Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Newlywed Persecution: 3 Ways to Face Challenges Together


[Let's Pray for Persecuted Marriages Around the World]
“I am prepared to die with you,” whispered Maura to her husband Timothy. It was AD 286 and Emperor Diocletian was ruthless in his determination to stamp out Christianity in the empire. We might expect this devotion from a trusting wife happily married to her husband for decades, but Timothy and Maura had married only twenty days before. They were newlyweds who should have been basking in one another’s love in a cozy bungalow on some warm Egyptian beach along the Nile or the Mediterranean.


Diocletian had other plans for the couple. Timothy was a copyist and keeper of Christian books. We would call him our church librarian, the bespeckled bibliophile who runs the bookstore. But Christian books were contraband in AD 286 and possessing and distributing them was an intolerable crime.

For Timothy’s refusal to turn over the library in his charge, the governor ordered him to be suspended upside down and a heavy rock to be chained to his neck, almost choking him. Still he refused to comply. Next, they applied red hot irons to his ear. Meanwhile, Roman soldiers had seized his wife Maura and, thinking Timothy would crack under threat of harm to his new bride, they brought her in and thrust the young woman toward him. “I am prepared to die with you,” she reassured her husband.

What happened next, what they did to Maura, is too terrible to describe in complete detail. After tearing out her hair, the executioners severed fingers from her hands, then immersed her in a cauldron of near-boiling water. Though onlookers enjoyed blood sports, cruelty masquerading as entertainment, even they began to grumble against the extent of the brutalities inflicted on the young married couple. Yet Maura, alongside her husband, endured with remarkable constancy. When the audience had had enough and called for the governor to halt the torture, Maura replied, “Let no one defend me. I have one Defender, Christ, in whom I trust.”  

Tradition tells us that Timothy and Maura were then led out and, like their Lord, crucified, crosses facing one another, giving thanks to God that they were called to suffer for Christ’s sake. They died together May 3, 286.



MARRIAGE CHALLENGE 


How did Timothy and Maura face such a titanic challenge so early in their marriage? Young newlyweds enduring such brutal martyrdom together, all their temporal hopes and dreams and pleasures cut short? No doubt they drew on the promises of the Word of God contained in those books Timothy refused to hand over to the governor  for burning. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Or Christ’s solemn promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). Or “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

When we consider the stalwart faith of a couple like Timothy and Maura, it’s easy for such a marriage to seem too heroic, too unlike our mundane and all-too-comfortable lives, and we push it away, consign it to the fantasy folder in our minds, and dismiss it as wholly irrelevant to our lives and marriages today. That would be a mistake, akin to reading a weight loss story of ginormous proportion but dismissing any application of it to our diet and exercise needs. "That would never work for me. Pass the potato chips."

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

I think there were three heart conditions, three higher loves, that both Timothy and Maura must of had that strengthened their married love for one another, and prepared, and enabled them to endure such a tragedy so early in their married life together:

1. Devotion to God's Word. It's what Timothy did, copy and preserve the Bible and other Christian writings from the early Church. Timothy and Maura were one in their devotion to the Word of God. They knew with renewed minds, and felt with regenerated hearts, that their God is faithful, and whatever trial he has ordained, he will enabled them to endure it patiently (I Corinthians 10:13). Together, they were a married couple who loved God's Word and thereby were impervious to the Enemy's assaults.
2. Devotion to Christ. The Word of God pointed them to the Lord of the Word. I received an email from a former student asking if I would officiate at her wedding. "I finally found someone who loves Christ more than me." This young woman understood something many already married couples do not. Seek love for Christ, first and last, and devoted love with your spouse will be a delightful byproduct. Timothy and Maura's devotion, first and last, in life and in death, was to Jesus Christ. He was their Lord and God, not Diocletian. Couples who claim to be Christians but who have other masters, other lords, other loves, will have great difficulty whispering in one another's ear "I am here to die with you, my love." Timothy and Maura were not friends with the world (James 4:4). They had not made peace with Rome and it's god-deluded emperors. They were devoted to Christ, even, similar to their Lord's, to a horrible death.
3. Devotion to the Kingdom of God. Heaven. Timothy and Maura had their eyes fixed on Jesus; they loved his eternal kingdom. Therefore, no temporal allurement held any sway for them. Their short marriage--twenty days--was not a diversion from heaven.  It was the closest thing to heaven. Still on their honeymoon, they knew that "earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our deepest longings], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing" (CS Lewis).   I remember before I was married not wanting to say "Thy kingdom come," for fear it would, and I would never know the pleasures of married love, children, family. Timothy and Maura were far ahead of me. 

Timothy and Maura's devotion to God's Word, to Christ, and to the heavenly Kingdom of God made them constant in the greatest extremity of affliction. May your loyalties, the things you are most devoted to, make the "things of earth [to] grow strangely dim/In the light of his glory and grace."



Douglas Bond, author of more than twenty-five books, is writing a non-fiction book on the Marriages of the Ages, the good ones, the disappointing ones, and the despicable ones, from which this blog post is adapted. He leads Church history tours, speaks at conferences, writes New Reformation Hymns, and podcasts at The Scriptorium. Learn more at bondbooks.net

Monday, February 5, 2018

Worship as Entertainment: Entertainment as Worship



“We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God.” (John Calvin)

Playing at worship

One pundit quipped that Americans “worship their work, work at their play, play at their worship.” I suspect that most Christians would object. Entertainment evangelism “worship,” for them, is the best thing that’s happened to church; the building is full, and look how happy everybody is.

But the numbers may be skewed. According to the Barna Research Group, though five out of six males consider themselves on some level to be Christians, only two out of six regularly go to church. They may be full, but many American churches are two thirds female and one third male.

There are many reasons for this, but changes in music may take center stage. But the debate over worship music, ironically, isn’t very much about worship. Few proponents of entertainment worship music ask what music is appropriate for the worship of God. Instead, with the best of intentions,“They imitate the nations around them” (II Kings 16:10; 17:15-41) in order to be relevant to their tastes and evangelize them.

A leading church-growth expert candidly admits this. “What kind of music do you listen to?” he asked the folks in his community. “I didn't have one person who said, ‘I listen to organ music.’ Not one. It was 96-97% adult contemporary, middle-of-the-road pop. So, we made a strategic decision that we are unapologetically a contemporary music church.”

            Well-intentioned Christians have reinvented what goes on at church by shifting the question. Young church planters generally ask: “What does the world like to listen to?” rather than “What music is appropriate to worship God in the splendor of his holiness” (I Chronicles 16: 29b-30a)? Thus, church growth becomes the all-excusing rationale for what people sing in church. And they tell us it’s working. “Right after we made that decision and stopped trying to please everybody,” claimed one church-growth expert, his church “exploded with growth.” End of discussion.

            Or is it? Roman emperors packed out arenas by giving entertainment-crazed citizens what they liked. People showed up in droves. We too are a culture that values amusement. We like to feel good. We like to sway and clap. We like rapid images passing before us. We like celebrity. And we’ll pay for it. Church growth proponents argue that cashing in on the postmodern infatuation with entertaining music will fill churches. So give them what they want.

The late Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death cites the executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Associations who seems to agree with the church-growth philosophy: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.”

Postman, though no Christian, made the perceptive observation: “This is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader—from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther—who offered people what they want. Only what they need.”

When the church fashions worship to entertain the world, to give people what they want, it inevitably creates, as one journalist termed it, “a Christian ghetto watering down the gospel.” Moreover, when the goal is to make Christian worship appealing to a feminized culture we inevitably alter the message and make it less offensive--and less Christian.

Whenever Israel imitated the pagan worship of the nations around them, God became angry and judged them. Thus, John Calvin urged that “all human inventions in worship be removed and driven from us, which God himself justly abominates.” Far from aping the world, Christian men ought to stand against the impulse to reinvent worship so it looks and sounds like the world.



Loud, loud, loud!

In Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis described heaven as a region of music and silence. The demon Screwtape is frustrated by this reality: “Music and silence—how I detest them both!” He boasts that in hell:



No moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise—Noise, the great dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards earth. The melodies and silence of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it.



But contemporary church growth enthusiasts, however, don’t seem to agree. “We are loud,” says one mega-church pastor. “We are really, really loud. I say, ‘We're not gonna turn it down.’”

Conversely, Lewis sees music and silence as complimentary features of heaven. He gets this, of course, from biblical passages where God calls us to “Be still and know that I am God,” and to “sing for joy.”

But does high-volume rock ‘n’ roll fit with the music and silence that Lewis describes, or does it sound more like the noise and loudness Screwtape and many church growth leaders prefer? This isn’t as hard a question as we’ve made it. Nevertheless, church growth advocates and most musicians agree with pop music expert Don Butler, “Every style and form of music can become gospel, whether it’s jazz, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, or rap” (Inhouse Music, March/April 1991).

Tolkien readers will immediately think of Boromir, who, rather than destroy the ring, urged the fellowship to use the power of the ring--for good ends. Like the post-conservative church, Boromir, too, was certain that he would not be corrupted by it. He was wrong.

Beware. If entertainment evangelism advocates can convince you that music is amoral, merely a matter of taste, then the discussion ends—and so does discernment. Wise young men, however, will be suspicious of conclusion that sweep away moral judgment.  



Moral or amoral?

In the preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1545, Calvin wrote of music that “there is hardly anything in the world with more power to turn the morals of men.” Yet Christians today insist that “Music is amoral.”   As if to say, “Just use the ring!”

But historically nobody has thought music was amoral. Agnostic Ralph Vaughan Williams in his Preface to The English Hymnal wrote, “Good music for worship is a moral issue. The eternal gospel cannot be commended with disposable, fashionable music styles, otherwise there is the implication that the gospel itself is somehow disposable and temporary.” Tragically, well-intentioned Christians, confused by the amoral argument, may be undermining the gospel by making it appear throwaway to the watching world.

Paste in whatever words you want, loud entertainment music already conveys its own message. Certainly it makes people clap and feel exhilarated, but it’s not conducive to careful thinking about the whole counsel of God. Entertainment music creates a feel-good atmosphere, but it doesn’t work well to make men feel bad. It does excitement and infatuation well but is largely bankrupt on conviction and repentance--essentials not only of biblical evangelism but of sanctification and true growth in grace.

Traditionally, music in church was employed to commend the objective message, to play second fiddle to the words. But entertainment evangelism switches this around. Eager to “imitate the nations around them,” musicians force the high objective truths of the Bible into the background. Thus, praise songs repeatedly state adoration but with few if any doctrinal reasons given to biblically support and adorn those statements. And increasingly the object of adoration is vague.

            Gene Edward Veith, writing for World Magazine, concluded his review of a wide range of popular Christian materials: “So much of this Christian material says nothing about Jesus Christ.” 

How ironic! I thought evangelism was the reason for using entertainment music. So why remove much of the explicit Christian content from the lyrics? Though the Bible is clear, Christ is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (I Peter 2:8), still we’re afraid to offend the world. The Spirit of God only removes the offense through the objective truths of the Word of God--the very thing that many post-conservative Christians are watering down in their music. Little wonder the church looks and sounds and acts like the world--instead of the reverse.



Look at me!

Visiting a church one Sunday morning, I led my family cautiously through a minefield of microphone wires and amp chords to our seats—just beneath a speaker the size of a piano. My kids stared wide-eyed at the bongo drums, the Starbucks coffee in nearly every hand, the female worship leaders and effeminate males on stage in their Hawaiian shirts. One of my young sons leaned over and whispered, “Is this an entertainment show?”

One thing is indisputable: the seeker-friendly service is shaped by the entertainment industry. Of course they’re using entertainment as a means to an end: evangelism. Most church leaders want to get them in the door by entertaining them with a really good band. But is this compatible with the spirit of celebrity seen throughout the entertainment world?

Michael Bloodgood, heavy-metal bassist and Calvary Chapel pastor, thinks it is. “We’re like Billy Graham with guitars. Rock and roll is neutral. It depends on the spirit.”

Check out the album covers on the latest ads from your Christian bookstore if you want to discern the spirit. You’ll discover shameless aping of secular musicians: provocative females, touchy-feely males, and armed-crossing hauteur. Plunk in the CD and you will hear desperate mainstream-wannabes screaming to be noticed by secular record labels.

Late rock musician Keith Green saw all this coming. “It isn’t the beat that offends me, nor the volume—it’s the spirit. It’s the ‘look at me!’ attitude I have seen at concert after concert, and the ‘Can’t you see we are as good as the world!’ syndrome I have heard on record after record.” That was decades ago. Things have not improved.

British pastor, John Blanchard in his little book Pop Goes the Gospel says this worldly exhibitionism sets up Christians to act like “stars instead of servants.” He argues that the entertainment model inevitably leads to a groping for celebrity status and is why entertainment evangelism “so easily encourages worldliness.”

 What historian Paul Johnson observed about culture in general the church seems desperate to imitate. “Entertainment [has] displaced traditional culture as the focus of attention, and celebrity has ejected quality as the measure of value.”



I don’t listen to the words

Getting the musical cart before the objective-content horse is not simply a contemporary issue. Calvin faced it in the sixteenth century: “We must beware lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words. Songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but be most displeasing to God.”

Long before Calvin, Augustine wrote approvingly of church singing, but added strong caution. “Nevertheless, when it happens that I am more moved by the song than the thing which is sung, I confess that I sin in a manner deserving punishment.”

What would these saints say about Christian worship today? Their concerns predated the development of instruments and amplification technology designed to create psychological euphoria with loud, penetrating musical noise. A thoughtful young man, a future leader in the church, must ask: “Does entertainment music draw attention to itself and to the performers, or does it aid in making understandable the objective meaning of the words being sung? Does it awaken discernment or distract?” The jury is in. Most Christians, however, refuse to hear the verdict.

What is the universal response when parents ask kids why they listen to secular music with trashy lyrics? “I don’t listen to the words.” Amusement music is produced to affect an emotional response from the music itself rather than an intellectual response to the meaning of the words. Which compels the conclusion that entertainment music is probably a poor choice to “renew the minds” of unbelievers. I wonder how many entertainment-music-loving church goers are too distracted and “don’t listen to the words”?

                        

Who’s evangelism?

J.I. Packer wrote that “When evangelism is not fed, fertilized and controlled by theology it becomes a stylized performance seeking its effect through manipulative skills rather than the power of vision and the force of truth.” John Blanchard exposes the problem of depending on music to do what only the Spirit and Word of God can do: “Musical conditioning is not the same as the Holy Spirit challenging the mind to think, the spirit to be still, and the heart to be humbled in the presence of God.” In this they are only stating what the church has thought and practiced for centuries—until now.

Luther made a clear distinction between worthy and unworthy music. “We know that the devil’s music is distasteful and insufferable.” But many Christians roll their eyes when someone says, “Rock has always been the devil’s music.” But it was rocker David Bowie who said this. He went on. “You can’t convince me that it isn’t. I believe that rock ‘n’ roll is dangerous.” Still the church imagines that by using music styles conceived in the sexual revolution it is plundering the Egyptians. It may prove the reverse.

Burk Parsons, managing editor of Table Talk, and founding member of the Backstreet Boys, quit rock and roll. Why? “The world of show business is the world of man-centered entertainment. The foundational philosophy of man-centered entertainment is to do whatever it takes in order to attract millions of fans and to make millions of dollars.” This requires the “entertainment gurus” to track all the latest cultural fads and follow the “whims and fancies” of the music listening public, like many candidly admit doing. Parsons continues, “This has become the philosophy of many evangelicals [who] have exchanged God-centered worship for man-centered entertainment that is founded upon the ever-changing principles of the culture rather than upon the unchanging principles of the Word of God.” He calls us to worship according to the Word of God, “which transcends the current trends of modern culture.”

Entertainment church-growth experts claim, however, that no church will grow if it does not change over to entertainment music. One wonders how Spurgeon, Calvin, Edwards, or Luther did it before guitars. Church planters are correct about the power of loud entertainment music to change people. Decades ago, rocker Jimi Hendrix understood this. “Music is a spiritual thing of its own. You can hypnotize people with the music and when you get them at their weakest point you can preach into the subconscious what you want to say.”

London preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote concerning music’s power, “We can become drunk on music. Music can have the effect of creating an emotional state in which the mind is no longer functioning as it should be, and no longer discriminating.”

Blinded by a flawed theology of salvation, I wonder if Christians now expect music to do what only the Holy Spirit can do: woo sinners by changing their mind and will, not by first altering their emotions, but by drawing them by the power of the Word to repentance and faith in Christ.



Worship like a man

Examination of entertainment church music exposes a number of problems: over-familiarity and sentimentalism; the tendency to bring God down to man’s understanding; lyrics written by young people who are musicians first, rather than hymn poetry written by experienced, gifted Christians with theological training; the tendency to sing about what we’re singing about; simplistic repetitiveness; lack of biblical progression of thought; in short, the dumbing-down of the message in order to fit it into the entertainment medium.

But let me speak man-to-man with you about the feminization of Christian worship. This has happened in many pernicious ways but perhaps nowhere more uncomfortably for Christian young men than in singing.

In contemporary worship, the girls stand caressing the air with their hands, swaying with the pounding rhythm of the music, their voices hushed and breathy, eyes pinched closed, crooning along with the worship leaders.

What are most guys doing? Shuffling their feet uncomfortably. Embarrassed by the public display of emotions, and embarrassed--or allured--by the provocative outfits and yearning posture of the female worship leaders or soloists.

Christine Rosen in the Wall Street Journal, connected plummeting male church attendance with the growing number of women taking leadership roles in the church. In his recent book, Steve Farrar decries the “feminization of our boys” in contemporary worship. “Am I in a church or a spa?” he asks. “At a deal like that, you don’t bring your Bible, you bring your moisturizer.”

In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow argues that because contemporary worship is “tilted toward the feminine heart, created for sensitive women and soft-hearted men to meet Jesus,” a masculine man feels emasculated, “like he has to check his testosterone at the sanctuary door.”

In the canon of classic hymns, however (see appendix), men for centuries have sung of battles and fighting, of conquest and triumph, in short, of the manly Christian themes found in the Psalms.

“But today’s praise songs are mainly love songs to Jesus,” wrote Murrow, offering the example, Hold me close, let your love surround me… I’m desperate without you… Jesus, I’m so in love with you. Another song a student gave me begins Your love is extravagant; your friendship—mmmm--intimate. These “Jesus-is-my-girlfriend” songs represent a genre choked with songs no Christ-honoring, self-respecting young man can sing. 

A serious Christian man is stumped. Women worship leaders and effeminate men make you feel unspiritual if you don’t sing and behave like women. What are you to do? Know for starters that “you don’t have to be a girlie man to be a godly man.”

This is war--culture war. It’s time to break ranks with feminized worship and restore biblical manhood to the church. It begins with you and your generation. Prepare yourself to step up with manly leadership. Worship God in the splendor of his holiness. Cultivate a deep appreciation of what men in the church have sung through the centuries. Then “Rise up [young] men of God; be done with lesser things.” 

Excerpt from Bond's 2008 book Stand Fast, the first in his Fathers & Sons series for dads to read with their teen sons. Bond is author of twenty-six books, New Reformation Hymns, and articles in Modern Reformation, Table Talk, and other journals. He is a frequent speaker at churches and conferences, and leads Church history tours. He also hosts The Scriptorium, a weekly podcast on Church history, literature, writing, practical theology, art, and life. Subscribe to bondbooks.net to follow 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Brain Surgery and Writing--INKBLOTS

Inkblotters after I read from intensely rough opening chapter
Inkblots on this hint-of-spring evening (It's been raining for something like 24 of the last 25 days, fairly typical for this time of year in our region). But this evening "...When comforts are declining/He grants the soul again/A season of clear shining/To cheer us after rain," from my favorite poet, William Cowper, one of his finest Olney hymns, encouraged by John Newton. A brilliant sunset just fading in the west.

Alisa reads from her 1890 historical fiction set in Roslyn mining. I love the way Alisa celebrates her (our) region and its colorful, rough-and-ready, and rocky history (sorry for the mining allusion). This is narrative beginning exposition, setting up the novel. Rich, narrative description, but I wonder if we're missing something. I feel like I am almost there, can see what the characters see, feel like maybe we need more sounds, smells? Let me think about that. This first chapter is a prologue, then chapter one launches the reader decades forward to the 1930s. We asked Alisa to give us the 40-year transition by reading some paragraphs. Alisa captures the difference in language in 40 years, clearly evidenced, which is not easy to do. The story will explore issues of race, and of how some prospered during the Depression when most lost everything.

Alisa started writing The Emblem seven years ago and the novel is 30,000 words fewer now than originally, upped the pace as a result. F Scott Fitzgerald did a similar chainsaw edit of Great Gatsby. I've found that when anything I have written does not seem quite to work, cut unnecessary words. Be brutal. It will almost always be better. Here is Alisa's synopsis of The Emblem:

We ended up talking for awhile about racial issues and tensions between race.

John read from his novel Violeta. A chapter with conversation about God. Russian novel set in 1917. On the run for their lives with her French Huguenot governess. I like how you used the crow cawing bringing her thoughts back to the present. Can you have Violeta unwilling to tell what she is thinking, and have her governess draw it out of her. Otherwise, the dialogue seemed a bit forced. The butter is a good touch, appeals to readers' taste buds. Praying in fiction is hard to pull off. Have Violeta responding to her words with taunts and criticism.  

I yapped for a bit about the nonfiction project I've tentatively, haltingly, anxiously (I despise adverbs) began, my pen quavering (not quaveringly, I'm improving, maybe). But I decided to read from my latest New Reformation Hymn effort on the blessings of fearing of God, temporal and eternal blessings on the man, the woman, the sons, the daughters, the home, and the church:

How blessed the man who fears the Lord!
Who daily feeds upon his Word,
And falls down at the mercy seat,
And casts his fears at Jesus’s feet. 


How blessed is she who fears the Lord!
Delighting, trusting in his Word:
She fears no danger, threat, or harm
While resting safe in Jesus’ arms. 


How blessed are sons who fear the Lord!
Who hear and heed the Spirit’s Word.
No tyrant’s heel can hurt them here
Since they the Sovereign Lord revere. 


How blessed when daughters fear the Lord!
And love God’s ways, his holy Word.
Disease and dying hold no fear
Since Christ who conquered death is near. 


How blessed the home that fears the Lord!
Adoring the incarnate Word;
Like cherubim and seraphim,
In humble awe, God's praises hymn. 


How blessed the church that fears the Lord!
Her Savior’s work, her sure reward;                        
With wondrous voice, high praise repeats,
And bows in awe at Jesus’ feet.


          Douglas Bond, copyright, January 4, 2017

Rachel's computer died just as she was about to read to us. She'll be up first next week. So I then did go ahead and read from opening chapter of my non fiction book on the Delightful, the Disappointing, and the Despicable Marriages of Church History (working title, but you get the idea). I have never read anything at so rough a stage of the writing process as these opening paragraphs. They stared unblinking at me as if I had lost my marbles, and were very gracious. Now to rewriting. I am so glad that writing is not like brain surgery. With writing you can try getting it right the second time, and the third, and the fourth... Brain surgeons get one shot. I'll stick with writing.

Follow progress on new book at bondbooks.net and follow my new podcast The Scriptorium at blogtalkradio.com/thescriptorium I'm featuring on-going writing tutorial along with author interviews and historical vignettes. I may have a future Inkblots broadcast on The Scriptorium, so follow and share.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Symbols, Suffering, and Showing (not telling)--INKBLOTS

Gargoyle straining under the weight of the world
After many weeks away and apart, Inkblots reconvenes, at last. Good to be back together again. Let's make sure we don't have gaps of this size again (my fault really, busy fall speaking schedule largely to blame, though a rich and  beneficial time, at least for me it was). We read from Psalm 131 and discussed some of the things that are too marvelous for us to grasp, and talked about God's providence, his will and way, so often mysterious to us, certainly always high above us. And about calming ourselves before the Lord's marvelous mysteries, sometimes, perhaps often, painful to feeble sinners in a broken world, longing for life in a world of death.

SYMBOLS

I led off reading a paragraph from Rosemary Sutcliff's Shield Ring, which I just finished reading with my daughter Gillian this evening before 'Blots (while she worked on her CC science project spread all over the living room; multiple reads over the years with the bigs). Sutcliff deftly elevated a ring on Bjorn's finger to the level of a symbol, a collector of meaning, a tangible connector to his past, a symbol of his heritage, of his Saxon ethnicity, of his identity and place in the new Viking world that he now lived in, now imminently under the threat of being crushed by Norman invaders (Reformation France/Armistice 100 Tour will be visiting William the Conqueror's birthplace in charming Bayeux and the Medieval tapestry, and where he is buried in Caen at Abby des homes--a few spaces still open, but not for long).

WRITING AND SUFFERING

Sidney will lead off with a portion of a novel she is writing, a passage that is informed in part by the death of her brother Isaiah the day before Thanksgiving. It is emotional and personal. This is clearly white-hot out of suffering and the immediate experience of loss and grief. But very much in control. there's no blubbering here (though there is absolutely nothing wrong with blubbering in our grief), no exploiting, only writing what she needs, as Lewis urges all writers to do, "Write what you need." Sidney is doing so brilliantly. There are so many rich uses of words here: Silent whisper of life; low moan, rattling of the throat, hastened footsteps (this reminds me of Lewis's description in Surprised by Joy of the night his mother died when he was nine); candles, their wax frozen mid drip; kiss of a ghost; silently giving up his soul to the blackness; a tender reed upon which life had trampled, and much more. 

This passage demonstrates the power of fiction. Sidney could write this as a non-fiction blog post (I've been reading her posts, and she has done so, very ably, with maturity beyond her years), but here there is a transcendence as if we the reader are looking from on high at the tragic and dramatic scene, and at the same time we are transported into the hospital room, the sights, sounds, smells (I think you could give us more of the smells), the wailing, the painful intake of breath. It is so painfully real, I am torn. I want to be there, and yet I want to run away (you want to be careful in an opening chapter to not be so weighty that your reader feels they need to run away or be crushed). The word painting is incomparably wonderful. But none of us are perfect. I have a few suggestions. Help readers have a clearer sense of from whose eyes we are seeing the world through. Mostly it is the boy, but then it seems to shift to the woman, the mother, who appears to take her own life, to the anguish of her son. Some of Sydney's description dangles, is not tightly connected to and affecting the protagonist. And there needs to be greater clarity on who, the protagonist actually is. I lost the thread of the boy's point of view. It may be in part your use of Time personified in the feminine and hence the shift to "She" pronouns. Compound that with the She pronoun for the mother. Clarify pronouns. "I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer." Stephen King, On Writing

Patrick commented that there is a problem of whose world we are seeing things from, and, I'm interpreting him, maybe it is overly dense for a first chapter. I agree on a certain level. I think Sidney gives us too much in the opening chapter; it is lengthy for a first chapter, probably too lengthy. For a nine year old, the boy has intensely mature perspective and processes the action going on around him like an adult. I'd suggest giving the nine-year-old a legitimately mature vantage point on what is going on by making it clear that he is looking back on it all from an older perspective. Leave some of the backstory for a later chapter. You don't have to cover it all in the opening chapter, in fact, it is best not to do so. Maybe mapping it out would be helpful at this stage. Where are you going, at least in broad strokes. This will give more direction and clarity to how you use your artist brush in each chapter and episode.

I interviewed a young writer on my podcast The Scriptorium the other day and cautioned her that being a writer meant being a sufferer. Suffering is not a smorgasbord. There's no menu with lots of options. We don't get to request the particular flavor of suffering we would like, or how we would like it cooked. God chooses for us. He is sovereign over suffering, over all things; he is all-wise in the exercise of his sovereignty, and he is motivated purely by love for his children. Hence, "What ere my God ordains is right." Sidney, who is passing through some very deep waters, is writing what she needs in her suffering, as so richly illustrated in this passage she shared with us this eveing. Wonderful writing!

SHOW DON'T TELL

Patrick read next, his sci-fi futuristic yarn. Welcome to Mars. I love it. familiar hiss, I think that needs more work; maybe a simile or metaphor for the hiss, one that relates to and further intensifies the Mars context. Patrick does a fine job of keeping the action and pace moving forward. It's clearly his strength. But there's some work to do on showing rather than telling, creating depth and breadth to the narrative as it moves forward. For example, he writes, "The idea thrilled him." Could you show his thrill, his reaction, hastening of his pulse, sharp intake of breath, or better. Let the reader read what you have shown and say "he is thrilled." Another example, "Cloudless sky." Could you describe the color of the sky over Mars, with a comparison to a vintage car color, or?

"But first he had to introduce himself." You don't need to announce things like this. It's far more effective to do it, than to tell us you're going to do it, then do it. You could nuance this by showing body language that shows he forgets basic human relational interactions; silly me. Or the woman he needs to introduce could say something that jolts him into introducing her. I would also like to hear more dialogue. Patrick has lots of narrative sequential description, but it feels static. I feel like I am seeing a series of still photographs, with changes between shots, but not smoothly connected like the minute and fluid movements of a movie camera. As to introductions, when you do have them near the end of your reading with Joanna, it feels stilted, unnecessary to maintaining the pace. "Defiantly," avoid adding adverbs to attributions (Stephen King says that the road to hell is paved with adverbs). Show defiance in the words themselves, his posture, or tone, or a gesture.

We talked about the length of speculative fiction short stories, "short" is fairly long in this genre (9,000 words). How to create episodes and natural pauses without chapter breaks?

Where did the two hours go? Great to be back together with Inkblots. See you in a couple of weeks. Check out my new and improved (improving) web page bondbooks.net. Thanks to the amazing work of my summer marketing intern Sionna Spears.

Douglas Bond, author of more than twenty-five books, is husband of Cheryl, father of six, and grandfather of four. He is Director for the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, two-time Grace Award book finalist, adjunct instructor in Church history, advisory member to the national committee for Reformed University Fellowship,  award-winning teacher, hymn writer, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. He broadcasts weekly at The Scriptorium. Follow him here and at bondbooks.net

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Losing Your Mind--The Insanity of the Gospel

The Vicarage, Newton's home in Olney, Cowper's behind
"He's bonkers," they used to say of someone with insanity. In WW I, "He's blighty," they would refer to a soldier with shell shock. We call it mental illness, PTSD, dementia, early-onset dementia, or Alzheimer's. Whatever society calls it, we feel that something is not right about someone's words and behavior. "Have you lost your mind?" we say when something is not connecting the way the rest of us feel like it ought to connect. Or the way it used to connect.

BECOMING A CHILD AGAIN

My eighty-two-year-old father-in-law has lost his mind. Once a can-do-anything man, an ironworker, certified to weld every ore on the planet, now has stage-six Alzheimer's. The man of laughter and endless stories of bygone days with which he held his grandchildren spellbound and belly laughing for hours, not only doesn't remember any of those stories; he doesn't know his own wife, children, or grandchildren.

For him, the earlier stages of the disease were more difficult, when he knew he didn't know things he ought to know, and was frequently frustrated by that knowledge. But now there is a mercy in his mental oblivion. Mercy for him, though not for his dear wife and children who know he doesn't know them and are in anguish at the knowledge. "The more knowledge, the more grief," wrote the author of Ecclesiastes (1:18). Whatever else this means, surely it applies to a family watching a dear loved one steadily lose his mind. At the last, they become like a child in an old body, an infant again, who must have everything done for them.

Let's be honest. There's a nagging question that inevitably creeps into our minds, or onto our children's lips: "If Grandpa doesn't know anything or anyone anymore, does he still know Jesus?" Is he safe? When he has lost his mind, is his soul lost too? Is he still saved? God our Heavenly Father wants to hear all our lisping, all our stammering, all our quavering questions. And his Son answers this one. "Unless you become like little children," said Jesus to his disciples, "you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:3).

SUFFERING--THE SCHOOL OF POETRY

My travels take me frequently back to Olney in the United Kingdom, John Newton and William Cowper's village, the geographical origin of my literary endeavors over the last nearly twenty years. As I prepare for another visit, I am reminded again of the expansive reach of the gospel of grace. We can so easily slip into thinking that Christianity is for the morally upright, for people who have it together, for normal people, functional people, smart people, witty people, people who have not lost their minds. You know, people like we want others to think we are.

We scowl and attempt to explain what Paul really meant when it begins to dawn on us how the gospel actually works (or we clutch at our perceived good works and grind our teeth like the religious leaders of Jesus' day). It doesn't seem to connect. Jesus came for the sick, not for the well, for those sick in mind as well as in body. For smelly fisherman, not well-perfumed religious leaders; for lepers, not people with all their fingers and toes; for prostitutes, for victims of sexual abuse, for sexual abusers, not self-righteous moral purists; for swindlers, not for well-suited accountant types; for the illiterate, not for the strutting sophisticated academic; for the demon possessed, for those with dementia, with mental illness, for those who have lost their minds. For those who have lost their lives. For the dead.

William Cowper, born in 1731, one hundred years after the death of his ancestor and fellow poet John Donne, was one of those with great needs, special needs. He was one of the blighty. He was crushed under repeated bouts of insanity, even attempted suicides, odd behavior, dark depression, at times feeling himself a castaway, "whelmed in deeper gulfs" than any other. And yet God raised him up by the grace of the gospel, ministered to him through the love and kindness of his neighbor and pastor, John Newton, to be one of the Church's greatest hymn writers. 

FROWNING PROVIDENCE

Perhaps it was not in spite of, but because of Cowper's lifelong struggle with mental illness that he became one of the most tender of our hymn writers. He knew that God truly does "move in mysterious ways his wonders to perform." He knew that behind a "frowning providence" God truly does "hide a smiling face." Cowper gently, experientially teaches us that, "Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain." God truly does work "deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill." He truly does "treasure up his bright designs and works his sovereign will." God in his gospel truly "is his own interpreter and he will make it plain," in his time, in his way. 

With all of his mental challenges, Cowper knew that there really is a sort of insanity about the gospel. It is completely counter-intuitive. It defies economic sense, quid pro quo, this for that, balance the scale of bad deeds with good deeds. No. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a tertium quid, something altogether outside of and above all other religions. I want to get this, down deep in my soul. "O for a closer walk with God!" as Cowper cried. O to see more clearly the Light that "rises with healing in his wings." O to be washed in the precious "blood drawn from Immanuel's veins," there to "lose all [my] guilty stains." 

GOSPEL HEALING

We will always get the gospel distorted when we think it is only for the functional, the repectable, for people like we want to believe we are, and not for the insane, the ones who have lost their minds, for the dead, who must be raised to life by the gracious, sovereign mercy of God. Cowper reminds me of that.

When I am most honest about my own heart, my desperate need for grace--justifying grace, sanctifying grace, daily enabling grace--then I know that I am in some real sense much more like William Cowper with all of his mental disorders, or more like my father-in-law who has lost his mind, but not his soul. When I see myself as a little child, a nursing infant (Luke 18:15), one who needs to have everything done for me, one who must be carried into the Kingdom of Heaven, then God has made the gospel plain. He has been his own interpreter. Behind his "frowning providence," I see his "smiling face." And am healed of all my diseases (Psalm 103:3).

Douglas Bond, author of more than twenty-five books, is husband of Cheryl, father of six, and grandfather of four. He is Director for the Oxford Creative Writing Master Class, two-time Grace Award book finalist, adjunct instructor in Church history, advisory member to the national committee for Reformed University Fellowship,  award-winning teacher, hymn writer, speaker at conferences, and leader of Church history tours in Europe. He broadcasts weekly at The Scriptorium. Follow him here and at bondbooks.net

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

FEAR: Let's Be Honest


"We're going on a bear hunt. We're not scared," reads the charming, safe-scary children's board book. Forget bear hunting; the fact is, most of us are scared--afraid--a good deal of the time.  I'd like to pound my chest and tell you that I am never afraid. O, I used to be when I was a little 'fraidy-cat kid and didn't know any better, but now that I'm a grown man, I've conquered my childish fears and march unafraid into the fray. But it would be a lie. A pretty big one. I turned fifty-nine in 2017, and I've been calling my hair "premature" gray (now very much, white) for a number of years. My wife informs me it's well past time to drop the adjective. Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions, but they have aging lurking menacingly in the shadows. Human beings are afraid of aging. The more honest ones admit it. 

Since my untimely (humanly speaking) termination from decades of teaching (I was replaced by two people, neither with gray hair), I've found that in my flesh I am a very timorous person, fleeing when no one is pursuing, yet fleeing, nevertheless--running scared. It doesn't reveal itself in trembling lip, and constant glancing over my shoulder, not literally. But there are plenty of the internal tremblings, anxieties, uncertainties, worries, hand wringing, the tossing-and-turnings of raw fear on sleepless nights. And sometimes it begets impatience, frustration, even anger, which, like Spenser's Dragon Error, feeds on its own offspring and produces more of the same--Fear. 

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear," wrote CS Lewis in the opening lines of A Grief Observed, penned after the death of his wife in 1960, just three years before his own death. Lewis got so many things right, especially when we take into account that he had no formal theological training, and he didn't even have Ligonier and the ministry of the late RC Sproul "to bridge the gap between Sunday School and seminary." But someone did tell him about fear. God did. "Fear not," is the most ubiquitous imperative in the Word of God. Why? Because fear is the universal result of sin and the curse. It clutches at the innards of everybody. "The day you eat thereof, you shall surely die." And death, philosophy's great problem, terrifies all of us. "But timorous mortals start and shrink.../And fear to launch away," as Isaac Watts put it. 

What a happy thought for the New Year! Well, in an important sense it is a happy one. Owning our sin and its just consequence, death and fear of death, is the first principle of abandoning all hope in solving the problem on our own hook. There is no solving it apart from God.  "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," wrote the Psalmist (46:1). Because God chose to make his habitation with us, in the incarnation, to be tempted in every way, like we are--including tempted to raw fear of suffering and death--because God in Christ is our ever-present help.,"Therefore we will not fear..." (46:2).   

Just as there is the Grand Exchange of my sin and guilt imputed to Christ on the cross, and His perfect obedience imputed to my account, making me forensically righteous before His holy Father, there is in the Good News an exchange of fear. "Fear not, O little flock the foe/ That madly seeks your overthrow./Dread not his rage and power," wrote German hymn writer Johann Altenburg. In Christ, my Mighty Fortress, fear of man in all its pernicious forms fades away. And in its place comes right fear of God. 

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). Right knowledge of ourselves as sinners before a Holy God who is justly angry with us for our sins produces the leading edge of right fear of God. God is good and we are not, so we fall down in terror and repent, crying to him for mercy. And then he purges us with the burning coal of true forgiveness. Then filled with grateful awe, we worship, we adore, we trust, we feed on, we live for, and, by grace alone, obey the glorious God who has stooped to rescue us from sin and death--and fear. 

I've never attempted to write a hymn on the theme of the fear of God before, but while reading through Proverbs and Table Talk for January 2018, I managed to write a hymn on the gracious blessing of fearing God, progressing, stanza-by-stanza, from the man, the woman, the sons, the daughters, the home, and the church that fears the Lord. My hope is that you will be blessed meditating on this important biblical theme with me. "How blessed is the man who fears the Lord... His heart is steady; he will not be afraid" (Psalm 112:1,8).

How blessed the man who fears the Lord!

Who daily feeds upon his Word,

And falls down at the mercy seat,

And casts his fears at Jesus’s feet.



How blessed is she who fears the Lord! 

Delighting, trusting in his Word:

She fears no danger, threat, or harm

While resting safe in Jesus’ arms.



How blessed are sons who fear the Lord!

Who hear and heed the Spirit’s Word.

No tyrant’s heel can hurt them here

Since they the Sovereign Lord revere.



How blessed when daughters fear the Lord!

And love God’s ways, his holy Word.

Disease and dying hold no fear

Since Christ who conquered death is near.



How blessed the home that fears the Lord!

Adoring the incarnate Word;

Like cherubim and seraphim,

In humble awe, God's praises hymn.


How blessed the church that fears the Lord!

Her Savior's work, her sure reward;

With wondrous voice, high praise repeats,

And bows in awe at Jesus' feet.

           Douglas Bond © January 2, 2018

Read and listen to more New Reformation Hymns at bondbooks.net where you can purchase Rise & Worship, Bond's recently released album with Greg Wilbur and Nathan Clark George. Follow Bond's podcast at blogtalkradio.com/thescriptorium