you are talking to. Each side in the culture wars naturally thinks the other is far worse, if not the sole source of the problem. Looked at over thirty years, a rather even balance sheet can be drawn up. At the moment, though, the forces of the ‘sacred public square’ are showing signs of weakening, whereas the forces of the ‘naked public square’ represent the greater danger, above all in the way that ‘civil liberty’ is repeatedly trumping ‘religious liberty.’ For the founders, these liberties were twins and their relationship needed to be negotiated carefully. Today the homosexual movement is using the first to rout the second. All religious believers will be the losers as well as the republic.

Some people, when thinking of a plurality of religions, immediately think of relativism. How is a proper understanding of the difference between pluralism and relativism necessary to restore civility?

The fear of the ‘P word’ (pluralism) has generally been a feature of fundamentalism or the religious right, but it is based on a misunderstanding. Pluralism is simply a social fact and one that is inescapable. We live in a world where, because of travel, the media, and immigration, it is now said that ‘everyone is now everywhere.’ Relativism, on the other hand, is a philosophical conclusion and one with which Christians disagree strongly - the idea that there is no absolute truth and everything is depends on your perspective.” We Christians should come to terms with the fact of pluralism, but we should stoutly resist relativism. Sadly, statistics show that whereas the early church remained absolutely faithful to Christ in a highly pluralistic situation, modern Christians have surrendered to relativism to an appalling extent - especially among the younger generation and among the Emergent Church.

James Madison famously objected to the word “tolerance” in the draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and succeeded in changing tolerance to free exercise. How is the concept of free exercise relevant to the case for civility?

Tolerance is infinitely better than its opposite - intolerance . But it has two weaknesses. First, it is a grant and not a right, and therefore it is patronizing and condescending in essence. It is always the strong tolerating the weak, the majority the minority, and the government the citizens. Second, it has softened and become squishy over time, so that it easily flip-flops into intolerance (under the PC guise, of course, of supposed ‘tolerance’).

Free exercise, by contrast, is a positive right, based on freedom of conscience, which includes behavior as well as belief. Today, free exercise has to be contrasted not just with ‘tolerance’ but with purely negative, and therefore inadequate, notions such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crimes.’ Freedom will never be guaranteed by law alone (as opposed to the civil ‘habits of the heart’) or by negative notions such as hate speech.

In the book you make several mentions of the great English reformer William Wilberforce. As we have just celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery—a triumph engineered by Wilberforce—what can we learn from him?

There are scores of lessons we can learn from Wilberforce, but take just one: his civility. As a follower of the way of Jesus, he loved his enemies and always refused to demonize them. At one time he was the most vilified man in the world, but while he never minced words in speaking about the evils of slavery, he was always gracious, generous, modest, funny, witty, and genuinely loving toward his enemies. When one of his worst enemies died, he at once saw to it anonymously that his widow was cared for adequately. Compare this with the religious right’s demonizing of its foes. The latter is not so much uncivil as unChristian.

The gospels are filled with examples of Jesus’ harsh language against others, and particularly the religious leaders. Can we look to Him as a model of civility?

Jesus is famous for his harsh denunciations of the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees and others. Here he is in the tradition of the prophets, such as Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah, and there are times when we must be outspoken too - above all on behalf of the oppressed and in opposition to evil. But as his followers, we are also called to love our enemies, to forgive without limit, to speak the truth with love, and to be always ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us ‘with gentleness and respect.’

Put differently, we have deep Christian reasons for a different style of public speech that are different from mere civility. And we always need to remember that civility is not a matter of being nice or squeamish about differences. It is a republican virtue and a democratic necessity that is a habit of the heart that knows how to deal with real differences with robust civility.

What can the person on the street, the average American, do to restore civility to America?

The U.S. is at a stage when the culture wars and the extremism are so bitter and entrenched that it will take a leader of the stature and courage of Lincoln to stand above it and call for a better way. But we must not sit and wait passively. First, we can pray. Second, we can ourselves show a better way - loving our enemies, speaking truth with love, and so on. And third, we can say No to incivility of all kinds and call for a better way - challenging speakers, cancelling subscriptions, and calling for leadership that addresses the ‘better angels’ of our
fellow citizens, rather than addressing fear and hatred.

As you look to the forthcoming Presidential election do you see a leader who inspires you as a potential leader who can match this moment?

A congressman came to me recently and said, ‘America is in decline, and many of our leaders are in denial. What can we do?’ Whether or not you agree with him, there is a widespread sense that the U.S. lacks leadership and that almost no one is addressing the deepest issues we are facing. But as a visitor to this country, I am not going to comment on the current election. That is your privilege and responsibility.

And finally, who should read this book? What are your hopes for this book and how will you know if it has been a success?

Of all the books I have written for the public square, this is the timeliest and most constructive. I hope it will be read by thoughtful citizens and thoughtful Christians. But not having any ‘platform’ or mailing list, and not being in one or other of the polarized camps, it is easy for a book like mine to fall silently like a leaf in the forest. I will know it is a success if some leader and some group step forward and champion the vision, and set in motion a serious sustained effort to re-forge a civil public square. But whether I succeed or not, the issue I raise in the book is a ‘standing or falling’ issue for Christians in America and for the American republic too. If the problem is not resolved, and so far there are not many alternative solutions being proposed, America will soon decline. Make no mistake. This is an issue that demands resolution or the future of the republic is in question. It is that simple and that serious.

Remember where I began. The issue of restoring civility to American public life is not a primary issue for Christians. For me, there are two more important issues. One is the reformation of the church and the restoration of integrity to Christian belief and behavior, and the other is the restoration of credibility to the way we share the Gospel to the educated classes. Civility is far less important than these two grand issues, which are a matter of faithfulness to Christ. But a civil public square is also important because it affects our freedom and ability to bring faith into public life, and therefore to be salt and light in the whole of society as we are called to be.

Click here to Read my review of The Case for Civility

February 03, 2008

Golden Fire

A little while ago I conducted a brief interview with Makoto Fujimura (makotofujimura.com). Fujimura is a New York-based artist who deals with a kind of art with which I have little familiarity. I first heard of him through an article written by Phil Ryken in which he describes visiting an exhibition featuring Fujimura’s work. I was intrigued by the examples of his art I saw through the internet and asked if he’d be willing to answer a few questions. He was kind enough to comply.

When did you first discover your love for art? Did you receive any formal artistic education? Who are your greatest influences in your art?

I grew up in a creative home (I was born in Boston, and grew up bi-culturally between Japan and US), my father being a research scientist, and my mother being a creative educator. Art was always part of my life, but it was not until I was in high school that I realized I had to protect my creative time, or it will be taken from me. I studied art in college (as part of a double major at Bucknell Universtiy), and received Japanese Governmental scholarship and ended up for six and a half years at a prestigious Nihonga program at Tokyo National University.

What kind of art do you primarily create?

My art is based on medieval technique and method of Japanese art now known as Nihonga. If you come to my exhibits in NYC, you will not only see paintings, but also video installations. I also do collaborations with musicians, and recently I became the first artist ever to paint live on stage at the Carnegie Hall. But I see my art as part of my life, my writings, my effort to help our church plant activities in NYC. To me, “art” is not just the product of what I produce, but the process of revealing the core of my humanity.

Tell us about how you came to know the Lord.

My new book River Grace (will be available via www.iamny.org) accounts for my journey to come to faith in Japan while as a graduate student. My wife had a lot to do with it. It was triggered by the experience of creating beauty but that same beauty exposed my emptiness within.

Eric Liddell, the great Scottish Olympian and missionary once said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Even in something as simple as running he felt the pleasure of God. Can you identify with that as you create works of art?

Absolutely. It’s the most intimate, worshipful experience to be alone in the studio and paint. I also resonate with Liddell, as I, too, feel that passionate call to share the love of Christ with others and be used to build the City of God.

Have you ever thought about what art will be like in the new heavens and new earth? Do you suppose you’ll be able to continue to create art for God’s glory for all eternity?

All the time…Art taps into the glory of the transcendent, and earthy, realities of the new heavens and new earth. Good art (whether created by Christians or non-Christians) should produce a longing for that reality.

Which of the works you’ve made so far are your favorites? Why?

I have a few paintings that I see as seminal works, such as Sacrificial Grace series in ‘98, exhibited at Dillon Gallery in NYC. I also did a series of works based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, as a response to 9/11 (I am a “Ground Zero” resident), and my most recent called Golden Flames painting is one of the most important works for me.

How do you seek to bring glory to God through your art?

By being faithful and resourceful to investment in refinement of the gifts given to me, to use my creativity to contribute to community around me. I believe that art is inherently is of and from God (remember that our God is THE Creator), though we twist the gift of creativity given to us. So if you are involved in creativity, you dwell near the heart of God. Of course that does not mean we have personal relationship with the Creator and thereby being able, via the Holy Spirit, to enjoy God’s presence that is revealed via our creativity.

Still Point

What are your hopes and dreams for your art? As you look to the future and allow yourself to dream a little bit, what would you like to see happen with your art?

I do want to be the best artist that I can be, to represent God’s grace in the world in my life as well as in the world. My effort to advocate for artists have grown into the International Arts Movement, a not-for profit arts organization that has a headquarter in New York City and chapters in Japan and elsewhere. We believe that God desires to re-humanize the world via the arts and creative expression, and we want to create a home for folks wrestling with deep issues of art, faith and humanity. Re-humanizing the world is a big, ambitious goal, and yet a goal that God calls all of us to participate in.

You may wish to learn more about Makoto Fujimura at makotofujimura.com.

January 30, 2008

Yesterday I posted the first portion of an interview with Devin Brown, author of Inside Prince Caspian and Inside Narnia. Today we continue with the second and final piece, and look at mistakes people make when reading the Narnia books and the film adaptations of Lewis’s works.

TC: What are some of the most common mistakes people make when reading and interpreting the Narnia books?

In my opinion, the two biggest mistakes people make about the Narnia books are 1) reading them in the wrong order and 2) labeling them as Christian allegory.

During Lewis’s life, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was always the first book and The Magician’s Nephew was always sixth. A number of years after Lewis passed away, the series was renumbered by the publisher and put in chronological order with The Magician’s Nephew first. While this reordering may seem to have a certain common sense appropriateness, I think the stories are best enjoyed in their original order.

If we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first, we know only what the children do, and this allows us to journey with them. In addition, if we read The Magician’s Nephew later, it is much more satisfying. We get to say, “Oh, so that’s where the lamp-post came from!”

When the film Susan steps into Narnia, she is filled with awe and stammers, “Impossible.” If we know only what she knows, we share her wonder. But if we already know about Narnia, we say, “Oh no, Susan, it’s not impossible.”

I used to think the renumbering issue was just something Lewis scholars worried about—among Lewis experts there is a strong preference for the original order. But recently I have been talking to young people who say they had a hard time getting into the Narnia stories. I couldn’t understand the problem until I realized that because of the new numbering, they had started with The Magician’s Nephew. It is interesting to note that the filmmakers have decided to go back to the original order.

An allegory is a story whose surface elements have a clear one-to-one relationship with a second deeper story. In an allegory it is this second story, not the first, which is the real focus. A good example of an allegory is Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat and seven thin cattle.

People often say that the Narnia books are allegorical, but technically they are not. Aslan, for example is a Christ-figure but not the same as Jesus in our world. Here’s one way they don’t line up. People sometimes say that in the same way that Jesus died for our sins, so too Aslan dies for Edmund’s sins. But in our world, we have to accept Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. In the story, Edmund is reconciled with Aslan before the death occurs. In fact, in the first book Edmund is never told that Aslan died in his place, so there is no way he could accept it.

If we try to say that Peter Pevensie is Peter the apostle, not only are we going have problems finding parallels, we do an injustice to the story. If Lewis had wanted to write a Christian allegory, he certainly could have. His earlier work The Pilgrim’s Regress is one, and was modeled after The Pilgrim’s Progress—the most famous allegory in English literature. I usually talk about the Biblical parallels that can be found in the Narnia stories, rather than allegories.

By the way, some people approach the Narnia books as if they were sermons. Again, if Lewis had wanted to write a sermon, he certainly could have done so. His sermon “The Weight of Glory,” which he preached at St. Mary’s in Oxford, is one of his most famous works. Lewis himself tells us that he wrote a fairy tale because “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.”

TC: In your books you often compare and contrast the worlds or characters of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. How valuable is it to consider the works of these men in relation to each other?

I think it is very helpful to compare elements in the Narnia stories with similar elements found elsewhere—in one of the other Chronicles, somewhere else in Lewis’s writings, or in another author’s work. Putting a scene, a character, an event, or a theme from Narnia side-by-side with a similar aspect from another book allows us to see things we might not have seen before.

A number of scholars have emphasized the differences between Lewis and Tolkien and the fact that Tolkien did not like the way Lewis mixed mythologies in Narnia. But I see these two authors as far more alike than different and sharing a deep common ground. Knowing and studying one author helps us better understand the work of the other.

TC: Did you find that the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe helped or hindered people’s understanding of Lewis’s story and world?

I really think Walden Media’s film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe did a great job of capturing the magic, the message, and the spirit of Lewis’s original.

Everyone who loves these books was worried before the film came out because this was the one and only chance for our generation to see this story translated to the big screen. (I am thinking that, as with other great works such as Hamlet or Pride and Prejudice, each generation will produce a new version.) With the first film it became clear that not only does Andrew Adamson understand these stories, he also has a profound and genuine love for them.

Besides providing the world with an inspiring and lovingly-made movie, Walden has also encouraged many theater-goers, young and old, to go back and read or reread Lewis’s original.

TC: What was your single biggest disappointment with the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

For me, the film did not quite reach either the highs or the lows that the book does, and I think this is a significant loss. In addition, I found the film Aslan to lack the awe that was always present in Lewis’s original. When the children finally meet Aslan in chapter twelve, Lewis’s narrator says, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.” The movie Aslan was good enough, but his terrible side was not as present as it needed to be.

When the children and Trumpkin meet Aslan in Prince Caspian, we are told, “They felt as glad as anyone can who feels afraid, and as afraid as anyone can who feels glad.” This will be a high mark for the second film to aim for.

If Aslan is a Christ-figure, what are we to make of this? I think Lewis was suggesting that our proper response to an encounter with Christ will be a mixture of great gladness and great awe. Some Christians may be too fearful of Jesus and so need more gladness added to their feelings. Others may have too familiar an image of Christ and may need a bit more awe.

TC: What was the one element that you felt best translated to the screen in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?

There were a number of elements that, for me, worked perfectly in the film adaptation. I thought the bombing scenes in London added greatly to the story. The Professor’s house was just the right blend of homey and spooky. Narnia in winter was as enchanted as I had hoped. And Mr. Tumnus was even better than expected. In addition, I thought that the casting was nearly perfect—especially the four children.

TC: What do you anticipate being your single biggest disappointment with Price Caspian and what is the one thing you are most looking forward to seeing on the screen?

I don’t really like to go into a film thinking I am going to be disappointed, but I wonder if the second film will get Lewis’s ending right. Lewis ends the book with the children having a newfound sense of what I call “the sacramental ordinary.” They begin the story on a “flat and dreary” train platform, but in the end they find it “unexpectedly nice is its own way.”

Lewis does not want the four children or his readers to despise their own world because they have been to Narnia. He wants them and us to better see the enchantment that has always been there. He wants our rereading of the Narnia stories to help re-enchant our lives and the world around us.

I am really looking forward to the scene in Prince Caspian where laughter and merriment returns to Narnia after having been banished or driven underground for years by Miraz. If Narnia in the first book is always winter and never Christmas, in the second book it is summertime but never the Fourth of July.

If I had to pick the greatest contribution that Lewis has made to my life, it would be his constant reminder that the Christian life should be full and overflowing with joy, laughter, celebration, and good times—not just during vacations or holidays and not just when we get to Heaven, but every day right now.

TC: Assuming that there is a movie made for each of the books, which are you most eagerly anticipating? And are you planning on writing an “Inside” book for each of the seven books and movies?

In a way this first question is really asking if I have a favorite among the Chronicles. I do, but it keeps changing—maybe this is true for everyone. While there is not a book among the seven that I don’t like, my current favorite is The Horse and His Boy, a book which I know many readers often list as their least favorite. (I wonder what this says about my taste.)

I plan to continue to write “Inside” books as long as I feel I have something to say, and so far that has not been a problem. I am currently working on Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader which will come out in January 2010 in advance of the third film.

Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury College. This summer he is teaching a week-long seminar at The Kilns, where participants will get to eat, sleep, and take classes in Lewis’s home in Oxford.

January 29, 2008

Last week I posted a review of Inside Prince Caspian, a new book by Devin Brown and a follow-up to his earlier work Inside Narnia. These books provide literary analysis of the Narnia books and have greatly enhanced my understanding of and enjoyment of C.S. Lewis’s imaginary world. I thought it would be interesting to follow the reviews with an interview and Brown was kind enough to spare some time. I asked him not only about his books, but about C.S. Lewis, the Narnia series, Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a variety of other subjects. I hope you find the interview as interesting as I did!

TC: Why C.S. Lewis? Why do you have such a fascination with the man and his work?

I suppose most people have their own special set of writers, musicians, or artists that are an important part of their life. As I get older, it is remarkable to see how much richer the work of my particular set has made my life.

While I have a number of favorite authors whose lives and thinking interest me, C.S. Lewis has been at the top of the list since I was around 16. I think his overall appeal for me lies in the fact that he was such a man of letters in the old fashioned sense. He was a poet, philosopher, literary scholar, college professor, Christian apologist, and fiction writer all in one, and his profound faith permeated all of these roles.

TC: The Narnia books are among the select few that children and adults seem to equally enjoy. Why do you think this is? Why the wide appeal?

It is only relatively recently in terms of human history, that myths and fairy tales have become viewed as something to be relegated to children’s bookshelves. From the times of the ancient Greeks to as recently as the collections by the Brothers Grimm, there has been a certain kind of story that tells us who we are and why we are here. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia, provides us—young and old—with this special kind of story.

Lewis himself spoke about this special story that appeals to all ages. He wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” He claimed that “the good ones last,” meaning that their appeal lasts far beyond our childhood and that they continue to speak to us as we grow and develop.

Of course, in using a simple story as a vehicle for deepest truth, Lewis was following Christ’s example. When Jesus wanted to tell his disciples about God’s love, he did not write them a long, philosophical essay. He gathered them around them and began like this: “Once there was a man who had two sons, and the youngest said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’” He went on to tell the story of the Prodigal son.

TC: Have you read the Harry Potter books? If so, do you think they will have the lasting popularity of the Narnia books? Why or why not? How are they similar to the Chronicles of Narnia and how do they differ?

I have read the first two Harry Potter books, and enjoyed them—though not as much as the Narnia stories (and obviously not enough to finish all seven).

I see two ways to read these books. On one hand, they can be seen as simply a modern day version of what Lewis called the “Boys’ Book,” our culture’s story of “the immensely popular and successful schoolboy who discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage.” The previous generation had the Hardy Boys, before that there was Tom Swift.

According to Lewis, the problem with this kind of story is that it is “all flattery to the ego.” We identify with the protagonist and so picture ourselves as the “object of admiration.” Lewis argues that we run to this kind of book to escape the “disappointments and humiliations of the real world,” but in the end, we return to our own world and our own lives “undivinely discontented.”

But the Harry Potter stories are more than this. In his very last speech in Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore states, “There are all kinds of courage.” And thus Rowling’s deeper message is that there are all kinds of heroes—Harry is one kind, Ron is another, so is Hermione, and so is Neville Longbottom. These stories remind us that each of us is a wizard, though we may not realize it. When read this way, the Harry Potter books are like the Narnia stories, in that they don’t make us look down on real woods because we have read of enchanted ones. As Lewis notes, reading this special kind of book “makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

Having said this, I predict that fifty years from now, we will find that the Chronicles of Narnia are still being bought and read by young and old. I am not as confident about the Harry Potter books.

TC: How can the literary analysis you provide enhance the reader’s understanding of the books?

I am not sure people need convincing that the literary analysis I provide in my books will enhance their understanding of the Narnia stories. Sometimes they may doubt that studying these stories in a serious way will increase their enjoyment of them.

Certainly the Narnia books can be read and enjoyed on a number of levels. But just as knowing more about a piece of music or a painting makes our appreciation and enjoyment of them richer, I believe that careful reading and careful thinking about these books will also add to our delight.

Taking a different tack, I am a firm believer that God wants us all to use our divinely-given intellect more than we typically do, that we are all called to think more deeply and more carefully about all sorts of things. I hope the ideas I present in my books will help, in a small way, to encourage the life of the mind. Perhaps talking and thinking about the Narnia books, for some, may be the start of talking and thinking about other topics.

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion to the interview

Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury College. This summer he is teaching a week-long seminar at The Kilns, where participants will get to eat, sleep, and take classes in Lewis’s home in Oxford.

January 21, 2008

A short time ago I had the opportunity to interview Max McLean. You may know McLean as the narrator of the Bible in the ESV, NIV or KJV or as the narrator of the audio version of The Valley of Vision. He has also released recordings of several Christian classics and has been involved in many stage productions. Most recently he has starred in a production of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in New York City (with the production moving to Washington this April). You can learn more about him at listenersbible.com.

My particular interest in interviewing McLean was in understanding how his genre of art—performance art—can bring glory to God. I also wanted to understand how being a member of a local church impacts his art.

Tell us a little bit about yourself—who you are and what you do?

I was born in Panama City, Panama and came to America via New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty at the age of four. The first thing he had to do was master the English language. Due to Dad’s military career, ‘home’ included many places across the continental United States, the Far East, and Europe.

Currently, I live in New Jersey just outside of New York City with my wife of 31 years, Sharon,. I have two lovely daughters Rachel, 27 who is married and lives in Long Beach CA with her new husband (she was just married last month) and Julia, 26, who lives in Hoboken NJ.

Sharon and I are members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church where we serve as fellowship group leaders and serve communion. I also lead the scripture reader’s ministry there.

Tell us how you came to be a Christian

It was in 1976, soon after graduating from college. I grew up a nominal Catholic and was quite interested, though frightened by the thought of God, when I was young. I made a clean break from anything to do w/ Christianity after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation when I was about 14. I dabbled a bit in eastern mysticism but nothing serious.

When I began to date my wife, Sharon, I knew she grew up in a strong Christian home and was a regular churchgoer. I didn’t understand it but since I was interested in her I would go along from time to time. She introduced me to some of her friends who were studying the Bible together. I felt compelled to attend one of their sessions which was unusual because I would never be interested in that. They had a guest teacher the night I was there, but I remember not being that engaged by the teaching. But I was drawn immediately to the scripture passages being read. I believe it was from Galatians 1. I remember the words of the text hit me as passionate and forceful. I had not been confronted by the power and insight of the Bible prior to that. From that moment God began to work in my life and convict me of my sin. At first I wanted to run away, but I couldn’t. Then I read John’s Gospel - in one sitting. As I read it, I could see and feel it in my mind’s eye. I thought Jesus was going to come right out of the pages of the Bible and take me with him. At his crucifixion I was in tears. But after the resurrection appearances, an inexplicable joy just overwhelmed my whole body. I knew this story was true and that my life would never be the same again.

When did you first discover your abilities in acting and your love for it? Have you received any formal education in this discipline?

I started acting in college as a way of overcoming my fear of being in front of people, sociophobia. I think people recognized my talent but they were also aware of how raw I was. I also needed a lot of voice work. My plan after college was to do post graduate work at a drama school in London. My “born again” experience which happened in the intervening months, did not derail those plans at all. In fact, I was more energized than ever. I knew God would use it, though I wasn’t sure how. I completed my post-graduate work in theater and then did some work on stage in Great Britain, New York and in regional theaters.

Within two years I was married with a child on the way. Before long I realized that an actor is really nothing more than a hired hand. His job is to brilliantly communicate other people’s ideas regardless of their intent. It was both demanding and unfulfilling. At the same time, God was calling me to Himself. He let me know that “you cannot serve two masters.” So I was compelled to leave the theater and acting altogether.

That left a huge void in my life. I didn’t know what I would do. To fill the void, I became much more active in my local church. My pastor preached the Bible with conviction. He also invited outstanding guest speakers to come in on a fairly regular basis. So I was exposed to great preaching and Bible teaching from the pulpit and also on tape. I found myself being so moved by the insight from their sermons and the conviction in their voices. The way they connected with the Bible and were able to inspire and exhort others was absolutely riveting. There was so much power coming out of their personal devotion to the Word of God.

This encouraged me to study the Bible more closely and gave me the desire to go to seminary. While at seminary I had an epiphany that would redirect the course of my life. A key faculty member discovered that I had a theatrical background and he encouraged me to use drama in ministry. At that time, drama in the church was starting to get some attention. But it was mostly sketches to illustrate sermons. I wasn’t motivated to go in that direction. Rather, the Lord inspired me to do something different. ‘Why not use the skills and techniques developed from acting and the theater, integrate it into what I had learned from preachers and teachers, and apply all of that into word for word dramatic presentations of the Bible?’

Well, it was an event waiting to happen. From the first time I presented the Bible in this way the impact was immediate and profound. Since then God has provided opportunities to present the Bible of all ages and across the religious and cultural spectrum in live presentations, on radio and on television to hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people.

That led to recording the Bible in three different translations (NIV, ESV & KJV), a radio ministry called Listen to the Bible that airs on 675 radio affiliates worldwide and doing one person shows of Mark’s Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles and Genesis. Over the years I’ve worked with and trained other solo artists who have gone on do such books of the Bible as John, Exodus, Revelation, and Daniel among others. Currently we are producing a stage adaptation of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters that opened off Broadway in New York City [and which is moving to Washington in April]. And we just released a new recording called Classics of the Christian Faith that includes The Conversion of St. Augustine (from Book Eight of His Confessions), Martin Luther’s Here I Stand, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and George Whitfield’s The Method of Grace. The idea is to introduce these extraordinary works to a contemporary audience.

What is Fellowship for the Performing Arts?

Fellowship for the Performing Arts (FPA) was incorporated in 1992 as a means to support my work of expressing faith through the dramatic arts. At the time I was on the road perhaps 150 to 200 nights a year and it was a tough way to live or to fulfill the vision God was calling me to. By starting FPA I could raise support, put my self on salary and be more strategic in fulfilling my vision.

The first thing we did was produce the NIV New Testament that has since grown into the Listeners Bible line in the ESV, KJV and NIV translations. Then we launched the daily radio program and last we started producing our dramatic presentations of the Bible into theatrical events in secular and collegiate venues in New York and around the country.

How do you seek to bring glory to God through performance art?

At the root of Christianity is the admission that this world is not what it ought to be, and at the heart of being a Christian is the confession that, “I am part of the problem.” Our vision is to select literature from the Bible and the treasury of Christian history that help us to see our predicament; and to move us toward a more humble understanding of ourselves and a closer relationship with God. For the theatre our vision is to select stories that explore how and why consequential choices are made, and to produce those stories in a manner that engages diverse audiences.

The great theatre critic, Harold Clurman, who started The Group Theatre in NY in 30’s and who really revolutionized the acting profession as a legitimate agent for social change wrote “make them laugh…and while their mouths are open pour truth in.” Of course he was referring to a political ideology that was important to him but the premise of the argument stands. In fact in rehearsals recently the director game me similar advice w/ regard to telling The Screwtape Letters ‘tell the story and the ideas will emerge. If you focus on the ideas you will lose the story and the audience.” Good advice.

In the biography at your web site you make it clear that you are an active member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Has being a member of a local church contributed to your understanding of your role as both a Christian and as an artist? How has being a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in particular helped your faith serve your art (or helped your art serve your faith)?

Well, in NYC with the idolatry of work and self glory so prevalent having a church community that preaches humility and working for the peace and prosperity of the city; “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” Proverbs 10:10 is absolutely critical. Redeemer, being an urban NYC church is filled with artists of all disciplines. It has at least two full time staff persons dedicated to serving and disciplining artists to grow in service and grace. Redeemer’s vision is committed to prayer, evangelism, social justice and cultural engagement through intense interaction w/ the gospel. And that rubs off if you are more than just an attendee. Being involved in small group leadership is grounding. So yes, Redeemer is a motivating, inspiring, correcting and challenging place to be if you are called to work as Christian in the arts.

You provide performances in which you combine narration and acting to bring dramatic expression to the Bible. What value does this kind of performance have? Can this help people come to a better understanding of Scripture?

I think so. Scripture says in Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ. Capturing that essence is the uniqueness of our ministry. Much of the Bible’s content was originally communicated orally. Jesus wrote no words that have been handed down to us. In Gal 4 Paul writes “how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone.” He wants them to hear his voice too truly understand the energy and weight behind his words. Just like a well written sermon is not really energized until it is spoken so is much of our understanding of the Bible. There is a level of insight that emerges when you hear the word that is often missed when you read it. Our desire is that our presentations not be an end in the themselves, but rather a catalyst that encourages folks to devote daily time in God’s Word.

What are your hopes and dreams in regards to your career? What roles would you like to play? What books or other content would you still like to record?

In terms of hopes and dreams I don’t believe I think that way. I am interested in fulfilling the calling God has for me. Working on The Screwtape Letters and getting Lewis’ amazing thoughts across in such an inverted, back handed way has been thrilling. I absolutely loved working on Martin Luther’s Here I Stand CD and would love to expand that into a full length theatrical production. I think Luther’s story is immensely appealing, contradictory, almost operatic in scope and touches on so many elements that still inform our world; not the least of which is grace and his understanding of the gospel. I definitely would like to see if we could tackle that story. As for the classic’s series. I loved working on Augustine and Edwards and would enjoy finding other great works of the past for CD recording. Currently I’m looking at recording a condensed version of Wilberforce’s Real Christianity and a representative sermon form Charles Spurgeon.

October 10, 2007

An Interview with Darren Rowse.

Darren Rowse is the original ProBlogger, presiding over ProBlogger, a site that draws tens of thousands of visitors every day. After stumbling across blogs in 2002, Darren began a site of his own that explored “issues of Pop Culture, Spirituality and Blogging.” The pastor of a small, emerging type of church, Darren has become a full-time blogger and the coordinator of a large blog network.

Because I’ve attempted to make a point of giving a lot of thought to issues regarding faith and blogging, I thought it would be interesting to gain Darren’s perspective on some issues. Though there would be some obvious theological variance between Darren and myself, I couldn’t think of too many people who have given more time to this subject. So here is a brief interview I conducted with him.

Tim Challies: The discussion about Christians who blog reminds me a little bit of the similar discussion with Christian music. You are a Christian who blogs but would probably not be considered by most people a “Christian blogger” because your blog does not deal primarily with faith issues (kind of like how Switchfoot doesn’t care to be labeled a “Christian band” even though they are all Christians who play [really good] music). Yet I’m sure you do not draw a distinct line between who you are in Christ and what you do for a living. How does your faith impact how you pursue this vocation?

Darren Rowse: It’s an interesting discussion point and one that I’ve considered quite a bit over my 5 years of blogging.

My first blog was a ‘Christian Blog’ in many senses (not that it had a conversion experience…). I started it to talk about issues of faith, spirituality and church. It became reasonably well known in Christian blogging circles and I had a lot to do with other Christian bloggers. One of the things that I became a bit frustrated with over the two or so years that that blog was active was that I saw the majority of Christian bloggers gathering together to talk about subjects that related to them - but very little outward focus or interaction with the wider blogosphere.

While I think that there is definitely a place for Christian bloggers to do more inward focussed blogging (fellowship and doing faith together is a big part of what I see us called to do as followers of Christ) I wondered whether we were ignoring another part of what we’re called to be on about - mission.

My critique of Christian blogging is actually similar to my critique of much of what I see happening with the Church today - an overemphasis upon gathering together as believers - at the expense of ‘going into the world to make disciples’.

I came to a point where I saw incredible opportunity in blogging to ‘go’. People are gathering around the web through blogs to learn, build relationships, have dialogue, share their lives, talk about every aspect of their existence - but the majority of Christian bloggers that I knew at the time (including myself) were gathering together in our ‘Holy Huddles’ to do ‘Christian Things’.

I made a decision to spend more time focussing upon going and participating in what I saw happening outside of the ‘Christian Blogosphere’.

What I found is that there are some amazing opportunities in the wider blogosphere to connect with people - to share your life with them and to make a difference. I also found that there are a lot of bloggers with similar faith perspectives doing similar things and not getting into ‘Christian Blogging’.

TC: Do you think ProBlogger would be different if you were not a Christian? If so, how?

DR: I’m not sure. I think ProBlogger is an extension of who I am in some ways and much of it would be similar whether I was a Christian or not. I do see ProBlogger as a tool that not only provides my family with an income but as something that helps others - but suspect that this would be important to me whether I was a Christian or not. It’s very hard to answer that as I’m not sure what I’d be like if I wasn’t a Christian - let alone what my blog would be like.

TC: How has blogging impacted your faith?

DR: There have been times when I’ve felt incredibly blessed and enriched by blogging. I learned a lot and made some great friends in early days of my first blog when I was connecting with and learning from other church planters around the world who were planting similar kinds of churches to LivingRoom (our community).

On the flip side I came away from some of what I saw happening in the ‘Christian Blogging community’ feeling quite depressed. In some of the debates between different ‘varieties’ of Christians I saw terrible personal attack and disunity which left me feeling somewhat jaded and frustrated.

Since spending less time in the ‘Christian’ blogosphere I’ve found my faith challenged and enlivened in many ways. I now run a large blog network with hundreds of blogs and lots of people working for us. Being involved in a large business in this way brings a lot of challenges in terms of the decisions you have to make and the interactions that you have with others. I think I pray a lot more than I used to as a result!

TC: Would you like to see more Christians blogging beyond the realm of the so-called “Christian blogosphere?” Do you think there would be spiritual benefit in having Christians impacting other areas of the blogosphere? Do you know of Christians who are blogging in other areas and having a significant impact?

I’d love to see more Christians to catch a vision for being more outward and missional in their outlook in every area of their lives - including their blogging.

I think there is an incredible opportunity to be a part of the seeing in of God’s Kingdom if we do so.

I have met a number of Christians who are exploring this in similar ways to me and have seen numerous examples of where God’s used them/ us through our blogging.

TC: As Christians blog about other topics should they seek to do so in a way that makes it clear that they are Christians?

DR: I’ve never been one to thrust my faith upon another person.

My own understanding of missions is one that we’re called to:

  • have Proximity - to go into the world, be near people, rub shoulders with them etc
  • have Presence - build relationships, walk with people, hear what’s going on in their lives, share out lives
  • be Powerless - (wrong word, but this is a 4 ‘P’ sermon) - to be humble, to allow God to be the great missionary and do his work and to allow the other person to have some power in the situation
  • Proclaim - out of these other 3 steps we need to be ready and willing to proclaim the Gospel. I think that often as Christians we rush to the ‘proclaim’ stage but miss out on relationships

As a result in my own blogging on ProBlogger I don’t hide the fact that I’m a Christian (and a minister of a small church) - but I don’t talk about it a lot. I’ve mentioned it from time to time - but my approach is much more about getting to know people on their terms and to allow things to progress naturally.

TC: New bloggers seeking to find ways of increasing readership will undoubtedly find long lists of ways they can do so and will see that many of these require drawing attention to themselves. Do you feel that the desire to draw attention to one’s blog (and hence to oneself) can be reconciled with the character of a Christian? Is there a danger in pursuing many of the ways that bloggers can draw traffic to their sites?

DR: It’s a fine line and one that I’ve grappled with numerous times. Self promotion is something that you need to be able to do to some level as a blogger - but I guess it’s the same in many areas of life (eg - getting that promotion at work, you sometimes need to put yourself out there and prove yourself to get it).

I guess for me it’s about knowing who you are, knowing what your values are and putting yourself out there in a way that is consistent with this.

Also - I actually find that blog readers respond very well to humility and to people who are not all about promoting themselves.

While sometimes self promotion works - the most successful blogs are built on the back of them being useful to their readers in some way. I often write on ProBlogger that the key to building a great blog is to find ways to enhance the lives of your readers. I think that this fits pretty well with a Christian perspective also.

TC: With so many tips available on how to write good blog posts (keep the word count low, write a pithy headline, write a post that can be easily skimmed, etc, etc…) do you think bloggers risk losing the message in the means? Can we become so carried away with writing posts that are going to do well in search engines, social media sites and the like that we miss writing significant content?

DR: Yes - some bloggers get so bogged down in this kind of thing that they forget to write quality content that helps people.

However I think that if you get the balance right between all of these techniques and having a blog that is useful you can achieve both. It takes time to find what this balance is - but it’s achievable.

TC: When someone writes a history of the church of the 21st century, do you think he or she will need to include a chapter on blogs? Will blogs be shown to have that kind of significance or will they eventually just be forgotten?

DR: From what I know of the development of the Printing Press (a technology that changed the world) - Christians were at the forefront in using this tool to print Scripture. Many futurists believe that what’s happening online at the moment is as significant as what happened with the Printing Press - the world is changing. I guess my question is - are we as the Church embracing and using this new technology - or are we being left behind?

As I said above - Web 2.0 is surging ahead and developing all kinds of wonderful websites and applications that draw people together for community, create conversation, help people achieve their potential and equip them for life - but sadly the Church seems to be be missing from the conversation.

August 01, 2007

Mark and Stephen Altrogge - In a Little WhileWould you like to win a great new CD? If so, get reading!

Today I’m featuring an interview with singers and songwriters Mark and Stephen Altrogge. And at the end of it all I’ll be giving away three copies of their new CD. Mark Altrogge is Senior Pastor of Sovereign Grace Church of Indiana, PA, a position he has held for over twenty five years. Mark has written numerous worship songs that have been published and recorded by Sovereign Grace Ministries (formerly PDI Ministries), Integrity Music, Glad, Anne Herring, Matthew Ward, and others. His most well-know songs are “I Stand in Awe” and “Forever Grateful”. He and his wife Kristi have five children (one of whom is, of course, Stephen). Stephen Altrogge is twenty five and recently married Jen. The couple are expecting their first child in September. Stephen attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, graduating with a degree in Management Information Systems, and has recently begun serving as pastoral intern at the church.

Mark and Stephen teamed up to record In a Little While which has just been released by Sovereign Grace Music. It is available in CD or MP3 format and if you are interested you can download a free song at the Sovereign Grace site.

Mark and Stephen were kind enough to talk to me and to answer some questions about the album, about the state of worship music today, and about who would be likely to win if a fight broke out between the Altrogges and the Kauflins (because we’ve all been wondering about that, haven’t we?).

Tim Challies: How did In a Little While come about? Why did you decide to record an album together?

Stephen Altrogge: Originally the plan was to do an album of just my dad’s songs, which I thought was a phenomenal idea. If anyone should have an album, it’s my dad, who has been writing God-glorifying songs for the last twenty-five years. At some point along the way the decision was made to include me on the album as well, which really astonished me. However, I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to work together with my dad on this album.

Mark Altrogge: The originator of the idea is Pat Ennis, executive director of Sovereign Grace Ministries. One of C.J. Mahaney’s burdens for Sovereign Grace Ministries is that we seek to pass a passion for the gospel on to the next generation. I believe that part of the idea for the album was to express this burden for the next generation and our joy in seeing God beginning to bring this about in many families. I was astounded that Sovereign Grace would want Stephen and I to do an album together.

TC: Why did you settle on In a Little While as the title for this album?

SA: The title is from the song of the same name. We felt that In A Little While led people in a direction of hope for the future and eager expectation of what is to come. In a short time we will see the glorious face of Jesus Christ. In a little while all tears will be wiped away, all sorrows erased, and we will be filled with inexpressible joy. We live in a world of suffering and sadness, but only for a little while. Soon the night will be over and we will be in heaven with Christ for eternity. What a glorious thought!

MA: It’s good for believers to be regularly reminded that our hope of glory is seeing Christ’s face. And though our trials can at times seem heavy and unending, in a little while we will see that compared to the weight of glory our trials are producing, they are really only light and momentary.

TC: Stephen, which of your father’s songs on this album do you like best and why? And Mark, which of Stephen’s songs on this album do you like best and why?

SA: My favorite by far is the song ‘Be Exalted’. I love it for two reasons. First, it beautifully expresses the desire of the Christian’s heart. As a follower of Christ, my desire is to see Christ exalted in everything I say and do. My passion in life is to see Christ magnified, glorified, and lifted high. My heart says, “Be exalted oh God in my life!” This song captures that desire. Second, I love the song because it is really catchy and has a great melody. It makes you want to sing along. The combination of glorious truth and beautiful melody is what makes this song so good.

MA: I have a hard time choosing a favorite of Stephen’s songs, but I would say, “You’ll Provide for Me”. The first verse reminds us that the God who feeds the creatures of the earth will surely care for his children. Then it points to God’s promise in Romans 8:32 that he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to meet our greatest need, reconciliation to God, will surely provide for all our lesser needs. The chorus is a passionate cry, “So I will trust in you!” Verse 2 expresses our need to rest in God’s goodness and sovereignty - we can’t emphasize these aspects of God’s character enough. In response to God’s goodness and sovereignty we cry out, “So I will trust in you!” All this set to driving, memorable music.

TC: Do you intend for these songs to be used for corporate worship? Assuming you’ve already introduced these to your congregation, which songs have proven best as songs suitable for corporate worship?

SA: I would be disappointed if these songs were not used in corporate worship. These songs were written primarily for the church, with the hope that through these songs people would find their affections for God kindled and their hearts drawn to God in love. We haven’t introduced all the songs to our church yet. However, we have done “At the Cross”, “I Will Cast My Cares”, “Hail the Risen King”, and “You’ll Provide For Me”, which have all worked well in corporate worship.

MA: I hope that all the songs will serve churches. That is always our goal.

TC: As Christian songwriters, do you ever feel pressure to write the worship song of the year—to write this year’s “How Great is Our God” or “Blessed be the Name of the Lord” (or perhaps I should say the next “I Stand in Awe”)? Do you ever find that it is difficult to be satisfied with anything other than a smash hit?

SA: By God’s grace, I don’t feel pressure to write the worship song of the year. My desire is to write songs that will bring glory to God and serve the church. I don’t need to write a smash hit to do those things.

MA: Very few songs ever get to the Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman level. I don’t consider myself even in their league. Actually, I don’t even think about trying to write the next worship hit, (I don’t think Chris or Matt do either). I just want to write the best songs I can and hope God will use them to glorify himself and bless local churches. I also hope that some of these songs will minister to individuals who are suffering, to encourage them to trust God’s wise and loving plans.

TC: What is the key (or what are the keys) to writing a worship song that honors God and stands the test of time?

SA: I think the key to writing a worship song that honors God and stands the test of time is the combination of glorious biblical truth and beautiful melody. God is honored when our hearts are engaged with His truth. For this to happen there must be a combination of God-honoring truth and heart-stirring melody.

MA: I agree with Stephen. I would just add that the best worship songs have something fresh and creative about the way the truth is stated and something fresh about the melody and arrangement, and the lyrics and melody are memorable.

TC: Mark, how has being a senior pastor at the same church for over 25 years influenced your song-writing? Does this give you a different perspective than a person who deals exclusively (or almost exclusively) with worship or music?

MA: Being a Senior Pastor for over 25 years has definitely influenced my songwriting. I have had the benefit and responsibility of spending time reading and studying, and being equipped by those over me who care for me. Being involved in the trenches of local church life and pastoring, I’ve seen the challenges people face and how solid doctrine benefits believers. All of this helps me as a songwriter who desires to serve the local church.

TC: If I am properly gaging the Christian music industry, it seems that we are just beginning to emerge from a brief worship craze during which every artist had to release a worship album or two. We’ve seen a huge number of new worship songs created in the just the past five or ten years. Has this been a good development for the church? Did this time result in an outpouring of God-honoring songs that have blessed the church and that will stand the test of time?

SA: There have been some phenomenal songs and some not so good songs written in the last ten years. In some ways this increased focus on worship has been very good for the church in that it has resulted in songs such as “Blessed Be Your Name”, “In Christ Alone”, and “Here I Am To Worship”. However, I think there is a danger of thinking that worship is solely about singing. Worship is first and foremost about living a life that honors God. Singing songs of worship is just part of the picture.

MA: Worship music has come a long way from my early Christian days when I would sing, “This is the Day” and “Joy is the Flag Flown from the Castle of my Heart” over and over (though for me as a new believer, the truth that “this is the day the Lord has made” was revolutionary). Stephen mentioned some great recent worship songs, many of which were recorded on “artist” albums. This has been good for the church - our church has benefited from many of these songs. I’m glad more and more people are writing worship songs. More songs for churches to choose from - more glory to God! Keep ‘em coming! Obviously, there will be more average songs, but more good ones will rise to the top as well.

TC: What are your hopes for this album? How will you measure its success?

SA: I have two hopes for this album. First, that God would be glorified through these songs. My desire is that God would use these songs to glorify and magnify the name of Jesus Christ. And the great thing is, I know that this will happen, because God is in the business of glorifying Himself. Second, I want to see people’s hearts stirred with fresh love for God through these songs. My prayer is that God would use these songs to create new affections in the hearts of many Christians. I believe God will do this as well, because He desires to see His people love Him with all their hearts.

MA: I hope God is glorified, his people edified and encouraged to delight in him more. As someone has said, God has not called us to be successful, but faithful. We (and the folks at Sovereign Grace Ministries) have tried to be faithful with the measure Christ has given us. Jesus will do what he desires with the album and I hope it pleases him to bless churches and stir individual Christians to love, trust and follow him.

TC: Stephen, rumor has it that you have just finished writing a book. Can you tell us what the book is about, who is publishing it, and when we’ll be likely to see it on store shelves?

SA: I recently wrote a book entitled “Game Day and the Glory of God: Playing, Watching, and Talking Sports For the Glory of God”. This book seeks to determine how a Christian might play, watch, and talk about sports in a way the pleases God and brings Him glory. As Christians, we are called to do everything for the glory of God, including playing, watching, and talking about sports. This book is meant to help Christians do that. The kind folks at Crossway Books have agreed to publish the book and I’m guessing it will hit the shelves sometime next year.

TC: And really, the most important question of all: if Bob and Devon Kauflin were to take on Mark and Stephen Altrogge in a tag-team wrestling cage match, which pair would win and why? (Asking this question allowed me to learn that “Altrogge” apparently passes muster in Microsoft’s spell checker while “Kauflin” does not)

SA: Hmm, that’s a tough question. Let’s assume for a moment that each of us is armed with his primary instrument. In that case I’d have to give the victory to the Altrogge’s. After all, how is Bob going to use a grand piano as a weapon? However, if the fight was based purely upon brute strength, I’d have to give the victory to the Kauflin’s. However, if lightsabers were involved…

MA: Bob isn’t mean enough to beat me, and he’s so tall that when he would go to grab me all he’d get is a few wisps of my hair from my increasingly wispy head. By that time, I’d have taken out his knees…now Devon, he’s pretty mean…….

Would you like to win a copy of the CD? I’ve got three to give away. Simply send an email to giveaway@challies.com with a subject of “CD” for your chance to win. Please include your name (which will be used to announce the winner). No other personal information will be made public and I will keep the email addresses private. The giveaway will end in exactly 24 hours.

February 04, 2006

Adrian Warnock, whom I assume most of you have heard of, recently did an interview of sorts with me. We spent an hour or so on MSN Messenger discussing blogging and the blogosphere. It was an interesting chat, though someone restricted by the medium - instant messaging has much of the spontaneity of a face-to-face discussion, but requires a lot of typing which tends to slow things down.

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation:

Adrian: How did you get into this blogging thing? And how did your blog come to be so popular? Did you have any particular strategy that you were following in the early days?

Tim: I really just fell into this blogging thing. I began challies.com as a web site to provide family updates for my parents who had moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Every now and then I would put a little article on the site just to share it with them. At some point Google picked up these pages and people began to read them. A few years ago I decided to make the site into more of a blog, even though I hadn’t ever heard the word “blog.”

So to be honest I had no strategy. I don’t know that I’ve ever really done much to publicize the site. At the beginning I suppose I would try to find well-trafficked sites and post comments, but that didn’t seem to work. So I just dedicated myself to writing what I felt was quality content.
There were a couple of topics that I feel drove quite a few people to the site. I wrote an in-depth study of “The Purpose Driven Life” and several articles about “The Passion of the Christ.” These seemed to resonate with conservative Christians. So I suppose these were topics that helped make the site popular.

Adrian: Just so long as you dont expect all of us to be quite so disciplined! Going back to group blogs, some people think that they are the future of the blogosphere- I guess by the fact that neither you nor I have thrown in the towel we might have different views, right? I think that actually, a group blog can often loose that very intensity of personal reaction that I love about a blog like yours. I come to your blog to read YOUR views, not those of somebody else

Tim: I have also heard that group blogs are the future of blogging. I would tend to disagree. I do think there are some group blogs that are successful, but these seem to be among the minority of blogs. Again we return to the personal connection between the reader and writer. That is easier to form and maintain when there is only one author. Blogging is a perfect postmodern activity. It is a subjective pursuit. A person can blog as he sees fit and still be considered a blogger.

Adrian: What are good conservatives like us doing using such a postmodern activity? I can think of some exceptionally good group blogs though, and the ones I like are ones where the writers have a genuine connection between themselves.

Tim: Precisely. The Together for the Gospel blog is a great example. Anyone who cares to can eavesdrop on the relationship of four men many of us much admire. They have a strong bond already and have chosen to take that relationship to a blogging setting. I think they will do well.

Anyways, it will not be the most exciting few minutes of your week, but if you’ve got nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, why not give it a read.