Making Team Secularism Look Bad by Comparison

Oct 03, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Ross Douthat writes about Brian Palmer’s piece in Slate, which

passively-aggressively complains about the fact that so many of the doctors fighting Ebola on the ground in Africa are …Christians … and worse still, Christian missionaries … and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but actually maybe there issomething wrong with that (“I’m not altogether proud of this bias—I’m just trying to be honest”), or at least Palmer wants us to know that he’s a little troubled by its implications (“some missionaries are incapable of separating their religious work from their medical work … I suspect that many others have the same visceral discomfort with the mingling of religion and health care …“) even as, broad-minded guy that he is, he concedes that “until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa,” the missionaries may deserve our grudging support.

Douthat offers his reaction:

The first time I read the piece, I was filled with a stuttering sort of rage, but reading it again it doesn’t actually merit that kind of click-bait outrage. Palmer seems less hostile to Christian missionaries and their work than he is confused by what they’re doing: He clearly has a set of ideological frames through which he sees the world, a set of assumptions (the separation of medicine and religion should be absolute, proselytization is wicked/backward/ignorant, helping people is what governments and secular groups are supposed to do) that simply don’t fit with what’s happening on the ground in Africa and who’s actually there, which in turns leaves him both unsettled and subtly resentful at all these Christian missionary doctors for unsettling him.

Palmer’s secular and scientistic worldview, of course, is not the worldview of the classical world, which was far more inegalitarian and cruel than the still-Christian-influenced secular humanism of our own era. But there is still a parallel, at once amusing and illuminating, between his tone in the Slate piece and the tone of some of the surviving comments on Christianity from Roman authorities, which so often married incomprehension, hostility and (eventually) resentment at being, well, shown up by these strange cultists and their zeal. In particular, there’s a little bit of Pliny the younger in Palmer’s essay — the 2nd-century governor of Pontus writing in bureaucratic bafflement to his emperor (in a tone that W.H. Auden borrowed, I suspect, for his King Herod in “For The Time Being”) — and a whole lot of Julian the Apostate, the 4th century emperor who tried and failed to restore paganism, and whose letters include various complaints about how “all men see that our people lack aid” from pagan sources, even as ”the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well.” 

Adapted to a globalized and (somewhat) more secularized age, that feels like Palmer’s real complaint: Not that the missionaries are necessarily doing something wrong (he won’t actually come out and say that), but that they’re doing something right in a way that makes his team, Team Secularism, look somewhat less impressive by comparison. Which isn’t really a reaction that Christians should be offended by. It’s one that should be welcomed, worn as a badge of honor, and joyfully provoked.

You can read the whole thing here.

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The Promise of a Horse and Buggy and the Fulfillment of an Automobile: G.K. Beale’s Illustration on OT Prophecy

Oct 02, 2014 | Justin Taylor

G.K. Beale, writing in The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Apollos/IVP, 2004), argues that “We should want to follow an interpretive method that aims to unravel the original intention of biblical authors, realizing that that intention may be multi-layered, without any layers contradicting the others. Such original intentions may have meaning more correspondent to physical reality (hence so-called ‘literal interpretation’) while others may refer to ‘literal’ spiritual realities…” This means that “the progress of revelation certainly reveals expanded meanings of earlier biblical texts. Later biblical writers further interpret earlier biblical writings in ways that amplify earlier texts. These subsequent interpretations may formulate meanings that earlier authors may not have had in mind but which do not contravene their original, essential, organic meaning. This is to say that original meanings have ‘thick’ content and that original authors likely were not exhaustively aware of the full extent of that content. In this regard, fulfilment often ‘fleshes out’ prophecy with details of which even the prophet may not have been fully cognizant” (p. 289).

To illustrate this, Beale asks us to imagine a father in the year 1900 promising his young son a horse and buggy when he grows up and marries:

During the early years of expectation, the son reflects on the particular size of the buggy, its contours and style, its beautiful leather seat and the size and breed of horse that would draw the buggy.

Perhaps the father had knowledge from early experimentation elsewhere that the invention of the automobile was on the horizon, but coined the promise to his son in terms that his son would understand.

Years later, when the son marries, the father gives the couple an automobile, which has since been invented and mass-produced.

Is the son disappointed in receiving a car instead of a horse and buggy?

Is this not a ‘literal’ fulfillment of the promise?

In fact, the essence of the father’s word has remained the same: a convenient mode of transportation.

What has changed is the precise form of transportation promised. The progress of technology has escalated the fulfillment of the pledge in a way that could not have been conceived of when the son was young. Nevertheless, in the light of the later development of technology, the promise is viewed as ‘literally’ and faithfully carried out in a greater way than earlier apprehended.”  (352-53)

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How We Know for Certain That We Are Currently Living in “The Last Days”

Oct 01, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The New Testament distinguishes between

  • “the last day” (that is, the coming day of salvation and wrath; see 1 Thess. 5:1-11) and
  • the “last days” (the period of time we are now in, between Christ’s death/resurrection/ascension and his second appearing).

In addition to “last days,” this present-day category can also be called “the last time/s” (Jude 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:20) or “the last hour” (1 John 2:18).

So when asked if you think we are living in the last days, you can assure the questioner that we are: we are living in between the two comings of Christ. But we do not know—indeed, cannot know—the day or the hour of the last day itself (cf. Matt. 24:36).

You can see the references for last days/times/hour below:

“Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18)

“He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you. . . .” (1 Pet. 1:20)

“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” (1 Cor. 10:11)

“But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Heb. 1:2)

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” (2 Tim. 3:1)

“In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” (Jude 1:18)

“. . . scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” (2 Pet. 3:3)

“Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.” (James 5:3)

“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)

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Four Reasons Segregation Is Peculiar and Wrong (And Thus Not Analogous to the Same-Sex Marriage Debate)

Oct 01, 2014 | Justin Taylor


Anthony Esolen argues that racial segregation was based on an irrational—indeed, peculiar—prejudice, and thus is not analogous to the conviction that marriage should be reserved for one man and one woman, which is based on universal truths about human nature. He writes, “I fear that our age is so enslaved to ideology that we can no longer notice what is obvious and natural, or think sensitively about history, or craft analogies that can stand a moment of analysis.”

Consider the segregationist in Alabama, who wanted to keep one water fountain (the nice one in the middle of the hall) for whites, and another (the rusty one out back) for colored people. What can we say about that?

What the southern slaveholders themselves said about it, for one: it is a peculiar institution. It is not part of the universal human experience, this uncharitable preoccupation with race.

Ancient Rome knew nothing of it. Does anyone know the color of Saint Augustine’s skin? He was born in Africa to a father with a Roman name and a mother with a Punic name. Was his blood Caucasian, Semitic, Berber, Ethiopian, or some combination thereof? No one knows, because no one thought it worth mentioning. After the first century, none of the emperors are specifically Roman, and very few are even Italian. No one cared.

The ancient Greeks, more prone to ethnic vanity, still knew nothing of racial obsession. They considered people who were not Greeks to be “barbarians,” literally those whose speech sounds like bibble-babble, but their vanity was not based upon race. They thought that people who did not live in a free, self-governing polis were to be pitied; they were missing the blessings of a vibrantly human life. Those Greeks were far more interested in the customs of Egyptians and Persians than the other way around. They were like Odysseus, passionate to learn the ways of men.

People will always find ways to distinguish themselves from their “lesser” brothers, but the bizarre racial touchiness that characterized the American South, or that hardened into the caste system in India, a mingled modus vivendi and modus odiendi, is uncommon in human affairs. It is certainly not universal.

Second: Jim Crow laws were based upon irrational “science.”

A whole legal and cultural system had to support the tottering edifice of a lie. The lie was simply that the differences between Joe Louis and Max Baer were more than epidermal or physiognomic. Louis and Baer were to be considered wholly different kinds of human beings, with different kinds of lips and throat and stomach at their water fountains. That is nonsense.

Third: the separation violated the natural law.

The water fountain is designed to meet the natural bodily needs of a human being. Everyone needs to drink. Thirst is far more distressing than hunger. Every traveler or stranger needs a place to sleep. Every sick person needs a bed and a doctor. The black man needs water, or food, or a bed, or medicine no more and no less than does the white man, and for the same reasons. The right to these things, without any encumbrance based upon the fantasy of race, flows from our common human nature. I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink.

Fourth: the whole purpose of maintaining separate water fountains was to maintain the racist culture.

It did not touch upon the common good in any other respect. The discrimination was its own end. Now, a prudent statesman may have to discriminate according to nationality, but not for the sake of the discrimination. Let’s suppose that you shut off all immigration to the United States from Qatar. It need not be that you hate the Qatari people, or that you hate Muslims. You may be concerned that Qatar happens to be an oasis for terrorists in training. So your prohibition is aimed at a particular, specific end: preventing terrorists from entering the United States. In another decade, you might be glad to admit Qatari immigrants by the thousands. That was not the case with the southern segregationists, who wanted to extend their peculiarity forever.

You can read the whole thing here, where he goes on to argue that none of these conditions characterize the defense of conjugal marriage, which is not peculiar but universal.

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Short Film on “Hound of Heaven,” Written by N.D. Wilson and Narrated by Propaganda

Sep 30, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The Hollywood Reporter picks up on the story that the film Hound of Heaven (Kurosawa Productions) will premiere at the 2014 Raindance Film Festival on October 4. Author N.D. Wilson adapted Francis Thompson’s spiritual poem (1893), the original of which you can read here. Propaganda provides the spoken-word narration.

You can read the whole story here.

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Jonathan Rogers: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 30, 2014 | Justin Taylor

JRThis is the final entry—and this time, I mean it!—in a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Jonathan Rogers (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is Head of the Liberal Arts Program at New College Franklin in Franklin, Tennessee. He is the author of seven fiction and non-fiction books and is a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room website.

Rabbit Room Press has recently released new editions of his books, The World According to Narnia: Christian Meaning in C.S. Lewis’s Beloved Chronicles and The Wilderking Trilogy.

He and his family belong to Midtown Fellowship in Nashville.

Quixote DownIt’s hard to know how to take Don Quixote. He is as thoroughgoing a fool as any figure in all of Western literature. Addled by many years’ obsessive reading of old stories of knight-errantry, Quixote is unfit for life in the (early) modern world where he finds himself. His foolishness is not entirely harmless, either. When he sallies forth with his sidekick Sancho Panza to enact his chivalric fantasies, they leave behind them a trail of property damage, bodily harm and high dudgeon. At one point, Quixote frees a chain gang from their captors, releasing hardened criminals into the Spanish countryside to commit who knows what depredations. Cervantes makes it clear that his hero is a menace to civil order, however good his intentions.

Yet for all that, we cannot help but love Don Quixote. He is a man of vision; rather than getting comfortable with the world around him, he forever strives for another, better world. Where other people see squalor and ugliness, he sees dignity and beauty and hope.

Quixote’s first adventure after leaving his village sets a pattern that will persist throughout his story. When he arrives at a nasty little inn frequented by hog drovers and mule skinners, he believes that he has come to a grand castle. When he encounters a pair of prostitutes, he sees “two beauteous maidens or graceful ladies taking the air at the castle gate.” When he speaks to them with the high-flown courtesy of a knight addressing two ladies, they laugh in his face. Though he is stung by their mockery, he doesn’t insult them back, but calls them to something higher: “Civility befits the fair,” he reminds them.

Quixote, it is true, stands too much on his own dignity, but he also insists on the dignity of those around him, even when they don’t see it in themselves.

My favorite lines from Don Quixote come not from Don Quixote the book, but from the musical it inspired, The Man of La Mancha. “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world,” Quixote tells Aldonza, the hard-bitten, world-weary tavern prostitute.

She snarls back, “The world is a dung heap, and we are maggots that crawl on it.”

Quixote will have none of it. “My Lady knows better in her heart,” he insists.

I realize that it’s cheating to quote a musical based on the book when I claim to be talking about the book. I realize, too, that Dale Wasserman, who wrote the dialogue for The Man of La Mancha, may be misreading Don Quixote. I’m not entirely convinced that Cervantes saw his fool Quixote as a holy fool or as a true agent of grace. But if any literary character ever invited willful misreading, surely that character is Don Quixote.

I don’t recommend drawing too many specific lessons from the life of Quixote. If we try too hard to make him a “fool for Christ,” we will run into trouble, and soon. I do believe, however, that to experience Don Quixote is to feel—indeed, to love—the truth that God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. There are many sane characters in Don Quixote, but none of them know the true, the good, or the beautiful so well as the madman Quixote.

The saddest moment in Don Quixote comes not when he breathes his last, but just before. Lying on his deathbed, Don Quixote regains his sanity and repents of all the foolish acts he had committed in his madness. When he dies, it feels like losing a good friend twice.

That sadness is a clue—to the meaning of Quixote, and to more than that. The world insists that we take it as seriously as it takes itself. The madman and the believer both know that we don’t have to.

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The Curse of Knowledge As One of the Reasons for Bad Writing

Sep 29, 2014 | Justin Taylor


Steven Pinker—Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary—has a new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. John McWhorter says that “Pinker has written the Strunk & White for a new century.”

Here is an excerpt of an excerpt in the Wall Street Journal:

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. . . .

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.

Pinker asks and answers how we can lift the curse of knowledge:

The traditional advice—always remember the reader over your shoulder—is not as effective as you might think. None of us has the power to see everyone else’s private thoughts, so just trying harder to put yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t make you much more accurate in figuring out what that person knows. But it’s a start. So for what it’s worth: Hey, I’m talking to you. Your readers know a lot less about your subject than you think, and unless you keep track of what you know that they don’t, you are guaranteed to confuse them.

A better way to exorcise the curse of knowledge is to close the loop, as the engineers say, and get a feedback signal from the world of readers—that is, show a draft to some people who are similar to your intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them.

The other way to escape the curse of knowledge is to show a draft to yourself, ideally after enough time has passed that the text is no longer familiar. If you are like me you will find yourself thinking, “What did I mean by that?” or “How does this follow?” or, all too often, “Who wrote this crap?” The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader. Advice on writing is not so much advice on how to write as on how to revise.

Much advice on writing has the tone of moral counsel, as if being a good writer will make you a better person. Unfortunately for cosmic justice, many gifted writers are scoundrels, and many inept ones are the salt of the earth. But the imperative to overcome the curse of knowledge may be the bit of writerly advice that comes closest to being sound moral advice: Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mind-set and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person in all spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your reader.

You can read the whole excerpt here and get the book here.

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Dane Ortlund: Edwards on the Christian Life

Sep 25, 2014 | Justin Taylor

JEDCI am so thankful for Dane Ortlund’s new book, Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God. As George Marsden notes in his foreword, “Books such as Edwards on the Christian Life are especially welcome as part of the current Edwards revival precisely because Edwards is so many-sided and complex. The essence of his theology needs to be distilled from his many writings and to be presented in practical terms for Christians today. Dane Ortlund does just that. Reading Edwards’s own works can inspire Christians today, but often it is best to start with a more accessible introduction, such as the present one.”

In Ortlund’s introduction he provides an outstanding overview of where he is going:

Our strategy will be to ask twelve questions about the Christian life and provide, from Edwards, corresponding answers. These will form the chapters of this book, with a final thirteenth chapter diagnosing four weaknesses in Edwards’s view of the Christian life. Twelve chapters identify what we can learn from Edwards; one chapter identifies what he could learn from us. In brief the twelve questions and answers are:

1. What is the overarching, integrating theme to Edwards’s theology of the Christian life?

Answer: Beauty.

2. How is this heart-sense of beauty ignited? How does it all get started? What must happen for anyone to first glimpse the beauty of God?

New birth.

3. Having begun, what then is the essence of the Christian life? What does seeing God’s beauty create in us? What’s the heart and soul of Christian living?


4. How does love fuel the Christian life? What’s the non-negotiable of all non-negotiable that will keep us loving? What does divine beauty give to us?


5. And what uniquely marks such love and joy? What is the aroma of the Christian life? What does Edwards diagnose about the Christian life that is most important for recovery today?


6. Where do I go to get this love, joy, and gentleness? How can I find it? What, concretely, sustains this kind of life, through all our ups and downs?

The Bible.

7. But as I go to the Bible, what do I do with it as I read? How do I own it, make it mine, turn it into this joy-fueled love?


8. What then is the overall flavor of the Christian life? What is the aura, the feel, of following Christ in a world of moral chaos and pain?


9. As new birth, Bible, prayer, and all the rest go in, what comes out? What is the fruit of the Christian life?


10. Who is the great enemy of Christian living? Who wishes above all to prevent loving, joyful, gentle lives?


11. What is the great concern of the Christian life? Toward what, supremely, should our efforts be directed as we walk with God?

The soul.

12. Finally, what does all this funnel into? When will we be permanently and fully and unfailingly alive to beauty? What, above all else, is the great hope of the Christian life?


He closes with four criticisms—which alone (in my opinion) is worth the price of the book.

You can watch a video interview with Ortlund above, and/or listen to this podcast conversation he had with Tony Reinke.

Here are some commendations:

“In his theological concern for the beautiful and the beauty of God, Jonathan Edwards stands at the end of a long theological tradition that reaches back to Augustine and beyond, even to the Scriptures themselves. In the last two centuries, however, this area of theological inquiry seems to have dropped off the radar for Christian theologians and practitioners, which may explain why students of Edwards’s corpus of writings have not tackled the subject. Ortlund’s study nicely fills this lacuna, for he rightly shows, from a multitude of angles, that beauty is the fulcrum of Edwards’s thinking. A joy to read and to ponder!”
—Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Jonathan Edwards is widely known as a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. Serious students, like Dane Ortlund, have long known he was much more. In this book Ortlund puts his careful research to good purpose as he demonstrates convincingly that the center of Edwards’s concern was always and supremely beauty—in God, from God, and for God. Grateful readers will find this book highly informative on Edwards and deeply encouraging for the Christian life today.”
—Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, University of Notre Dame

“No one has taught me more about the dynamics of Christian living than has Jonathan Edwards. And no one has more clearly articulated the role of beauty in Edwards’s understanding of the Christian life than has Dane Ortlund. If you’re unfamiliar with Edwards, or if you wonder how beauty could possibly have any lasting effect in your growth as a Christian, this book is for you.”
—Sam Storms, Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“What a delight to see a book on Edwards’s conception of the Christian life. And how beautiful it is that it depicts the Christian life as ordered by and to the beauty of God. This book will help strengthen the fertilization of today’s churches by Edwards’s vision of God’s triune beauty.”
—Gerald R. McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College; co-author, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards

“‘The supreme value of reading Edwards is that we are ushered into a universe brimming with beauty,’ writes Ortlund. I couldn’t agree more. And one would be hard-pressed to find a more engaging introduction to this universe for the church. Even the final chapter, on ways in which we should not follow Edwards, offers crucial Christian wisdom. Ortlund’s criticisms of Edwards hit the mark—and deserve consideration by Edwards’s growing number of fans. I plan to use them with my seminary students in years to come. Please peruse this beautiful book. It’s good for the soul.”
—Douglas A. Sweeney, Professor of Church History, Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

“Edwards is profound, and this book breaks down the complexity into manageable portions around the theme of beauty, thus engaging readers in a fresh vision of the importance of Edwards’s theology to contemporary living.”
—Josh Moody, Senior Pastor, College Church, Wheaton, Illinois; author, Journey to Joy: The Psalms of Ascent 

This book is the latest entry in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, which I edit with Stephen Nichols.


Here are the other books published in the series so far:


Fred Zaspel, Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel


William Edgar, Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality

Stephen J. Nichols, Bonhoeffer on the Christian Life: From the Cross, for the World

Fred Sanders, Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love 


Michael Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever

And here are the volumes forthcoming:


Carl Trueman, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (February)

Tony Reinke, Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (May)

Sam Storms, Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit (June)

John Bolt, Bavinck on the Christian Life (August)

Michael A.G. Haykin and Matthew Barrett, Owen on the Christian Life (September)

Gerald Bray, Augustine on the Christian Life (October)


Jason Meyer, Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life


Michael Reeves, Spurgeon on the Christian Life

Derek Thomas, Bunyan on the Christian Life

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Jared Wilson: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 24, 2014 | Justin Taylor

jaredwilson This is the final entry in a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Jared Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont.

He is the author of several books, the latest two of which are The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables and The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles.

He blogs at Gospel-Driven Church and you can follow him on Twitter, @JaredCWilson.


greeneMy first encounter with Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair was in reviewing the Neil Jordan film adaptation with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore for my college newspaper. I hated it. There was a spirit of something intriguing there about faith and disbelief, but the whole thing seemed muted, hazy, smeared over with the maudlin romanticism so common in Hollywood period pieces. Someone later convinced me to pick up the source material, however, and I discovered in Greene’s work, the fourth of his more explicitly Christian novels, what could not be captured on screen—the often maddening complexities of belief and disbelief, and the thin line between raging against God and fearing him.

“A story has no beginning or end,” Greene’s story begins. There is something else that has no beginning or end—or Someone else, rather, and his shadow looms large over each page of the novel, which chronicles the adulterous affair between writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, the wife of a British officer.

The illicit romance seems routine enough: passionate artist type woos the bored wife of a boring man. But during one of their encounters a bomb blast during the German blitzkrieg of London destroys their room, nearly killing Bendrix. After this traumatic event, the romance mysteriously sours, and Bendrix is sent into a tailspin of jealousy and lust.

He believes he’s been traded in for a new lover, so he hires a private investigator who discovers that indeed Bendrix has been. But Sarah’s new lover turns out to be the source of all love himself. When Bendrix nearly died, she prayed for his safety and made a commitment to God that if his life was spared, she would not see him any longer. As painful as it was to give up her illicit dalliance, the alternative was more painful. She feared not for body first, but for soul. And here we find something rather strange and rather unique in the great midst of literary exploration of sexual sin. Where so many romantic works treat adultery as “natural,” totally legitimized by Romance, the great theoretical justifier of all things, here is a little book where the woman loves her lover by not “loving” him.

This of course infuriates the worldly Bendrix, who comes to see religion as another boring husband dampening all his romantic fury, frustrating the artistic expression of his very appetites. And when Sarah later catches tuberculosis and dies, he sees her God not just as an interloper, but a villain.

And there is where the tale deepens. In her withholding, in her painful disengagement, and now in her cruel death, Sarah has taught Bendrix more about love than she ever could have in the immoral passion of their previous life together. And Bendrix is now forced for the first time to reckon with the great Enemy of his fleshly appetites, the great unbounded Author who had so unfairly deleted his story.

I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s line about his youthful atheism: “I did not believe that God existed,” he said, “and I was very angry with him for not existing.” Indeed, in the end, as Bendrix shakes his fist at Sarah’s God, rejecting the object of her prayers on his behalf, proclaiming defiantly even his hatred for God—“I wanted Sarah for a lifetime and You took her away. With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed”—we think he doth protest too much. He doesn’t even seem to realize he’s praying.

No, being angry with God is not right or just. But it’s a start. When The End of the Affair‘s story ends, Bendrix’s Jacobean wrestling is just beginning. We are sure, by the last lines, gleaming with a sliver of hope, like a light through a cracked door—“I said to Sarah, all right, have it your way. I believe you live and that He exists”—that Bendrix will not walk away from his wrestling unchanged. The reader walks away, in fact, with the great hope that hatred may have a peculiar advantage over ambivalence in that it is at least a kind of caring, a passion that is simply waiting for the redirection of the transforming gospel.

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Rick Segal: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Sep 23, 2014 | Justin Taylor

RickI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Rick Segal is Vice President of Advancement and Distinguished Lecturer of Commerce and Vocation at Bethlehem College & Seminary, following a 30-year career as entrepreneur and global advertising executive. He is responsible for donor relations and institutional communications, as well as teaching and writing related to his role as Lecturer.

He and his wife Adrien have four grown sons.

QuoVA promotional slug on the cover of my 1993 edition of Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz declares the book to be, “Worldwide #1 Bestselling Novel of All Time.”

The claim is unattributed, and a online search 21 years later suggests it may be dubious.

What is objective is that this historical novel of Rome in Christianity’s first century, indeed its first decades, has been in continuous publication since 1895, translated into more than 50 languages, the inspiration of four American and three European film versions, and partially responsible for earning its author the Nobel Prize for literature.

Quo Vadis derives its name from the Latin, “Quo vadis Domine,” “Where are you going, Lord?”, an allusion to an event described in the apocryphal Acts of Peter in which the saint while fleeing Rome encounters Christ heading toward the city.

“Where are you going, Lord?,” Peter asks.

“I am going back to be crucified, again.”

Peter takes this as his cue to turn back and accept martyrdom.

This is Rome in the last earthly days of both Peter and Paul. The Gospel has found a home in the hearts of a small community of believers living in the shadows of Nero’s temples and obelisks. It is a human-scale story of a cataclysmic culture clash, played out in the broad strokes of historical events, and in a love story about a young Christian woman, Ligia, and a Roman patrician, Vinicius.

The clash is exposed in exchanges like this excerpt from letter sent by the fictional Vinicius to the real-life Petonius, Nero’s Arbiter of Excellence:

O Petronius, you do not realize what a comfort and consolation our religion can be in misfortune, how much patience and courage it inspires before death. So come and see for yourself how much happiness it can give in ordinary day-to-day living. People up to now did not know a God Whom they could love hence they did not love one another. From this came misfortune because as the light comes from the sun so too happiness comes from love. Languages, philosophies did not teach this truth and it did not exist in Greece nor in Rome; and when I say Rome, I mean the whole world.

The book’s graphic descriptions of the persecution of Christians were undoubtedly informed by Foxe. This is why some current reader reviews online regard the book as too disturbing to complete. It is, however, the essential argument for reading Quo Vadis. Vats have gathered the blood of martyrs all along the way to the present. Persecution of believers is yet promised. Quo Vadis tells the story of those found first-faithful in persecution’s face.

I am no spoiler to share:

The road to the execution place was long. . . . Paul felt this peace in his heart and he thought with gladness that by his life he has added notes of harmony without which the whole earth was sounding brass or tinkling cymbals. . . . Inwardly, he repeated the words of one of his epistles: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith. Henceforth, there is waiting for me a crown of glory.”

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Mike Cosper: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

cosperI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Mike Cosper is one of the founding pastors of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as the pastor of worship and arts.

He is the founder of Sojourn Music and contributes regularly to the Gospel Coalition blog, where he writes about worship and culture.

He is the co-author of Faithmapping and the author of Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. His latest book is The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (foreword by Tim Keller).

Yiddish“My homeland is my hat.”—Meyer Landsman, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Author Michael Chabon was wandering a bookstore when he came across a book called Say It in Yiddish. It was a phrase book for travelers who might find themselves needing directions, a meal, or (the book seriously provides this) a tourniquet. It struck Chabon as deeply nostalgic and tragic. “Where,” Chabon wondered, “would be the most fabulous kingdom you could have taken this phrase book to, if the Holocaust hadn’t happened?” In a post-WW2 world, the idea of a Yiddish-speaking community seemed both sad and magical.

What emerged from this question was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a Hugo-Award winning novel that weaves together a Noir-style detective story, a wholesale reimagination of 20th-century global politics, and Chabon’s own voice, which is it once funny and provocative. What if, Chabon supposes, the United States had opened Sitka, Alaska, as a temporary refuge for European Jews fleeing Hitler, and what if the fledgling state of Israel had been conquered in 1948? The resulting world weaves together American, European-Jewish, and Tlingit Alaskan Native cultures, a world that is at once culturally rich and sad.

The story picks up 60 years after the refuge’s establishment, when the land is about to revert to U.S. rule. On page one, we’re introduced to Meyer Landsman, an embattled, alcoholic detective, and the dead body of Mendel Shpilmen, the son of a well-respected rebbe, who also happens to be something of a crime boss in the region. Both are presently occupying the same flea-bag motel, and Landsman feels a strong empathy for the dead young man, who was once a figure of promise and intrigue in Sitka.

The pressure is on for the Jewish police department to close their cases, pack their bags, and get out of the way for the Americans who are taking over, which adds a hurry-up factor to Landsman’s investigation. Further complicating things is the fact that Landsman’s boss at the soon-to-be-defunct department is his ex-wife, and relations between them remain a mix of bitterness and longing.

What Chabon does with this odd mix of ingredients is both thrilling and heartbreaking. The tone of his writing is, in many ways, a Raymond Chandler-style hard-nosed detective story, but the spiritual and political backdrop of the story serves to heighten the tensions and further illuminate the characters at the foreground. Landsman has no homeland, no family, and no ties to the world he inhabits. He travels amongst Sitka’s citizens—most of whom are far more faithful, ambitious, and serious than he—trying to both solve the crime and untangle the mess of his own life.

The dead man’s story reveals a broad sense of homesickness and exile in Sitka’s Jewish community, and paints a startling picture of messianic longing. Redemption, for many of the Sitka exiles, seems only possible through violence, and I found Chabon’s story illuminating (albeit in an odd, sideways kind of way) of the longing that must have occupied a large part of the hearts of the authors of the New Testament. And like that (truer, better) story, the redemption that Landsman finds is much more simple, sad, and surprising than anyone could have dreamed on their own.

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Tony Woodlief: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 19, 2014 | Justin Taylor

TonyWoodliefI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Tony Woodlief is a writer who lives in North Carolina.

His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things.

He is also the author of the book, Somewhere More Holy: Stories from a Bewildered Father, Stumbling Husband, Reluctant Handyman, and Prodigal Son.

His website is

PeacelikeariverGod’s grace is freely given to humanity, but novels should earn it. We’ve all endured ones that don’t, that brim instead with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” reading more like sentimental greeting cards than stories of actual lives. In the real world we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, while the wicked revel. Our grief is tainted with bitterness, our joy with envy, our righteous anger with pride. These truths persist because our hearts, Jeremiah says, are deceitful and dreadfully sick. Any novel that does not reflect this is lying.

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River does not lie, but this is not the reason you should read it. You should read it because it is earnest and beautiful in a world of smirks and ugliness, yet more realistic about fallen man than most grim-eyed modern novels wallowing in weltschmerz.

Here is the book’s narrator, recounting the story of his stillbirth:

“In these cases,” said Dr. Nokes, “we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best.” At which point Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.”

And Reuben did, because miracles fall from his father, Jeremiah, like tears from his prophetic namesake. Yet this novel keeps in our minds what many Christian novels suppress: It is terrifying to fall into the hands of the living God. “A miracle,” Reuben explains, “is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.” That sword will swing many times as Reuben, with his father and sister, search for his wayward older brother, Davy.

Unlike Jeremiah and Reuben, Davy has no stomach for miracles. “You think God looks out for us?” he asks Reuben. “You want Him to?” Davy is repulsed by his father’s often-told story of being carried unharmed by a tornado. “It didn’t make sense,” he says. “It wasn’t right.” Davy is self-sufficient and cynical. He is what sophisticated types call a realist.

It is Jeremiah who is the true realist, however, because he walks open-eyed through a Christ-haunted world. It’s a world where all things work together for good, to those who love God, just as the Bible promises. But unlike a sentimental storybook, that good isn’t always apparent on this side of the veil. When his children ask what they should do, following a tragedy, Jeremiah simply says: “‘Persevere.'”

“It was a better answer,” Reuben says, “than we wanted.” Thankfully that can’t be said of this novel, which was a bestseller. It reached beyond a Christian audience not despite being permeated with faith, but because of it, because everyone senses the truth in Jeremiah’s admonition:

“We and the world, my children, will always be at war.
Retreat is impossible.
Arm yourselves.”

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Sarah Kinnard: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 18, 2014 | Justin Taylor

sarahkI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Sarah Kinnard studied English and Education at Wheaton College.

A former middle and high school English teacher, she now homeschools her own children and tries to squeeze in a morning run and a little reading.

She blogs at

GKDorothy Dunnett’s novel The Game of Kings opens a six-book series that is spectacularly written, exhaustively researched, profoundly thought-provoking, and utterly absorbing. As far as I know, Dunnett was not a Christian, nor are her main characters. But her books illuminate the histories of cultures, nations, and individuals in ways Christians would do well to ponder. I think they are novels every Christian should consider reading.

The Lymond Chronicles actually form one continuous story with the seven-volume House of Niccolò series that follows. I’d start by recommending the entire cycle to you, but I don’t want to scare you off. So I will focus on Lymond, sure that anyone who is entranced, like me, by Dunnett’s story will be compelled to read the whole thing.

Francis Crawford of Lymond is a complex figure of fabulous talents and deep wounds. He is looking for a leader worth following and a nation worth serving, and for a purpose that will conquer his past. Dunnett sets her books in the flowering Renaissance, sweeping toward the upheaval of the Reformation, amid all the chaos and opportunity of that rapidly changing world. In such a time, a brilliant man could access the levers of history by using his gifts in the service of kings. Lymond does not seek power for himself; he seeks a monarch who will let him help shape an unsteady young country into greatness. In Dunnett’s world, that ideal arena is her beloved Scotland, poised here between a turbulent past and a stable future. We know from history that this conflict-scarred land is soon to become one half of a remarkable compromise that will secure a Protestant United Kingdom and produce the King James Bible. Dunnett places her fictional characters in the meticulously drawn historical scene, giving a glimpse of how such massive changes might have been wrought.

The future, both of nations and families, is of deep concern to Dunnett. Lymond grapples with the identity dealt to him and the heritage he will pass on in turn. He carries a hidden anguish at the injustice that has dogged his steps, but he continues to make choices that befuddle the reader and alienate those who love him—because he is working toward a future that he sees more clearly than anyone else. In the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) chess match alluded to in the titles of all six books, Lymond operates several moves ahead, often misunderstood and reviled by those he has silently shielded and saved. Ultimately, he sacrifices justice for love; rather than claiming what is due him, he chooses to pass on the heritage of one to whom love and loyalty mean more than fairness.

Though he sometimes acts in ways we would consider immoral, Lymond actually lives by a very specific moral code, with motives much better than they first appear. Christians may not agree that his ends justify his means, but the dilemmas he faces are worth discussing: what constitutes true loyalty? How does one unmask a hypocrite whom everybody loves? What sorts of hurts can be forgiven? And most importantly, what makes a life worth continuing?

Dunnett tackles these heavy questions sidelong, through story. Her prose is vivid and dense, and it rewards careful reading. Like many great stories, it can take a while to draw you in; so don’t give up too early. Keep reading, and you’ll be glad you did. A note: though they take up both the theological (Reformation) and mystical (astrology and second sight) ideas of the time, these are not what one might call “Christian” fiction. Instead, they explore some of the darker realities of the broken world—in which Christians, both then and now, have to live. There are portrayals of sin, but no wallowing in it.

Reading novels is not a utilitarian exercise in self-improvement, but in a mysterious way, if we read the right kinds of books, they do improve our selves—they transport us out of our necessarily small and bounded worlds to other times, other places, and a variety of human hurt and happiness which no one person could ever experience. Such novels can make us better people, more compassionate, more observant, more thoughtful.  As swashbuckling adventure tales, the Lymond Chronicles certainly meet the hedonistic criterion for literature mentioned by Dr. Ryken (my favorite college English professor), for they are immensely enjoyable. I also think they enlarged my heart, and I am better for it.

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An Interview on “The Unfinished Church”

Sep 17, 2014 | Justin Taylor

I recently enjoyed talking with Rob Bentz about his new book, The Unfinished Church: God’s Broken and Redeemed Work-in-Progress:


  • 00:13 – Tell us a little about yourself.
  • 00:30 – Why did you choose “unfinished” as the main metaphor you use to describe the church?
  • 02:09 – What sets this book apart from other books about the church?
  • 03:31 – What do you think of the statement, “I love Jesus . . . it’s the church I can’t stand”?
  • 04:46 – What do you mean when you talk about the “church of the mirror”?
  • 05:44 – Why is genuine biblical encouragement so important for the church?
  • 07:00 – How does the ongoing process of sanctification relate to the ongoing presence of sin in the church?

Learn more about the book and download an excerpt.

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Russell Moore: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 17, 2014 | Justin Taylor

RDM-squareRussell D. Moore (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns.

He blogs frequently at his “Moore to the Point” website, and is the author or editor of five books, including Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches, and The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.

tsImagine Left Behind if what were raptured were not persons but inhibitions. That still wouldn’t be this novel. You would have to further imagine the book showcasing zombies with nothing much left of their humanity but their appetites, combated by a physician with a tendency toward witty asides about culture, religion, and human psychology. And you’d have to further imagine the novel written by an Old Testament prophet with literary superpowers peering into the future set before us. Then you’d start approaching what Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome is like, and why you should read it.

Walker Percy (1916-1990) was the heir of one of Mississippi’s most powerful political and literary families. He was medical doctor in Covington, Louisiana (round about New Orleans) with expertise in philosophy and semiotics. He was also a keen observer of popular culture. When visiting with the literary genius Eudora Welty, it’s reported that they were overheard discussing not Faulkner or Chekhov but The Incredible Hulk. He was a Christian deeply immersed in the thought of Augustine and Søren Kierkegaard. And he was estranged enough from American culture to be able to watch it, as though from afar.

The protagonist of this novel, Percy’s last, is an alcoholic physician who’s done some jail-time, and has now returned home to find that the cast of characters is the same as he left them, but they seem to be reading from a different script. He discovers that his neighbors are being pharmaceutically engineered in a way that removes their human troubles, their human fears, their human reluctances, but, with all of that, it seems, their humanity itself.

The story is brisk, and fun, in its own right, but embedded in the story is a jeremiad of what Percy saw bubbling beneath the surface of American culture. Taking aim at a kaleidoscope of targets, Percy gives us More, to the point. At the heart of his prophetic critique is the division of body from soul.

This starts with the book’s view of science, which divides body from soul by replacing the concept of soul altogether. Near the beginning of the novel, Dr. More complains that psychologists who actually believe in a psyche are near extinct, replaced by “brain engineers” who reduce everything to synapses and chemicals. “If one can prescribe a chemical and overnight turn a haunted soul into a bustling little body, why take on such a quixotic quest as pursing the secret of one’s very own self?”

This quest for engineered happiness, at the heart of the narrative, is what happens when abstract reason and data replace the mystery of human existence. The result of rationalism isn’t, ultimately cool detachment, but hedonism. He sums up the thought of B.F. Skinner this way: “The object of life is to gratify yourself without getting arrested.”

This wild coldness that starts with the dehumanization of the self continues toward the dehumanization of others. And that begins with words. “Neonates” are infants and “euthanates” are the elderly, both of whom are killed. In a cunning use of language, the Supreme Court does not deprive them of a right to life, but instead rules for them, with a “right to death.” The infants are lacking in a right to life because they are not conscious of themselves, and if self-consciousness is what it means to be human, well, then what are they?

The cruel experiments at the heart of this book are pictured not as self-consciously cruel, but as attempts at philanthropy, to “fix” what’s wrong with people. It turns out thought that if one doesn’t know, as Wendell Berry would put it, “what people are for,” this is awful. And if one no longer knows what humanity is, one can kill without ever feeling bloodthirsty. In fact, you can feel as though you are saving the world.

The body/soul division shows up not just in secularizing, utopian science but also in American religion. Percy was, I think, the keenest observer in our time of the almost-gospels of the Bible Belt. He talks here about “educated Episcopal-type unbelievers,” who need the social cache of religion but not much else. He mentions that Louisiana is more Christian than ever, “not Catholic Christian but Texas Christian.”

Even this enthusiastic evangelicalism, though, is often a matter of fitting into the culture. These Cajuns were converted, he notes “first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists.”

These evangelicals are hard-working, dependable, quick to call one “brother” and to shout “Hallelujah” in conversation. More says, “I’ve nothing against them, but they give me the creeps.”

In the character of Ellen, he describes a woman who makes the trek from southern Presbyterianism to Pentecostalism, put off by the liberalism of mainline Protestantism. Her new birth, though, disconnected spirit from matter, in her mind. “She loves the Holy Spirit but says little about Jesus,” he reflects. This, like the move from psychology to psychopharmacology, has consequences.

“She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body,” he says. “In her case the spirit has nothing to do with the body. Each goes its own way.” This shows up in her attitude toward the Lord’s Supper, which she sees as “Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit—things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.”

As with science, this sort of disconnection of soul from body, doesn’t stop carnality; it just results in the worst sort of carnality, that without a soul or conscience.

Every Christian should read this novel because in it you will start to see why some of the ethical anarchy around us is happening. You’ll recognize a society that thinks it can medicate away the fear of death, a society that thinks human existence is the sum total of neurons firing. You’ll recognize why, for instance, the advocates of abortion rights increasingly no longer bother to argue that unborn life isn’t human. One need only argue that it isn’t happy, and there are always those who can “fix” unhappiness with a pill or a scalpel.

But, at the same time, Percy’s novel isn’t a politicized caricature of why the other side must be stopped. There are not villains of all-encompassing wickedness and heroes of imitable virtue. The culture of death, in this book, isn’t just a political issue or a cultural force or a “worldview.” It’s a spirit of the age that is cunning enough not to stay on just one side of culture war fence. In this book, Percy shows us the culture of death—and shows us our own faces there. Like all prophets worth the name, he recognizes that judgment starts with the household of God.

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