Leland Ryken: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 01, 2014 | Justin Taylor

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

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books—including Dickens’s “Great Expectations” in the Christian Guides to the Classics series and the forthcoming A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He also served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Here he commends a novel he has read over thirty times.

GEA magazine editor once invited me to join other contributors in answering the question, What is the best novel originally published in English?  My answer began, The best novel originally published in English is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Great Expectations was recommended to me when I was preparing to go on my first Wheaton in England program.  Through the years I have maintained that this novel is the best possible introduction to the people and places of England.

The Britishness of Great Expectations is related to my first commendation of the novel.  The first thing we want when we sit down to read a novel is to be transported. Great Expectations delivers the goods.  No fiction writer has excelled Dickens in the gift of world making.  The world to which we are transported when we read Great Expectations is quintessential Britain and Victorian England.  It is a world of nature and countryside, the small town, and London.

A second thing that we want when we commit ourselves to reading a novel is to be entertained.  The hedonistic defense of literature (defending literature on the pleasure principle) has always carried primary weight with me.  We read literature in our leisure time, and leisure is meant to be enjoyable. Great Expectations gives us the enjoyment that we want.

It is also a comic masterpiece.  Among English authors, Dickens ranks with Chaucer and Shakespeare as our greatest humorist. His comedy is divided between comedy arising from characters and comedy arising from the situations of plot (“situation comedy”).

Dickens was a stylist and wordsmith of the very highest order, and he never excelled more than in Great Expectations (his last great novel).  Dickens could make moments immortal by how he expressed them.  His sparkling style is self-rewarding.

When I teach Great Expectations, I devote modules to each of the three elements that make up a story—setting, character creation, and plot.  I stand at the board and ask my class to assemble the story qualities that the human race likes best in a story.  By the time I have filled to board, it is obvious that Great Expectations meets all the criteria.

What about the truth of Great Expectations?  One type of truth is truthfulness to human experience.  A fiction writer gets us to stare at life, and the knowledge that emerges is knowledge in the form of right seeing—seeing things accurately.  Virtually everything that Dickens portrays in Great Expectations ”gets it right” in its accurate rendition of human experience.

Where’s the edification?  I myself place literature as a whole on a continuum with three main categories:

  1. Christian literature
  2. the literature of clarification and common humanity
  3. the literature of unbelief

Great Expectations falls into the middle category.  It does not explicitly endorse the Christian faith (though it contains many biblical references), but it is readily congruent with Christianity.  In particular it raises the question of values in a helpful way.  Pip loses his soul (metaphorically speaking) when he bases his life on his “great expectations” of a life of material ease based on inherited money, and he gains his soul (in a moral but not a spiritual sense) when he abandons his great expectations and bases his life on love, personal relations, and contentment with the common life.

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What Would It Have Been Like to Attend a Puritan Worship Service?

Aug 31, 2014 | Justin Taylor


The Old Ship Meetinghouse, built in 1681 (Hingham, Massachusetts). It is the only remaining 17th c. Puritan meetinghouse in the US and the oldest church in continuous ecclesiastical use in the US (now a Unitarian Universalist church).

Princeton historian Horton Davies (1916-2005):

A stranger entering any Puritan meeting-house would first notice the bareness and simplicity of the architecture and of the furnishings.

Probably the only decoration on the walls of the building would be text from the Scriptures.

Apart from the pews, the only other articles of furniture would be the high central pulpit and the Communion-table immediately below it.

On the cushion on the ledger of the pulpit would be seen the Bible. Its dominating, central position was no accident: it testified to the authority of the Bible in the worship, doctrine and government of Puritan Churches.

The impression of unadorned simplicity would be maintained at the worship.

The minister would ascend to the pulpit, dressed in a grave black gown, its somberness relieved only by the white of the Genevan bands he wore.

The service would commence with the call to worship, consisting of sentences selected from the Scriptures.

Then the stranger would kneel or stand, according to the practice of the congregation where he was worshiping, during the prayer of confession.

He would then join in a metrical psalm of praise.

The minister with then read a chapter from the Old Testament, perhaps pausing here and there to explain some obscure verse.

The stranger might then join in another metrical psalm, or he would hear a new testament lection immediately after the previous reading.

If you were in an Independent church he would then hear the minister lead a prayer of intercession. At its conclusion the whole assembly would ascent with a vocal ‘Amen’.

If you were in a Presbyterian church, this item would be postponed until after the sermon, and it would conclude with all saying the Lord’s Prayer aloud.

He would then notice the shuffling of the congregation as they settle down to listen comfortably to a lengthy sermon, while the minister adjusted the hour-glass. The sermon would be an exposition of a text or a longer passage of Scripture. It would begin with a simple exposition of Scripture, it would continue by controverting any errors which the Scripture condemned, it would conclude with the statement of the advantages of the acceptance of this particular doctrine. The preacher would deliver his conclusion with passionate and perhaps even vehement pleading. The stranger’s general impression of the sermon would be that both reason and conscience had been satisfied, and that the preacher had, in the name of God, struck for a decision. The peroration of the sermon would be the climax of the whole service. The service would then end with another metrical psalm and the pronouncing of the Blessing by the minister. . . .

In each service he would clearly have understood that the way of worship was not simply the manner in which the particular assembly of Christians wished to worship God, but rather that it was the kind of worship that God himself demanded in his Word. The lengthy readings from the Scriptures, the Baptismal formula taken from the Scriptures, the words of Institution and of Delivery taken from the Scriptures, the Biblical phraseology of the prayers, the careful way in which the sermon elucidated the Scriptures, and the metrical versions of the psalms used in praise, would all have contributed to produce this impression. In fact, it was the Biblical basis of Puritan worship that accounted for the liturgical agreement amongst the Puritans.

—Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (orig., 1948; reprint: Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 246-47.

See also, “What Did It Looks and Sound Like in Jonathan Edwards’s New England?” by Doug Sweeney. (Davies’s description applies to both England and New England in both the 17th and 18th centuries, while Sweeney is more specifically focused on 18th century New England.)

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Louis Markos: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 31, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Markos-Louis_4I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities.

His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition (W&S), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody), and Literature: A Student’s Guide (Crossway).

HTNot all of the novels of Charles Dickens are 800 pages long! In fact, my favorite Dickens novel, Hard Times, comes in just under 300 pages. Its relatively short length likely has to do with its simple, parable-like structure. As the titles of its three books (“Sowing,” “Reaping,” “Garnering”) make clear, Hard Times illustrates and dramatizes the biblical teaching that we reap that which we sow.

Which is not to say that the novel is schematic or overly moralistic. The characters that Dickens creates are flesh-and-blood people who make agonizing decisions, and for whom we come to care deeply. The flawed protagonist, Thomas Gradgrind, is a retired merchant who runs a model school that trains children to think only in terms of facts. Employing the same utilitarian educational system for his eldest son (Tom) and daughter (Louisa), he forbids them to read poetry or fiction and roots out of them all fanciful, romantic, or heroic notions.

Though Gradgrind is neither a bad man nor an uncaring father, his failure to nurture his children’s hearts and souls has disastrous results; both Tom and Louisa grow up to be stunted adults devoid of real human feeling. Lacking not only a moral center but the kinds of feelings that must ever accompany virtuous behavior, Tom, without suffering a stitch of remorse, first manipulates his doting sister and then robs a bank and frames the crime on an innocent worker. When his father asks him why he has done these terrible things, Tom appeals to the law of averages: given so many workers, so many are bound to be dishonest. Sadly, tragically, Gradgrind must see the bitter fruit of his utilitarian ideals.

The true heart of the novel, however, concerns Louisa’s disastrous marriage to a filthy capitalist, Bounderby, who is thirty years her senior. When Gradgrind passes on Bounderby’s proposal to Louisa, she desires to share with her father what is in her heart but neither of them knows how to communicate on an emotional level. Though they both know Louisa does not love Bounderby, Gradgrind brushes this aside, counseling her to make her decision based on facts and statistics. Her marriage is a loveless one, leaving the emotionally immature Louisa prey to an amoral rake, with whom she nearly runs off.

At the last second, she relents (this is, after all, a Victorian novel!), and, instead, runs home to her father’s house. He greets her at the door, only to have her fall, in an insensible heap, at his feet. Although Gradgrind is humbled by the experience and comes to realize that there was something missing in his educational scheme, he proves unable to mend the damage that has been done. Bounderby rejects Gradgrind’s plea to give Louisa some time apart from him and casts her aside for good. Louisa never remarries and lives as a childless, isolated spinster.

The fates of Gradgrind, Tom, and Louisa might suggest that Hard Times is a gloomy novel, but Dickens is careful to contrast their stories with that of a troupe of circus people who, though they lack facts, are rich in love, warmth, and joy. Through them Dickens teaches us that there are aspects of our lives and ours souls that cannot be so easily weighed and measured.

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Lore Ferguson: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 30, 2014 | Justin Taylor

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

Offering a recommendation today is Lore Ferguson, a writer and graphic designer living in Dallas, TX. She describes her life as “small, simple, and ever in an ongoing effort to make it more so.”

She writes at and can be followed on Twitter at @loreferguson.


BroKIf you have anything good to say about a particular book, you ought to at least have a few good things to say about its plot as well. Whenever I recommend my favorite particular book, I’m asked: “What is it about?” The words catch—sometimes on the end of my tongue, sometimes in the back of my throat—because the truth is I don’t know.The Brothers K (not to be confused with The Brothers Karamazov, which it will be anyway) is a book about a family, and this is how I recommend it in a singular sentence. It is a book about the family Chance, as told by one of four Chance brothers, Kincaid. I heard of

The Brothers K from an author friend who had named his son after Kincade. I knew then I must have missed the great American novel as an English major while under piles of Gilgamesh and Shakespeare, for which I will never forgive my professors.

Paul says whatever is good and true and pure, to think on these things, and I know he meant it, but sometimes I wonder if that meant we were never to think of the evil, untrue, and defiled things that pass to and fro beneath the front we offer everyone else. The truth is there is evil and defilement in my heart, and I must think on those things to lead me to the kindness of God on the way to repentance. David James Duncan simmers the brokenness of family, heart, war, and world in this 645-page novel, and never boils it over. There is not gratuitous delight in brokenness, but there is neither a turning away of the things that break us all.

The tension holding the book together is the voice of Kincaid, growing into adulthood, processing and reprocessing the life he’s been born into and the life he eventually chooses. But the real tension is that the reader will see himself there in the questions Kincaid asks and the ones that are asked of him, the observations we all make but are afraid to say.

Like many a Christian before them, Mama and the Elder justified their machinations with Christ’s famous sentence: ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ And like many a Christian before them, they completely forgot that the only sword-shaped weapon Jesus ever actually used was the one He died on.

Some might see observations like these as gratuitous jabs against Christianity, and I might agree, but gratuitous jabs are the fully-grown progeny of doubts never voiced.If you read it slowly, and finish it well, you will have grown alongside the Chance family, asking existential questions and mulling on philosophical differences, but you will also have grown to love them. This is why The Brothers K is a book Christians ought to read (though I’m wary of saying must read).

We all have people in our lives who challenge and press on us in uncomfortable ways and places, but it is not by chance they are there. They are, in one very real sense, family. These bipeds we pass in grocery stores and though church doors—more than mere humans taking up space, they carry the weight of abuse, fear, doubt, hope, joy, peace, and death on their shoulders. One of the brothers K says:

I felt free to like all three of these men now, because I’d realized I didn’t have to become them.

Would that we all could say those words.

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David Powlison: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 29, 2014 | Justin Taylor

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

David Powlison worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, where he is executive director, and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling. He hold an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine (focusing on the history of psychiatry), and has been a counselor for over 30 years.


Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (1991) is book every reading Christian should consider.

In making this recommendation, I am taking seriously that the verb is “should consider,” not “should read.” This novel is not for everyone. It’s long (almost 800 pages). Helprin’s style (magical realism) won’t appeal to some people. You won’t find Christian theology. This is purely a work of fiction. It tells the story of a very interesting man. It does not present opinions, views, and advice. That’s the disclaimer.

But here’s the draw. A Soldier of the Great War is beautiful. It is thought-provoking.

I know that many readers will find that Helprin’s writing gives the same deep pleasure and rich nourishment that he has given me over the years. I have read SGW four or five times. (Only Fyodor Dostoevsky and Patrick O’Brian have drawn me back so often.) Each time I have been enraptured. My copy of the book is marked up with innumerable underlinings, annotations, and cross-references. I love Helprin’s lyricism and imagination. I love his reflections on and evocations of beauty, love, joy, worship, courage, coming of age, passion, loss, and death.

Beauty, joy, and love—in the face of death—are the core. We Christians are right to take seriously “the true and the good,” those life-or-death questions dealing with epistemological convictions and ethical actions. We are not right to ignore or even deprecate “the beautiful,” those life-or-death questions dealing with aesthetic experience. But worship and God’s glory involve all three.

God is true. He is good. He is beautiful.

Sin corrupts all three; grace redeems all three. Helprin does not write as a Christian. But he awakens things that stream in the direction of whole-souled worship. Not worship abstracted and detached from God’s working in time and place and persons. But worship awakening in the midst of human experience, embedded in creation, history, and relationships. SGW traffics in immediacy, wonder, engagement, joy, attachment, awe, attentiveness, gratitude, alertness, appreciation, longing.

Of course, I love SGW in a different way than I love Scripture. But alongside Scripture, I most love novels and histories. Why? Because you learn about people.

You gain a feel for human experience.

You come to understand riches and nuances that you could never understand just from knowing the circle of people you happen to know.

You come to understand the ways that people differ from each other, and the ways we are all alike—an exceedingly valuable component of wisdom.

You become a bigger person with a wider scope of perception.

All those things you come to know illustrate and amplify the relevance and wisdom of our God. I love fiction and biography for the same reasons that an 18th century pastor would read his Bible and his Shakespeare. SGW is one those stories from which I have loved learning.

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Kathy Keller: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 28, 2014 | Justin Taylor

kathykeller-2Today I am beginning a new blog series on Novels That Every Christian Should Consider Reading. Only the Bible is a “must read,” so put these in the category of “should consider reads.” Over the next couple of weeks I will post one or two entries a day.

The first contributor is Kathy Keller.

Kathy holds an MA in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has worked as an editor for Great Commission Publications, and presently serves on the staff of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where her husband, Tim, is senior pastor. In Redeemer’s early years, Tim preached and Kathy was the entire staff; now she serves as assistant director of communications.

Kathy writes below about a series of books—which can also be considered one long novel—that will leave you “forever dissatisfied with poorly written fiction.”


POBPatrick O’Brian, the author of the 20-book series of Aubrey-Maturin stories set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars, was famously reticent about his personal life. Judging by the competing narratives that came to light shortly before and after his death, it was a complex one. Following C. S. Lewis in The Personal Heresy, I do not care a whit. The man could write a story.

If it would not be a breach of contract, I would stop writing here and re-direct any reader to David Mamet’s piece  in the New York Times along with George Will’s retrospective in the Washington Post and consider my duty done.

Mamet’s and Will’s admiration was reserved for a writer who could tell a good story, and in this they regard Patrick O’Brian as one of the masters. The long tale of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin’s friendship, adventures, marriages, successes, humiliations, strengths, and weaknesses is one that will become a part of you. The follies and glories of human nature are recorded with humor, insight, and tenderness. I often think that if I am confined to bed in my dotage, I will ask to have my favorite books, whom I think of as friends, stacked up in bed with me, just to handle and hug to myself, as Mamet said.

I stumbled across the O’Brian books one summer when I was looking for a cache of books to take on vacation. No trip could rightfully be called a vacation unless I had at least half a dozen unread books to pack among the bathing suits and sunscreen. I was particularly delighted to discover what looked like a good writer with a long tail—meaning he had already written a LOT of books, so that if I did discover that I liked his writing, there would be no waiting for the next installment to come out.


I bought three, just to give them a fair trial, and by the middle of our second week away I was calling back to the bookstore in NYC and begging them to FedEx the next five or six in the series so I wouldn’t run out before we returned. Since then I have read all 20 four times through, and am about to embark on another marathon.

I am completely ignorant of sailing in all its incarnations (ancient, modern, recreational, naval, etc). As O’Brian has made use of historical diaries and letters, as well as mastering the sailing jargon himself, each story is liberally peppered with “loosening the foretopsail” and “shipping the capstan-bars,” and other nautical expressions. As Stephen Maturin, physician, spy, and friend of Captain Jack Aubrey, is also an unreconstructed landsman, this should not be an impediment to enjoyment of the story. If you do happen to understand sailing terms, so much the better for you.

Critics rightly regard all 20 books as one long story. So make no mistake: I am not recommending ONE novel to you, but the entire series. To my friends with whom I have waxed passionate about their joys and perfections, and who have tried to get interested and failed, I can only say “You didn’t give it long enough.” Like people who say they just can’t get into The Lord of the Rings, you just have to take it on the word of people you trust that if you get into the rhythm of the writing, the use of language, the overarching story arc, and most of all, the friendship (LOTR and PO’B) you will be drawn in, enriched, entertained, changed, and made forever dissatisfied with poorly written fiction.

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David Platt Elected President of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board

Aug 27, 2014 | Justin Taylor

David-Platt-CroppedEarlier today the trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board elected David Platt to serve as president.

This seems like a historic occasion—God putting things in place to put one of our generation’s great missions mobilizers at the helm of one of the great sending institutions for fulfilling the Great Commission.

Russell Moore comments:

I have been praying for a long, long time that he would be elected. Our IMB president must be one who can drive our missions focus in a new way for a new era. It’s not enough that Southern Baptists’ global missions leader motivates us all to give and to go (although he must do that). He must be someone who can connect from the Scriptures how the Great Commission, and especially our global Great Commission responsibilities, are the urgent concern of all of us, Most Christians know that Matthew 28 and Acts 1 command us to go, to reach the unreached with the gospel. We need though to be constantly reminded how every text, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is connected to the mission of reaching the nations.

In a rapidly shifting American culture, this means modeling a vision of why it is that cooperating together for this task is connected to everything else that we do. We need to activate and enthuse a new generation for the adventure of reaching the world with the gospel.

You can read Moore’s full comments here.

Update: Here is Platt on video talking about the transition:

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Whitefield and the Great Awakening: Two Things to Watch for This October

Aug 27, 2014 | Justin Taylor


This October—two months before George Whitefield’s 300th birthday—the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies will hold a conference on George Whitefield and the Great Awakening at Southern Seminary in Louisville. Several excellent historians, including David Bebbington, Thomas Kidd, Lee Gattis, Steve Nichols, and Bruce Hindmarsh—will give presentations on Whitefield and his significance. You can find the schedule and register online.

That same month Yale University Press will publish Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father. Mark Noll says that ”This superb chronicle of George Whitefield’s life is now our fullest biography for the much-studied and much-debated eighteenth-century evangelist. It combines unusual empathy with unusual comprehension.” And J. I. Packer calls it ”Thoroughly researched, and rooted in an exact knowledge of Whitefield’s times; critically perceptive while remaining appreciatively sympathetic; this is the best balanced and most illuminating chronicle of the Anglo-American Awakener’s career that has yet been produced.”

If you want to read Whitefield’s sermons for yourself, this two-volume set is the thing to get.

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How Can Smaller Churches Partner with Other Churches for the Kingdom?

Aug 27, 2014 | Justin Taylor

I recently sat down with Matt Dirks, co-author with Chris Bruno of the new book, Churches Partnering Together: Biblical Strategies for Fellowship, Evangelism, and Compassion (foreword by D. A. Carson).

  • 00:10 – Where do you serve?
  • 00:39 – What was the one thing that Paul dedicated much of his life to?
  • 02:16 – How do you bridge the gap between the first century and the twenty-first century in terms of church partnerships?
  • 03:37 – What is a “kingdom church partnership”?
  • 06:03 – Can you share a few concrete examples of church partnerships from your own ministry?
  • 07:33 – Why can’t this vision be handled by a denomination or parachurch ministry?
  • 09:54 – If a small church pastor picks up your book, he will get ______.

You can learn more about the book and download an excerpt.

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What Is a Good Historian?

Aug 26, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The latest edition of the excellent Credo Magazine (which is devoted to George Whitefield at 300) asks four Christian historians what makes a good historian. Here are their answers:

Thomas J. Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

A good historian must have confidence that the past can reconfigured in the present to a credible degree of accuracy.

A good historian should not be afraid of affirming that sometimes there is sufficient evidence to interpret events as manifestations of merciful as well as judgmental works of divine providence.

A good historian will let people have the place of primacy in his effort to understand the past.

A good historian must not shrink from seeking to deduce beneficial lessons, of a variety of sorts, from a faithful narrative and analysis of the past.

Mark A. Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame:

A good historian must above all be curious—about the world at large, about how records reveal (and obscure) the past, and especially about the whys and wherefores of human interaction.

For public purposes, a good historian should be able to

  • write clearly,
  • organize complexity,
  • explain significance, and
  • avoid either mythologizing or debunking the past.

Good Christian historians, in addition, should cultivate

  • empathy for their subjects (since all humans are made in the image of God),
  • charity toward the judgments of other historians (since believers recognize their own fallibility),
  • trust in divine providence (since God in the end controls all things), and
  • humility about their own humanity (since only the authors of Scripture are infallible)

Herman Selderhuis, Professor of Church History, Theological University Apeldoorn (The Netherlands), and Director of Refo500:

A good historian is a good listener who listens carefully to facts and words, especially the small ones.

A good historian is also a good composer who puts these facts and words harmoniously together to make history a profitable pleasure to hear and read.

A good historian must be a good colleague who is willing to learn from and share with other historians.

A good historian must have some good self-knowledge to understand how people from the past were human beings just as historians are.

Doug Sweeney, Chair of Church History & History of Christian Thought Department, and Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

A good historian is someone with

enough patience, love, and diligence to develop a fine-grained and sympathetic understanding of the lives of people in other times and places;

enough insight, artistry, and attention to detail to recreate those lives (in context) for contemporary audiences; and

enough passion, cogency, and analytical skill to interpret the significance of those lives in relation to contemporary realities.

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Race, Power, and Innocence in America

Aug 25, 2014 | Justin Taylor

The-Content-of-Our-Character-Steele-Shelby-9780060974152I do not hear much from or about Shelby Steele these days—perhaps because his last book constituted a colossal failure of prediction.

But his first book, The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (1990) remains provocative reading that repays visitation.

Steele is especially eloquent and insightful about the psychology of race in America. I have long wished for someone to take his insights on guilt, power, and innocence and apply them to our context with a thoroughgoing gospel perspective. Such analysis must await the work of someone more gifted and skilled than I, but let me offer a few quotes from his opening chapter—the original version of which can be read for free here—in order to whet your appetite:

I think the racial struggle in American has always been primarily a struggle for innocence. White racism from the beginning has been a claim of white innocence and therefore of white entitlement to subjugate blacks. And in the sixties, as went innocence so went power. Blacks used the innocence that grew out of their long subjugation to seize more power, while whites lost some of their innocence and so lost a degree of power over blacks.

Both races instinctively understand that to lose innocence is to lose power (in relation to each other). Now to be innocent someone else must be guilty, a natural law that leads the races to forge their innocence on each other’s backs. The inferiority of the black always makes the white man superior; the evil might of whites makes blacks good. This pattern means that both races have a hidden investment in racism and racial disharmony, despite their good intentions to the contrary. Power defines their relations, and power requires innocence, which, in turn, requires racism and racial division. (p. 6)


Historically, blacks have handled white society’s presumption of innocence in two ways: they have bargained with it, granting white society its innocence in exchange for entry into the mainstream; or they have challenged it, holding that innocence hostage until their demand for entry (or other concessions) was met. A bargainer says, I already believe you are innocent (good, fair-minded) and have faith that you will prove it. A challenger says, If you are innocent, then prove it. Bargainers give in hope of receiving; challengers withhold until they receive. Of course, there is risk in both approaches, but in each case the black is negotiating his own self-interest against the presumed racial innocence of the larger society. (pp. 10-11)


 I believe that . . . what divides [the races] in the nation can only be bridged by an adherence to those moral principles that disallow race as a source of power, privilege, status, or entitlement of any kind. In our age, principles like fairness and equality are ill-defined and all but drowned in relativity. But this is the fault of people, not principles. We keep them muddied because they are the greatest threat to our presumed innocence and our selective ignorance. Moral principles, even when somewhat ambiguous, have the power to assign responsibility and therefore to provide us with knowledge. . . .

What both black and white Americans fear are the sacrifices and risks that true racial harmony demands. This fear is the measure of our racial chasm. And though fear always seeks a thousand justifications, none is ever good enough, and the problems we run from only remain to haunt us. It would be right to suggest courage as an antidote to fear, but the glory of the word might only intimidate us into more fear. I prefer the word effort—relentless effort, moral effort. What I like most about this word are its connotations of everydayness, earnestness, and practical sacrifice. No matter how badly it might have gone for us that warm summer night, we should have talked. We should have made the effort. (p. 20)

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Chesterton: Nothing Can Be Irrelevant to the Proposition that Christianity Is True

Aug 25, 2014 | Justin Taylor

“You cannot evade the issue of God . . . if Christianity should happen to be true—then defending it may mean talking about anything or everything. Things can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is false, but nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true.”

—G.K. Chesterton, Daily News (December 12, 1903)

HT: Jonathan Morrow, whose new book is Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority.

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America in Black and White: Why Do So Many of Us Respond to Ferguson So Differently?

Aug 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

american-flag-black-and-whiteOne of the confusing things about the fallout from the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, is the differing perspectives of many blacks and whites, even those who are united in the gospel and share the same theology.

There seems to me to be four basic positions one could take—and have been taken—at this point:

  1. We know that the shooting of Michael Brown was morally unjustified (i.e., murder).
  2. We know that the shooting of Michael Brown was morally justified (i.e., self-defense).
  3. We do not know whether the shooting of Michael Brown was morally justified or unjustified because we do not yet have enough clear and official information to form any settled conclusions with confidence.
  4. Whether positions 1, 2, or 3 are the correct positions to take at this time, Christians should be concerned with the larger systemic pattern of injustice in America that occurs when a predominately white law enforcement interacts with African Americans in particular, as borne out by similar cases and by social science studies.

There are African American brothers like Thabiti Anyabwile who want to focus upon #4, while he is being understood to say (incorrectly, it turns out) that he holds to #1.

Many white evangelicals, on the other hand, want to focus upon #3 before it can be determined if this is actually an illustration that substantiates #4.

I do not know all of the answers. At times I don’t even know how to ask questions or attempt answers for fear of misunderstanding or being misunderstood. There is an enormously complex constellation of presuppositions, history, psychology, inclinations, suspicions at play here.

What I do know is that we all can learn from one another on this, and that interacting without understanding is counterproductive.

It would be the height of folly to pretend these can be sorted out in a blog post. But let me point to one factor as illustrative of others, well expressed by Pastor Bob Bixby:

Whites are confused by the outcry of blacks from all over the country when a black boy is killed. This is because whites do not value their white collective in the same way that blacks value their black collective. The black culture values the black community. They value the black collective. It was through community that the blacks prevailed through the Civil Rights Era. In fact, it is through community that African Americans survive still. They feel much more dependent on community than we whites do.

Whites, on the other hand, simply do not see themselves as a collective. We are the proverbial fish in the water that sincerely asks, “What is water?” We see ourselves as Missourians, Bears fans, cowboys, motorcyclists, Democrats, evangelicals, and countless other possibilities, but we do not feel ourselves to be part of a white collective. Thus, when our black friends feel the impact of Ferguson even though they are three states away we scratch our heads and wonder how in the world this whole affair became a white/black thing when it just happened to be a white office that killed a black youth while in the line of duty. How, we wonder, can this be so visceral to them? As one black pastor friend said, he was vicariously traumatized. Honestly, I was not similarly traumatized. I went to bed that night without the feeling that one of us had killed one of them because as a white I don’t even get the feeling of a white us. In the same week a white teenage girl was shot and killed by the police three blocks away from my home. Naturally there were questions about the police procedures and an investigation is taking place, but no white person felt like one of us had been eliminated by a large impersonal other. It wasn’t until I consciously chose to respect the understanding and interpretation of black Christians that I sorrowfully recognized my slowness to sympathize with them.

White Christians trust too much their initial feelings, not realizing that feelings are shaped by understanding. I do not say that black Christians do not have the same temptation. I am speaking, however, as a white Christian preacher, trying to model ambassadorial effort. We have to understand that our instincts and knee-jerk analyses are products of our culture.

The reason for this is in the question of value. The fact that trumps all other facts emotionally in the culture that values the black collective as a minority community is that there is one less black boy of an already too-few number, dead at the hands of a white system that seemingly does not share that value. This assumption that a white system does not value black life seems proven when the force seems more trigger happy when the black youth is the target or when the force leaves his body on the street for hours before picking it up. As the value of a child would call up from deep within me a visceral, passionate, death-defying lurch toward the street in the flash of an eye, in the same way the devaluing of a chicken fails to to call up the visceral reaction in my soul and body to do something about it. In the same way, the black community senses from whites who calmly munch on their sandwich and say, “We don’t have all the facts yet” a devaluation of a black life. They do not see what whites think they are conveying, a calm deliberation that waits for due process and accepts the rule of justice. Instead, they hear from our inability to sympathize, “It’s just another black thug with sagging pants that wasn’t respecting authority.”

White evangelicals need to learn that it is not enough to have a black friend or to love a black person. One must love the black community. We who are white have grown up in a world where blacks must learn to live with us but where we have never had to learn to live with them. We love to go to a black church as tourists, but we do not want to go there as members. One must love the community that an individual comes from to truly love that individual, especially if the culture of that community places such a high value on its community.

That this is just one presupposition at play here illustrates the messiness and complexity of understanding one another.

Let me add one more encouragement (to myself as much as to anyone). In his book Bloodlines John Piper addresses a common the temptation in these difficult discussions:

Of all the moral issues that challenge the church from decade to decade, this one we are tempted to abandon more often, because in this battle we get more quickly and deeply wounded along the way. If you have thin skin, or if you have a bigger sense of rights you are owed than mercies you need, or if you have small faith in God’s preserving grace, you will set out on the road of racial harmony and then quit. Because you are going to be criticized. You will try to say something or do something that you thought was helpful, and the first thing you hear is: you said it wrong, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you should have also said such and such, or it was not the time to say anything. . . .

Will we “stay on the table”? Stay on the road? That is what the doctrine of perseverance is for—to keep us faithful in the kind of obedience that is sustained by the foretastes of heaven and leads to the glory of heaven. Christ has purchased our perseverance. The Holy Spirit applies the purchase. None of us will persevere perfectly. But getting up when you are knocked down is a mark of Christ’s followers. We know life is short and eternity is long. This eternal perspective does not take us out of the world. It gives us freedom from self-pity. We are about to inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5). We don’t need to have it now, or the ease and comfort that go with it. We can work at this till we drop. For our labor is not in vain in the Lord.

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Why Can’t All Historians Write Like This?

Aug 22, 2014 | Justin Taylor

From the opening pages of David Hackett Fischer’s Paul Revere’s Ride (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3-4.

* * *

In our mind’s eye we tend to see Paul Revere at a distance, mounted on horseback, galloping through the dark of night. Often we see him in silhouette. His head is turned away from us, and his features are hidden beneath a large cocked hat. Sometimes even his body is lost in the billowing folds of an old fashioned riding coat. The image is familiar, but strangely indistinct.


Those who actually knew Paul Revere remembered him in a very different way, as a distinctive individual of strong character and vibrant personality. We might meet the man of their acquaintance in a portrait by his fellow townsman John Singleton Copley.


The canvas introduces us to Paul Revere at about the age of thirty-five, circa 1770. The painter has caught him in an unbuttoned moment, sitting in his shirt sleeves, concentrating on his work. Scattered before him are the specialized tools of an 18th-century silversmith: two etching burins, a steel engraving needle, and a hammering pillow beneath his arm. With one hand he holds an unfinished silver teapot of elegant proportions. With the other he rubs his chin as he contemplates the completion of his work.

The portrait is the image of an artisan, but no ordinary artisan. His shirt is plain and simple, but it is handsomely cut from fine linen. His open vest is relaxed and practical, but it is tailored in bottle-green velvet and its buttons of solid gold. His work table is functional and unadorned, but its top is walnut or perhaps mahogany, and it is polished to a mirror finish. He is a mechanic in the 18th-century sense of a man who makes things with his hands, but no ordinary things. From raw lumps of metal he creates immortal works of art.

The man himself is of middling height, neither tall nor short. He is strong and stocky, with broad shoulders, a thick neck, muscular arms and powerful wrists. In his middle thirties, he is beginning to put on weight. The face is round and fleshy, but there is a sense of seriousness in his high forehead and strength in his prominent chin. His dark hair is neatly dressed in the austere, old-fashioned style that gave his English Puritan ancestors the name of Roundheads, but his features have a sensual air that calls to mind his French forebears. The eyes are deep chestnut brown, and their high-arched brows give the face a permanently quizzical expression. The gaze is clear and very direct. It is the searching look of an intelligent observer who sees much and misses little; the steady look of an independent man.

On its surface the painting creates an image of simplicity. But as we begin to study it, the surface turns into mirrors and what seems at first sight to be a simple likeness becomes a reflective composition of surprising complexity. The polished table picks up the image of the workman. The gleaming tea pot mirrors the gifted fingers that made it. We look more closely, and discover that the silver bowel reflects a bright rectangular window that opens outward on the town of Boston. The artisan looks distantly toward that window and his community in a “reflective” mood, even as he himself is reflected in his work. As we stand before the painting, its glossy surface begins to reflect us as well. It throws back at us the lights and shadows of our own world.

To learn more about Paul Revere is to discover that the artist has brilliantly captured his subject in that complex web of reflections. . . .

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