Monthly Archives: February 2012

Threats to Our Republic: the HHS Mandate and Incivility

Following the debate over the HHS mandate, I am struck by a number of dynamics that have taken shape. First, the brutal lack of respect and civility–on both sides–that has reared itself consistently throughout the debate. It’s embarrassing at best, and pretty scary at worst. Second, it really is striking how this debate over the propriety of the government’s actions regarding the mandate has turned into a debate over whether or not the president is a Christian (how are the two issues related again?). Lastly, and I realize that this is at the heart of the debate–I am distressed over the fact that there seems to be a willingness to make this issue one of women’s reproductive rights instead of one over religious freedom.

My friends on the left side of issue will, of course, object to my last point. I understand that is at the core of this debate. I present two articles, one from Charles Krauthammer and the other from Josh Good. Krauthammer summarizes the implications of the mandate as they relate to the violation of the autonomy of religious institutions, the intrusion of government into free enterprise, and the forcing of individuals to buy insurance. The article from Good points out the lack of civility in the discourse, particularly in the House Committee on Oversight hearing last week (what Martin Bashir recently called a “show trial”). Good further stresses that the threats to religious liberty need to be taken seriously by everyone, conservatives and liberals alike.

I am a conservative. Since 1988, I have never voted for a Democratic candidate for president. Don’t plan to start anytime soon. There, full disclosure for you. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of overstatement, red herrings, straw man arguments, and general bad behavior as I have made my political opinions known. That’s not right. I’m learning to be more civil myself. But witnessing, from both sides, the incredible lack of respect shown during political dialogue is very distressing indeed. Our republic cannot survive on a foundation of mutual suspicion, animosity, and hatred. Historically, when one side demonizes the other in political discourse, the results are never good–loss of liberty, civil war, totalitarianism, anarchy to name a few.

Both sides need to get a grip. Be fair and rational to the other side. Stop shouting and listen to the other side make their point, then you can make your point. That doesn’t mean you have to compromise on your convictions. Do the utmost to persuade, and if you fail, it’s not because you were wrong necessarily. It might be because you did not make a valid or sound argument. Work harder at being intelligent and respectful. Demagoguery will tear our country apart.

Lincoln, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, said on the very eve of the Civil War: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” His words fell on deaf ears. Behold, the terrible results.

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Prayer for Children

O Lord Jesus Christ, who dost embrace children with the arms of Thy mercy, and dost make them living members of Thy church; give them grace, we pray Thee, to stand fast in Thy faith, to obey Thy word, and to abide in Thy love; that, being made strong by Thy Holy Spirit, they may resist temptation and overcome evil, and may rejoice in the life that now is, and dwell with Thee in the life that is to come; through Thy merits, O merciful Saviour, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest one God, world without end. Amen.

From the Book of Common Prayer, “Prayers and Thanksgivings”

The Profound Theological Significance of J. S. Bach’s Music

The theology of the Reformation was central to J. S. Bach’s (1685–1750) compositions. Bach was a careful student of Scripture, who at his death owned an ample library made up exclusively of theological books. The music produced by Bach was an expression of his own Christian faith. He made a regular practice, for example, of inscribing his scores of sacred and secular music with the letters J. J. (Jesu Juva, meaning “Jesus, help”), S. D. G. (Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “to God alone the glory”), and I. N. J. (In Nomine Jesu, meaning “in the name of Jesus”). The theology of the Reformation was so much a part of Bach’s music that the two are truly inseparable.

His influence upon Western music cannot be overstated, and the influence of the Reformation, particularly the Lutheran Reformation, is equally important in Bach’s work. To illustrate Bach’s place in musical history, consider one of his Catholic predecessors, the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–1594). Palestrina is the composer of the Catholic Counter-Reformation known as “the Prince of Music.” Prior to Bach, Palestrina held more fame as a composer than any other. Palestrina’s music was marked by a professional choir made up of polyphonic voices sung a cappella. Neither key consciousness nor measured time was part of Palestrina’s compositions. Each vocal piece was sung in Latin, the simple lyrics often being repeated throughout. Palestrina’s music is certainly beautiful, and it inspires the awe of a person being transported to a heavenly world. 

By the time of Bach, a scant ninety years after Palestrina, music had developed to its modern form.  Bach’s cantatas were sung by congregations, not professional choirs. He utilized the aria, or solo voice, in his arrangements. He also accompanied the voices with the organ and orchestra. Key consciousness and measured time were also found in Bach’s music. Bach did not attempt to introduce drama to the biblical motif, but lets the drama of the motif speak for itself, thus the otherworldliness of Palestrina is not to be found in Bach’s music. Bach’s revolutionary compositions reflect the changes wrought in faith and practice by the Reformation. Congregational involvement in worship sung in the vernacular, a portrayal of theological motifs in realistic rather than idealistic fashion, a break from the established rules of religion and melody all set Bach’s music apart from that of the Catholic Church.
Bach based his cantata for the Sunday nearest Reformation Day in 1724 on Luther’s hymn Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (“From the depths of woe I cry to Thee”). While Luther is the author of the words and basic musical structure of the hymn, Bach harmonized it into a four-part cantata. Luther founded this hymn on Psalms 32, 51, 130, and 143 because these psalms expressed the meaning of what he called Anfechtung, or awareness of sin.

First, listen to the Gloria, from the Missa Papae Marcelli (Pope Marcellus Mass), which is composed by Palestrina. Imagine yourself living in 1600s Europe as a commoner. All your days are spent in the toil of cultivation of the land or in the manufacture of basic goods or implements. There is no time for you to spend in anything other than your work, day in and day out. The one break in the routine of your existence is the going to hear the Mass at the cathedral, perhaps at Rheims, or Notre Dame, or at Chartres. You enter the cathedral, a massive, beautiful, towering structure. You are used to living in a small hut, drafty and damp, cold in winter and stifling in summer, crowded and dirty. Entering the massive cathedral, you hear the polyphonic chant of the choir, but they are unseen. Your mind is drawn upward, to another world, a world of unchanging perfection, where there is no death, no corruption, no evil, no darkness. But this world is incomprehensible, unattainable, eternally distant. It is where God and His angels dwell.
Next, listen to Bach’s cantata. Notice that the words of the cantata are in your own language. You are invited to sing the words. These are not repetitive chants of words in a language incomprehensible to you. And the words are from the Scriptures, the same Scriptures that have been closed to you by centuries of church tradition and authority. Now, they are yours to read and absorb. They are God’s words written to you personally. As you sing these words, you believe them, and you pray them directly to God, trusting that Christ advocates for you before the Father. No human intermediary is necessary, for you may stand before God and plead your case before Him in the name of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest Himself. Heaven is not so distant now. Your life is not defined now by unending futile toil. The glory of God has been brought down to you through Christ, and you may claim it as your own through Him and Him alone.
God be praised for the indescribable gift of His grace poured out upon us by His Son, Jesus Christ!

[This is part of a more extensive article I wrote entitled “The Impact of the Reformation on the Fine Arts with Emphasis Upon Selected Works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Rembrandt van Rijn.” Faith and Mission23 (Spring 2006): 31–54.]

Does God Wipe the Slate Clean When He Forgives Sin?

The modern use of the term “clean slate” originated with John Locke in the 17th century, who asserted in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding that human beings are born with a mind that contains no innate ideas and no built in paradigm for processing information. In much Christian parlance, the term is used to describe what God does when a sinner comes to Him confessing his sins. He takes the sin-stained slate of his life and wipes it clean. In 1 John 1.9, the Spirit through John says, “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” God wipes the slate of our lives clean when we confess our sins.

The good news of the gospel is, that God does not do anything of the sort. The notion of God wiping the slate clean likely originated as an illustration to help people envision how God forgives an individual’s sins. It is easy to imagine God erasing a slate, because we have all sat in classrooms and watched the teacher methodically erase the chalkboard. What was once a marked-up mess becomes pristine. What a wonderful illustration of God’s act of forgiveness, it is often thought and subsequently taught.

Not so. Psalm 130.1-4 says,
“Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD;
Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications.
If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But [there is] forgiveness with You, That You may be feared.”

This psalm explains how God forgives the sins of the person who cries out to Him in contrition. Clearly, verse 3 states that God does not “mark iniquities,” in other words, there is no slate on which to record sins. He has thrown the slate away.

Colossians 2.13-14 says, “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” To understand this, it is essential to grasp the fact that the handwriting of requirements that was against us (a.k.a. the slate) has been taken out of the way by being nailed to the cross. Again, just as Psalm 130 states–there is no slate. It has been nailed to the cross, thrown away.

Christ’s work of atoning for sin is finished. His having sat down at the right hand of God is an affirmation of His finished work, once and for all. Hebrews 1.3 says, “[Christ] who being the brightness of [His] glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Hebrews 10.12 says, “but this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God.” Thus, the completed work of Christ’s once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice, His victorious sitting down at the right hand of God, His declaration of having finished the work God sent Him to do (John 19.30)–all demonstrate to us that God does not clean a messy slate when He forgives sins. Even a clean slate can be made messy again. No. God has thrown the slate away. It has been nailed to the cross. It has no power over those who have trusted in Christ alone.

This is the good news of the gospel. Confess your sins to Christ if you have never done so. Trust in His atoning work that was done once and for all on your behalf. Then, rest in the peace that comes from the knowledge that God keeps no record of wrongs. You are totally forgiven of all your sins when Christ is your trust, and Christ alone.

Does it Matter What I Wear to Church??

Josh Bush, son of the late L. Russ Bush, III, is one of the most insightful thinkers I know. He gets it from his dad. He is a chemical engineer, having earned his Ph.D. from Texas A&M. His blog, “Latch onto This,” contains several well written and persuasive posts on a host of issues.

In this particular post, Bush takes on a somewhat controversial topic. It used to be more controversial than it is now, because it seems that the only people wearing suits to church are old people and visitors. Regular attenders at any one church usually are dressed pretty casual, at least in Baptist churches.

Does it matter what we wear to church? Does God care about such things? Should we care? Here is a taste of Josh’s post:

People seem to forget that your clothing speaks.  Clothing is not personal.  Clothing is what you are showing everyone else.  If you follow the warnings of the previous scripture references, it will show up in your clothing.  Non-verbal communication is still important when you go to church.  The apostle Paul obviously thought non-verbal communcation as it applies to clothing absolutely did matter.

Russ Bush on Work and Accurately Interpreting Scripture

Dr. Bush wrote this blog post on understanding the biblical dignity of work, and by extension, reading and interpreting the Bible in an informed and accurate manner. Bush first makes the strong point that as we read Scripture, we have to be careful to draw the intended meaning from the text and resist the temptation to read into Scripture what we either want to see in it, or what we assume it is saying. We must think carefully about our interpretations, and question our own assertions about what the text means. Second, Bush underscores the dignity of work, but warns that it is possible to go too far here. There are certain things we can do in our work to glorify God. There are also things we can do in our work that is rebellion toward God. Some work is dignified, but in this fallen and cursed world, a great deal of work is base, depraved, and rebellious.

Here is a taste of Bush’s post:

Reading the Bible gives some people many creative insights, and they often end up with some good conclusions, but their exegetical basis is at times weak, and they mislead people about what the Bible actually says and teaches. Creation is not “organizing chaos.” Creation is bringing designed purpose out of simplicity. There was no life, but God created life (a highly organized arrangement of simple substances, not chaos, is a necessary precondition for the chemical and physical base on which life can ride).

Top Ten Bloodiest Battles of World War I

World War I? Who cares about World War I? Isn’t that the war with all the trenches, mud, impossible-to-pronounce names, spiked helmets, and those funny looking hat-helmets worn by the Allies? Yep. That’s the one. This link describes the 10 bloodiest battles.

It seems that a lot of people don’t know too much about the First One. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to know an excellent World War I scholar at the University of Virginia, Edward Lengel (author of To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918). He takes groups to France to visit some of the old WWI battlefields on the Western Front. He notes how view tourists are interested in visiting the cemeteries, the memorials, and the battlefields where titanic battles were fought. While the World War II sites are crawling with tourists, the World War I sites are quiet, grown-over, and largely neglected and forgotten.

I think that World War I is fascinating, engrossing. I cannot read enough books on the Great War. The old nineteenth century high European culture died a violent death between 1914-1918. The political order that had defined Europe for centuries went away never to return as a result of the war. The futility of the many of the battles, the ineptitude of many generals, the cheap cost of life, the terrifying conditions–all these aspects of World War I are haunting to me.

I recommend Lengel’s book very highly. The Meuse-Argonne was the first offensive in which Americans took an independent and active systematic role. When one considers what those brave soldiers were up against, it is truly amazing anyone returned to tell the tale.

John Keegan’s The First World War is an excellent treatment of World War I. The first sentence of the book states that World War I was “a tragic and unnecessary” war. From there, Keegan presents a chronological narrative of the course of the war, shifting back and forth from the war in the west, the east, the seas, the Dardanelles, and other places in the world where fighting took place. It’s a great book if you are starting from the ground floor and mainly interested in the military history of the 1914-1918 war.

Of course, A. J. P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History is one of the classic general narratives of the war, with excellent pictures, illustrations, and maps. It was the first book I ever read on World War I (read it in 8th grade), and it’s another great book to gain a general understanding of the war’s unfolding.

Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is a fast paced and well written treatment of the events that brought the war about, as well as a narrative of the opening battles and movements of the huge armies that defined the war. Tuchman gives the reader a firm grasp on why the war began, and how the war took on the character that it did in the fall of 1914.

Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought goes back even further in time, tracing the background causes of World War I as far back as the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. Nobody can tell biographic stories like Massie, and he does a masterful job narrating the fateful decisions, intrigues, and complicated relationships between the policy makers of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Finally, Winston Churchill has a very descriptive and thorough history of the war entitled The World Crisis. His is a 5 volume work (Churchill is not famous for brevity) written from his unique vantage point as First Lord of the Admiralty during the war, and the primary visionary and architect of the Dardanelles campaign of 1915.

Many Americans understand much more about World War II than about World War I. Of course, the Second war was, in so many ways, a continuation of what was begun in the First war. Study the First war to gain an understanding of the course of the twentieth century, and also an understanding of Western relations with Middle Eastern countries. Study it also to discover the profound devotion of the soldiers to their nations and most of all, to each other. You’ll find it exceedingly useful.