The Book of Kells (Book Review)

Last summer my family visited Ireland.  We stayed in two castles, ate a lot of great food, soaked of the local culture, and did some typical touristy things.  On our last day in Dublin we had tickets to see the famous Trinity College library (Harry Potter fans will remember the Long Room) where Irish cultural artifacts and very old books are on display.  But nothing in the collection is as old or as historically important as their most precious piece: The Book of Kells.  It’s fair to say that the Book of Kells is the main attraction, and the configuration of the tour and museum testifies to this.  So a few of us were salivating to set our eyes on such a quirky, mysterious, and beautiful work of art.  I don’t know if it was the time of day (11:00 am), or the day (Friday), or the time of year (early summer when the weather is typically grand), but the tour was WAAY oversold and somewhat of a disappointment.  Simply put, there were far too many people allowed in at one time to allow anyone (all paying customers) more than a glance at the ancient tome.

Half-way through the line outside just to get to the line inside

This is how our tour went down.  After entering the gate, the tour path leads you through a couple rooms of museum information displays to prepare for what you are about to see.  But I didn’t see more than a handful of folks loitering or reading in that section.  Nearly everyone bee-lined for the Book of Kells where a glass case table stood in the middle of a dimly yellow-lit room.  A circle of people three layers around in circumference formed a mob around the book, which was actually two volumes opened to the page of the day (the curator turns the page daily).  Some museum attendant was pleading with the crowd to continue moving around the circle (no stopping) and to let others get a change to look.  Some complied, others didn’t.  Lots of nudging and even a little pushing.  Many people, including some in our own party—especially the kids—didn’t even get one glimpse.  Sad.

I’m staring down the crowd behind the camera. Wait one sec!

Next on the tour path was the Long Room which was amazing but also overcrowded.  Lots of people taking selfies.  And there was a sense that you had to keep moving because the crowds swelled continuously from behind.  Finally, the tour dumped everyone into the back of a gift shop.  Typical.  At least the quality was high and the prices were fair.

In the gift shop I purchased Bernard Meehan’s illustrated introduction to the Book of Kells (hereafter BOK) manuscript.  It’s definitely the best affordable guide available today for learning about and appreciating the art and history of the Book of Kells.  With 117 illustrations and 110 of those in high-gloss color, Meehan’s book is a feast for the eyes.  The text is authoritative since Meehan is the current supervising curator of the Book of Kells.  So he’s something of an expert on the book.  Although he’s not the first to write a book on this famous bound manuscript, he stands on the scholarship that preceded him, which gives BOK a cumulative-information feel.  Meehan lays out BOK like a good tour guide: Continue reading

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enGendered (Book Review)

What is the essence of human gender?  Right now this is a question at the forefront in our culture.  Turns out it’s not so easy to give a solid answer.  Just as Diogenes pointed out to Plato that man cannot be defined as a “featherless biped” when he plunked a plucked chicken down in front of his teacher—tongue in cheek for sure!—so also the vexing question of “what is human gender” is tying folks in intellectual knots nowadays.  Sometimes it’s enough to just say, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”  But when activists and ideologues begin wounding people with rhetoric and pushy agendas, it’s time to take the question seriously.

Pastor and author Sam Andreades has written an influential book that has moved the gender conversation forward in a unique way.  In enGendered: God’s Gift of Gender Difference in Relationship, the author proposes that people discover the beauty and distinctiveness of human gender in asymmetrical (i.e., male-female) relationship.  Through his pastoral interaction with people involved in the homosexual lifestyle (some in long-term relationships) in Greenwich Village in New York City, Andreades came to realize that folks who came out of gay relationships and entered as Christians into male-female marriages were in a unique position to provide information on whether relational asymmetrical sex differences make a significant difference.  Later the author wrote a doctoral thesis based on his DSM (“Does She Matter?”) Study that simply asked former homosexual men whether “she” matters, and if yes, how so.  But his book enGendered is more than a compilation of the findings derived from that study.  He also does much biblical, theological, sociological, and worldview thinking to situate his sociological data in a thesis that asserts men and women can only find genuine expression of the masculine and feminine genders to the degree they are intimately engaged in asymmetrical relationship with one another.  To summarize the testimonies of the DSM men, “Yes, she most definitely matters!” Continue reading

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Theology of the Westminster Confession: Perseverance of the Saints

My church is in the middle of an extensive adult Sunday School class.  The topic is the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).  The idea is that each teacher will develop a set of slides to aid in presentation and discussion.  We hope the completed set of slides (the goal is to cover all 33 chapters of the WCF) is a valuable resource not only for our folks at church, but also for individuals, other churches and schools to use (and modify) for their own purposes.  Here is the set of slides that present chapter 17 of the WCF on “Perseverance of the Saints.”  Enjoy and let me know what you think.  Are these helpful?  How could they be improved?

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The Fellowship of the Ring (Book Review)

Try this thought experiment.  Imagine you are once again your 12th grade self.  Can you remember what you thought of your high school summer reading list?  Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Ulysses, and Frankenstein come to mind.  My 12th grade self was not interested in any of these.  Top priorities included baseball, friends, and girls—probably in that order.  So with eyes unfocused and glazed over I pored over my list of reading options.  But my English teacher, Mrs. Labozzetta, wife of the baseball coach of the crosstown rival Garfield High School Indians, had my respect.  She knew the kind of guy I was—my 12th grade self.  “What do you think I should read?” I asked.  She considered the list for a moment and replied, “I think you’d love the Lord of the Rings—have you ever read it?”

Now, keep in mind that was 1991.  It was years before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy would hit the big screen.  Ever read it?  Hey, I hadn’t even heard of it!  The last thing I had read something in the fantasy genre was some troll picture book when I was like 5 or something.  But I didn’t have any better ideas, and I trusted Mrs. Baseball Coach, so I bee-lined to the library, found The Fellowship of the Ring (hereafter LOTR1) in the card catalog (those were the days!), and started at page one that evening.

I wish I could tell you that LOTR1 moved me.  I’d love to wax eloquent about how Gandalf and Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Strider and Gimli, and the rest of the ring fellowship were precisely what I was looking for.  But to be honest, my 12th grade self was just not mature enough to get it.  As I recall, it’s doubtful if I even made a good faith effort to like it.

Thank God I’m not my 12th grade self anymore. Continue reading

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Theology of the Westminster Confession: Christ the Mediator

My church is in the middle of an extensive adult Sunday School class.  The topic is the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).  The idea is that each teacher will develop a set of slides to aid in presentation and discussion.  We hope the completed set of slides (the goal is to cover all 33 chapters of the WCF) is a valuable resource not only for our folks at church, but also for individuals, other churches and schools to use (and modify) for their own purposes.  Here is the set of slides that present chapter 8 of the WCF on “Christ the Mediator.”  Enjoy and let me know what you think.  Are these helpful?  How could they be improved?

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Marriage and Faithfulness

Whenever a pastor preaches on the subject of marriage and divorce, he’s always in grave danger of being misunderstood, of not saying enough, or breaking the number one rule of preaching. That rule is “Comfort the afflicted with God’s gospel, and afflict the comfortable with God’s law.” If I were doing a lengthy sermon series on marriage then I might be more at ease. But as it is, in this series on universal human longings, we’ll only devote one sermon to marriage and faithfulness. So I’ll make a deal with you. As we examine Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, when you have a question, an objection, or a comment, jot it down for later, because I’m going to avoid everyone after the service! Why did I choose this passage? Because its teaching is extremely important but often neglected in the church. And it addresses one particular ache that almost every single person has deep in their soul.

We all need to love and be loved, to know and be known, especially in the most intimate of relationships—marriage. You are right to jealously expect love and faithfulness from your spouse, but despite good intentions you know you’ve failed in one way or another to be loving and faithful. At some level everyone fears betrayal, so people become adept at guarding their hearts—some more than others. And you know how a guarded heart eats away at love and faithfulness in a marriage! Marriage is hard, and it seems to be getting harder to stay together. The statistics don’t offer much hope that the institution of marriage will stabilize anytime soon. Most people believe that having a happy marriage is a longshot. And so more and more people are opting out or even declining to opt in. Yet the vast majority of us still desire to be married someday. All of this begs the question: Is there any realistic and solid hope today of laying hold of the universal human longing of faithfulness in marriage? Thankfully, as we look at Matthew 19:1-15, we’ll find the answer is Yes. Jesus’ teaching on divorce, which is rooted in God’s creational design for marriage, is difficult to accept but demonstrates its goodness in the way it protects and provides for husbands, wives, and their children. God alone can give us his love, his faithfulness, and his empowering grace to have faithful marriages. Continue reading

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The Benedict Option (Book Review)

Judge not a book by its cover

It’s not often that a book aimed at Christians makes such a big splash in mainstream culture.  I’m not talking about the occasional “Purpose Driven Life”  kinda book that makes it to the New York Times best-seller list.  That’s not rare enough to make me blink.  No, what I’m getting at is a book by a conservative Christian, written to address the choir, that gets widely read, discussed (and usually unfairly portrayed) in secular newspapers, journals, and other media outlets.  That’s what happened when blogger, journalist, and author Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option (TBO) back in March 2017.  For his faithful readership at The American Conservative, they had been reading and debating this strategy Dreher calls “The Benedict Option” (or for short: The BenOp) for nearly 10 years.  But the rest of us didn’t have the benefit of that decade-long conversation.  All we had was the book that landed like a bombshell in the wake of the Donald Trump presidential election victory.

Lots and lots has been written about TBO since it first appeared on shelves, and I have no intention of trying to top the excellent reviews out there.  My goal is different and threefold:

  1. Present myself as an honest, informed reader who has not just read the book, but also studied and digested it.  My copy is full of marginal notes recording my dialogue with the author.  I’ve read it three times (once with my wife) so that we could discuss its implications for our church, family, and Christian friends.  And not just the implications, we’ve actually begun to put some of these strategies into practice in our own home.
  2. Summarize the main points of TBO for those who have been subject to the cacophony of noise surrounding the book.  As I mentioned, there are some excellent reviews on the internet, but there is regrettably an (un)fair share of poor reviews to sift through as well.  Not negative reviews per se–I believe thoughtful and honest negative reviews are profitable for everyone.  But hit-piece reviews that seem to come out of left field to anyone who has actually bothered to, you know, READ IT!
  3. Collate and annotate some of the best reviews and discussions about TBO book and the BenOp as a macro-strategy for Christians in these troubled times we live in.

So why, you might ask, is the book so praised and maligned?  In my observation, the book tends (although unintentionally) to function as something like a Rorschach (“inkblot”) test for its readers, particularly its critics.  I’m not sure if people are mostly snap-judging it by its Title (The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation) imposed on the cover image (the Benedictine Monastery in Norsia, Italy).  My wife, who in the end loved the book, judged it negatively by its cover the first time she saw it.  She grew up around hard-core homeschool culture and witnessed several families crack down with serious “Christian discipline” only to lose many of their kids to prodigal rebellion in their teens and early adult years.  So I suspect when TBO gets judged by its cover, spoiling a person’s opinion of the book, it’s because the photograph, the book title, and their own personal baggage collude to create a toxic mix.

As with any book, the Introduction that precedes Chapter 1 presents the main thesis, states the intended audience, and more or less sets the stage for the main body.  TBO does a good job in this respect.  Before I proceeded to the first chapter during my first read-through, these were my “virgin thoughts”, recorded in the margins as I paused to interact with the author, and at the end of the introduction I synthesized them.  I hope such an exercise is helpful and convinces you to read further.  So for what’s it worth… Continue reading

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