The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (Book Review)

Did you grow up in a small town?  It is, let’s just say “different”, than what most city slickers and suburbanites view as normal.

A story: when I was 14 my family moved from the Los Angeles suburbs—that seemingly never-ending plane of city after city with no space between them—to a Virginia neighborhood 10 minutes from “town”.  That town was a small city.  Small enough to learn where everything is in the space of a couple years.  But still big enough to be a city where you could remain anonymous wherever you went.  Outside of my college years, that small city and the other large communities that make up the transitory northern Virginia region was my home.  But then in 2012 my wife and I moved our family a few miles west to a picturesque small town (population ~10,000) just outside the periphery of the metropolitan Washington DC area in order to live closer to our church (and my new job as pastor).  And overnight, things changed for us.  We love our new community.  Yet it took some getting used to when we’d go to a store and run into someone we know.  A bit of culture shock.  No more anonymity.  What at first felt like living in a fishbowl turned out to be an unforeseen benefit.  Nearly every single time we make our way around town, whether it’s to the store, or on a walk, or picking the kids up from school, we run into someone we know—often a neighbor, friend, or church family member.  No more anonymity, but the change was totally worth it.  Knowing and being know is so much better.  We find our lives richer, more connected, blessed, and entrusted with the needs of our neighbors.  Small towns may not be for everyone, but we all need community, and probably more of it than most of us have right now.

These are just a few of the lessons journalist and blogger Rod Dreher meditates on in his beautiful memoir memorializing his late sister Ruthie.  The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life (LWRL) is more than a good story.  It’s a call to return to the traditional but increasingly rare values of place, family, community, and rootedness.

Likened to the parable of the prodigal son, Dreher (albeit the older sibling) plays the younger son character who leaves his small hometown of St. Francisville, LA (population 1,700)—but more specifically Starhill in the West Feliciana Parish—to spread his wings and makes his way in the wide world.  Ruthie (his younger sister) plays the dutiful older son character who stays to tend the family and serve her community.  When Ruthie, a truly beloved pillar of her community, discovers she has a deadly form of lung cancer, the narrative turns for the worse and the better at the same time.  In the months following, the contemplative narrative spins a tale of joy, heartache, family conflict and reconciliation, confronting the ghosts of the past, and the complications of a good life in a fallen world.  In his return visits to his hometown to visit his dying sister, Dreher feels the pull—even the calling—to make his way home to serve and be served as a lost son of the town he left behind decades before. Continue reading

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Theology in Three Dimensions (Book Review)

About a month ago I gave a talk at the local chapter of Pub Theology.  The topic was “triperspectivalism” and the book I read in preparation for it is a recently published introduction to the subject.  John Frame’s Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and its Significance (TTD) is a helpful resource for those new to this way of looking at, well just about everything.

Yeah, I know.  With that first paragraph I’ve probably turned off many of my readers.  “Triperspectivalism” is admittedly a terrible label for what I and many many others have come to find an uniquely insightful method for getting out of my own limited perspective, for understanding reality a little better, and for personal growth in humility when I’m tempted to think I’ve got a corner on the truth.  Others have proposed various alternative names: multiperspectivalism (not much better!) or perspectivalism (has a creepy  Nietzschean connotation).  Honestly I don’t have any better ideas.  Perhaps “trifocalism”?  Ha!

Anyway, for a short book-length (under 100 pages) trip into the world of considering reality from the “normative,” the “situational,” and the “existential” perspectives, Frame’s little treatise is a fine place to start.  Each of these perspectives is a view from somewhere.  The normative view looks at things to answer the “ought” or “should” question.  It is concerned with what ought to be believed about something, and then how one ought to respond to that belief.  The normative perspective looks at that something from a standard that is outside oneself and others.  It attempts to answer the question: what are the universal norms for this topic?  The situational view looks at things to answer the “but what about” question.  Whenever a particular issue is defined in black-and-white terms, often the next step in discussion is to test that standard with real-world and hypothetical cases.  How does the norm work out when given legs in this or that situation in the messy world we live in?  And finally, the existential view attempts to answer the “personal” or “experiential” question.  How do I react and respond to this issue?  How does this issue affect me and others in a personal way?  How does this issue make me feel?  One way to illustrate how all of the perspectives relate to one another and come together is the personal metaphor of head-hand-heart.  Each of these is a perspective on the whole and unified person.  Because a person is not a brain-on-a-stick, or a bleeding-heart ignoramus, or even a soul-less automaton, we can speak of a person as a head-hand-heart being.  Take away any one of these perspectives on what it means to be human and you lose the essence of humanity.  But head, hand, and heart are not parts that add up to the sum of humanity.  Each is a perspective on the whole integrated self.  Such are the three perspectives.  Taken together they give you a richer and more nuanced understanding of whatever it is you are looking at.  They are like different camera angles or lenses we peer through to get a bigger picture of what we are viewing.  As Frame defines a perspective, it is “a view of something from somewhere by someone.”  Just as gaining the counsel of others who are different that you can make you wiser, so also systematically and intentionally employing the tools of triperspetivalism can broaden your horizon and increase your wisdom. Continue reading

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40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (Book Review)

Dangitbill readers know I’ve been reading about the age of the earth issue for the last few months.  It’s been a challenge to find good resources on this topic, but as I’ve delved deeper and paid attention to sources there are a few books so far that have proven quite useful.  One that I’m pleased to draw your attention to is in Kregel’s “40 Questions” series.  Co-written by Kenneth Keathley (old earth creationist: OEC) and Mark Rooker (young earth creationist: YEC), 40 Questions About Creation and Evolution (40QCE) is a comprehensive summary of all things related to the creation/evolution debate.  I’d go so far as to say this is the book to start with when researching any topic related to this massive field of study.  Why do I say this?  Because 40QCE does an excellent job of summarizing the positions on the various issues, of orienting the reader to the relevant vocabulary, positions, and arguments, of citing the best scholarly and popular sources for further study, and of striking that rare balance of irenic tone.  A single book with two authors on opposite sides of the age of the earth is always a “debate book.”  But not this one!  Keathley and Rooker model how Christian brothers can collaborate in a way that is respectful, loving, and honest about each position.  Amazingly, if there were only one name on the cover the reader wouldn’t be able to tell the book is written by an OEC and a YEC! Continue reading

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Hidden Christmas (Book Review)

Christmas season is too busy.  At least that’s the way it feels for me and my family.  In America and much of the world it is a religious and secular holiday, and many people celebrate both Jesus and have fun with the Santa Claus myth.  So there’s that…Christmas is a double-whammy holiday for me.

On top of that my family, like countless others, has been touched by the tragic effects of divorce.  When everyone wants to spend time with everyone else in the family—except for the ones we have to keep apart—Christmas family gatherings multiply.  Add in the stress and dysfunction of family dynamics and Christmas can be a triple-whammy holiday.

As if that weren’t enough, Christmas is the one time each year when Christians have an open door to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with our neighbors and friends.  Christmas as a church-sponsored or family-run outreach opportunity complicates things immensely.  With two more hits, Christmas is now a quintuple-whammy.

And I haven’t even mentioned the shopping, the gift wrapping, the year-end giving, the cold weather, the short daylight days, increased potential for sickness, the consoling of grieving loved ones, the rush to finish school projects with the kids, the baking, the dessert swapping, the annual Christmas newsletter, and the planning OH THE PLANNING!  (Seriously, I’m not a pessimist!  Just an observant realist).  Unless a person works hard to set aside time to contemplate the meaning of the incarnation, it can will pass you by.

I think that is why I love so much my church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service.  It’s a traditional service of lessons and carols with a short Christmas message.  Singing the songs, hearing The Story of Jesus Christ’s birth year after year grounds me in hope and resets my priorities every year.  There is something about the story of God taking on flesh to become one of us that moves people to think about the meaning of their lives, and of life itself.  The story of Christmas has a special magic built into it that can change us profoundly if we’ll just give it some devoted time.  That is why I’ve been sitting on a little book by Tim Keller since last Christmas, waiting to read it this season.  Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (HC) proved to be the kind of meditative dose of reality that my soul needed this year. Continue reading

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How Can I Know God?

There are quite a few questions that arise concerning Christmas. One of the biggies has to do with the nature of Christianity itself.  Let me explain. Christmas declares that God became human in Jesus Christ. Many people know this but also struggle to understand why Christmas is so wonderful for Christians. Is it because Christmas provides an excuse to openly talk about Jesus with our neighbors? Or because we get another chance to sing familiar songs and carols? Or because the season leads most folks to be more generous and cheerful? I’ve noticed the folks who admit they don’t get why Christmas is such a big deal for Christians are often the same people who declare Christianity is a locked box to them—that God seems distant and aloof to the world’s suffering and to their own problems. Basically that God is unknowable. Is there a key that unlocks the mystery of Christianity? In 1 John 4:7-21 the Bible gives us the simple yet wonderful answer to these questions, and it is this: Christmas is the key that fits the lock. Just as a key and lock are useless apart from each other but together are made for each other, Christmas, which is the celebration of the incarnation of God’s Son, is the key that unlocks Christianity. They go together, and they don’t make much sense apart. The incarnation of God’s only Son initiates a relationship between us and God that is perfectly fitted for our human nature. By God’s sacrificial love we know him, and by our response of love we know that we truly know him. Such love must forever transform our relationships, therefore love God and one another. Continue reading

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Theology of the Westminster Confession: Marriage and Divorce

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 24 of the WCF on “Marriage and Divorce.”  Enjoy and let me know what you think.  Are these helpful?  How could they be improved?

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Ancient Christian Devotional – B (Book Review)

Every year I try to read a “devotional” book and a book that takes me back in Christian history.  And when I say “back” I mean “waaay back,” like back to the first few centuries after the apostles.  This period of history is sometimes called the Patristic era because the church had not yet divided between East (the Orthodox) and the West (the Roman Catholic).  Since I had already read with profit a book titled Ancient Christian Devotional a few years ago, it seemed appropriate to try the sequel: Ancient Christian Devotional on Lectionary Cycle B (ACD-B).  In terms of my reading experience in the church fathers, 2017 was much like the last year I went through the first one.

There are not too many places for an evangelical to become familiar with the writings of the early church leaders, which is why InterVarsity’s Ancient Christian Devotional trilogy (Lectionary Cycles A, B, and C) is such a breath of fresh air.  Edited by Cindy Crosby (the late paleo-orthodox Thomas Oden served as General Editor), ACD-B collects readings and arranges them in a four-part devotional keyed to representative passages from the Old Testament, Psalms, New Testament, and the Gospels.  While the Bible texts are not included (just the references), significant portions of ancient sources follow each Bible reference—sometimes a couple of sentences, other times the better part of a whole page.  Some of the sources the editors cull from include:

A few early church fathers have become some my favorites for various reasons—their clarity, insight, zeal for holiness, evident love for God—include Augustine of Hippo (of course!), Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great, Bede the Venerable, Gregory the Great, Ignatius of Antioch, John Cassian, Leo the Great, Origen, and Theodore of Heraclea.  In all I count 80 different pre-medieval church fathers quoted in ACD-B. Continue reading

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