We Only Offer Pre-Murder Care

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You’d think by now they’d just train their employees to lie to everyone at all times, just to cover their bases. Another damning video from Live Action:

And before the accusations inevitably start flying that this video, too, is “deceptively edited,” be sure to check out my post from the last round of Planned Parenthood videos tearing apart this argument. Not that abortion proponents care.

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

51rvyklhhjl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 4: A Classic Novel

I’ve spent the last decade+ wondering how I managed never to have read this book. It ranks high on just about every list of the “best English novels” (including this one, this one, and this one) I come across, and has been claimed as one of the most influential books by thinkers as varied as Bill Gates and George H. W. Bush. So it seemed as though I had been missing something.

Considering it is apparently one of the most widely-read and reviewed novels in America, it’s difficult to find anything to say that hasn’t already been said. I will, however, say that I didn’t enjoy it… not, at least, in the sense that I enjoy most good novels. But this isn’t like most novels.

I feel that I lack the proper context to truly appreciate Salinger’s work. It’s been called a “quintessential work of teenage angst,” and yet I never really experienced the type of angst which Holden Caulfield narrates—though I have certainly seen it others. I can also recognize how revolutionary and counter-cultural this book must have been when published in 1951. Yet sadly, the caustic language no longer shocks us, while weak & conflicted characters, meandering stories, and meaningless details became far more common in popular culture with the rise of postmodernism, perhaps itself indicative of the influence of this book.

So no, I didn’t particularly “like” The Catcher in the Rye. It was, however, an interesting look into the mind of a character with whom a great deal of readers identify. By trying to understand Holden Caulfield, I feel like I may also better understand the mind of those who long for meaning but have no idea where to find it. And really, that’s most people.

I believe there is within each person a deep, unquenchable desire for a “catcher”—for a protector and a return to innocence. And, like Holden, most of us at one point in our lives have, at some point, desired to view ourselves in that role—the role of a hero—only to realize that it is we ourselves who must be caught. But unlike Holden, I know that there is a hero who offers strength and protection, able to hold me up (Isaiah 41:10) and never let me go (John 10:28-29).

This is why I have a general distaste for postmodern art and literature (J.D. Salinger has been called “the pre-postmodernist“). There is no hope! I crave stories of redemption and deliverance, not out of a sappy desire for a “happy ending,” but because these are the stories which are true! As “realistic” as Salinger’s portrayal may be of the mind of so many who search for something with no real hope of ever finding it, I’d much rather read stories which promise rewards for perseverance, integrity, and virtue, and which give hope of the ultimate triumph of good over evil (or over meaninglessness, if you prefer). They may be “fantastic,” but they portray things which are true about the real world in which we live.

It’s difficult to recommend The Catcher in the Rye, though I’m not sorry I read it. I believe there is value in reading books which are influential, even if I don’t think their influence has necessarily been such a good thing. Because that influence is also a real part of the world in which we live. It’s a world full of broken people who can relate to Holden Caulfield in a way that I can’t. May the Lord use this book to help me better relate to those around me, and to offer them hope of a better way.

Teaching Sound Theology

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A few weeks ago I bookmarked an article to read, and finally got to it this afternoon. In “Sound Theology: Teaching Your People Through Music”, Bob Smietana interviews Keith Getty about the importance of congregational singing. I hope you’ll take the time to read through the entire article, but I’d like to highlight just a few things here as well.

First of all, there are few men living whom I admire as much as Keith Getty. His insistence on pairing beautiful, singable melodies with doctrinally rich lyrics has made his music an invaluable resource for today’s churches. And his emphasis on the value of teaching our congregations through music is one I share—which is why I had originally launched my other writing project (which I hope to also resurrect soon!), Systematic Hymnology. I deeply value the work of the Gettys, and commend to you all of their albums, particularly the latest: Facing a Task Unfinished.

It starts with the Bible

In Smietana’s interview, note Getty’s observation that the mandate for instructional singing is biblical. He mentions the song of Moses from Exodus 15, also a particular favorite of mine (one of the song studies on my other blog is based on Aaron Keyes’ modern musical adaptation of this biblical text, which we’ve recently begun singing at FBC Powell). Scripture is full of examples of music being used educationally, and of exhortations to sing songs like this.

We have a long way to go

Getty shares an anecdote about Irish hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, who composed a book of Hymns for Children in the mid-19th century, to help children learn the doctrines of the faith. He laments the extent to which modern evangelical churches have lost our patience with songs which eschew musical novelty in exchange for lyrical depth:

You take these hymns, shortened down to five or six verses, and they’d still be considered “unsingable” in many large, modern evangelical churches, because there are too many words. Yet these songs were written for 8-year-olds.

If we’re going to build a generation of people who think deep thoughts about God, who have rich prayer lives, and who are the culture makers of the next generation, we need to be teaching them songs with theological depth.

Isn’t that sad? I’m grateful to serve in a church which celebrates these type of songs, but am simultaneously convicted that I don’t sing enough songs like this, either in church or at home with my own children.

Sing great songs

This can’t be said too often! The Internet is full of articles lamenting the lack of congregational participation in singing in our churches. Everyone seems to have advice on how to correct the problem: Turn the lights down, turn the lights up, find a more dynamic worship leader, grow your choir larger, etc. Yet it seems to me that Keith Getty’s solution—by far the simplest, cheapest suggested remedy, and one which can be immediately implemented in churches of any size and budget—makes the most sense.

When we evaluate our worship services, we must always ask the question, how did our congregation sing? If the answer is, as it seems so often to be, that they did not sing much or at all, we must then ask ourselves whether the songs we sang were great. There are plenty of good songs out there, but as T. David Gordon writes in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (my review), there is no reason to settle for merely good songs when there are so many great songs available to us. And so Getty is right: “Great songs sing well. Bad songs do not. So sing great songs.”

Again, please hop over to Lifeway’s “Facts & Trends” blog to read the full interview here. It’s so good! Just makes me that much more exciting for the upcoming release of Getty’s first book, Sing!: Why and How We Should Worship, which you can pre-order here. (I’ve written asking for an advanced reading copy for review… so hopefully you’ll see a review here ahead of its September release!)

Book Review: A Comaraderie of Confidence

full_a-camaraderie-of-confidence“A Camaradarie of Confidence: The Fruit of Unfailing Faith in the Lives of Charles Spurgeon, George Müller, and Hudson Taylor” by John Piper

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 3: A Biography

What’s better than reading a biography of one of my favorite 19th-century saints? How about reading three of them!

I’ve been a fan of John Piper’s “The Swans Are Not Silent” series for some time. In each of these books, he unites three short biographies around a common theme. In this instance, all three men were contemporaries, who knew one another and supported one another’s ministries (though this is not the case in each book in the series).

A Camaraderie of Confidence explores how God worked through difficult circumstances and remarkable ministry strategies (particularly in the realm of funding their missions) to glorify himself. Each of these men was incredibly gifted, and would likely have been successful in any venture he might have undertaken. But each led a life consumed with proclaiming the glory of God, which was displayed in their respective focuses of church (Spurgeon), orphan care (Müller), and world missions (Taylor).

I have read longer biographies of each of these three men, but still gained much from reading this book. Piper’s narrow focus on certain similarities in their strategies and in their sufferings is quite effective at highlighting those areas in the reader’s attention. For me, it was particularly encouraging seeing how each of these men set goals, cast vision, and worked tirelessly in pursuit of the work to which God had called them. Reading of the struggles these men faced both personally and professionally is fuel for endurance in trials I know that I’ll face as well. Piper includes a great many quotes from the writing of each of these men, while also interspersing his own helpful commentary. A favorite example is Piper’s counsel to young pastors about taking care of our bodies through proper diet and good sleep habits, “for the sake of your proper assessment of God and his promises” (p. 53).

If you’re not into the habit of reading biographies, I highly recommend beginning with one of Piper’s “swans” books. They are easily digestible, highly applicable, and can generally be read in a few short sittings. You can grab a copy of A Camaraderie of Confidence here, and any (or all!) of the other six books in the series here.

As a bonus, here’s a video of Piper explaining why he loves writing “The Swans Are Not Silent” books, and speaking to the value of biographies in general:

Book Review: Deep Work

41j1on7ksql-_sx322_bo1204203200_“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport

2017 Reading Challenge – Book 2: A Book Your Pastor Recommends

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. ~ Ephesians 5:15-16

Last month, our pastor recommended this book to the rest of the church staff as a resource for using our time well, tuning out the distractions and producing excellent work. The timing was good: I had felt as if my own personal productivity had taken a dip, to the point where the demands on my time were beginning to hurt my family. I was eager to make some changes, and this was definitely the right book at the right time.

Cal Newport is certainly no slave to convention. In an era dominated by social media and constant connectivity, he calls for readers to intentionally disconnect more often, pursuing what he calls “deep work” free from distraction. But rather than being a “curmudgeonly pining for the days of unhurried concentration,” his book pursues “a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.” (p 258, italics his).

Newport describes deep work as: “Professsional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (p 3)

This is contrasted with shallow work: “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” (p 6)

In my review of 2016, I found that most of my time was being spent on the latter at the expense of the former. Judging by the very well-researched findings of Dr. Newport, I’m far from alone, as the data shows that “deep work” is increasingly rare in today’s economy. But I’ve never been satisfied with normal. As a believer, I am called to be a good steward of the time, talents, and intellect God gave me. By losing my ability to concentrate deeply and produce excellent work, I was drifting more and more into the sin of laziness, without even noticing.

Thankfully Newport provides detailed and practical alternatives for making better choices with my time. The book is split into two sections. The first builds the case for the importance of deep work (it is valuable, rare, and meaningful). The second lists and expounds upon four rules for going deep. The most controversial–for most readers, anyway–is the chapter entitled “Quit Social Media” Nowadays we are constantly bombarded with the ubiquity of social media; it is accepted as a given that you must be active on social media (and on other tools of digital connectivity such as e-mail and instant messaging) in order to be a productive member of a digital economy.

Newport doesn’t mince words in pleading with readers to invest their time in activities which produce value, happiness, and contentment rather than allowing the allure of the Internet to distract us from work and family. And while I may not be totally signing off from all digital media (he acknowledges that this is not feasible or necessary for most people), I have already begun implementing many of his suggestions for planning my time (including planning when I will be accessible through e-mail and social media) more wisely, and have been both more productive and more available to my family in the last two weeks than I have been in some time.

If you’re like me, and like most other people in the world, you could benefit from learning how to concentrate better, longer, and with greater purpose. This book offers great practical tools which will aid you in your pursuit that goal. While it’s not a “quick fix”–it requires discipline, consistency, and alot of hard work–it is something which, as I’ve already seen, can be implemented in relatively short order with almost immediate returns.

Grab a copy of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Living in a Distracted World here.

Rhetorically Speaking

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There’s been lots of ink spilled evaluating yesterday’s inauguration speech. But most of the “liked it” and “hated it” comments I’ve read have focused mainly on its policy content. Not surprisingly, people who voted for him tended to like what he had to say; those who didn’t, didn’t.

What I haven’t seen as much of is rhetorical analysis of the speech (a notable exception is prominent conservative George Will’s Op-Ed for the Washington Post—spoiler alert: he wasn’t a fan). Rhetoric isn’t everything, of course, but as a strong proponent of classical education I hate to pass up the opportunity to remind readers that the quality of a speech can in fact be evaluated objectively apart from its ideological content. For instance, I always appreciated Barack Obama’s ability to deliver a great speech, even when I was often appalled by the policies he advocated in them.

In an excellent demonstration of how to evaluate the rhetorical value of a political speech, rhetoric expert Max Atkinson points out a six-part “recipe for success” that made JFK’s 1961 inauguration speech one of the best in history:

  1. Contrast (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”)
  2. Three-part lists (“Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”)
  3. Contrasts combined with lists (“Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”)
  4. Alliteration (“Let us go forth to lead the land we love.”)
  5. Imagery (“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”)
  6. Audience Analysis (e.g., crafting the speech to connect with its intended audiences)

I heartily recommend reading Atkinson’s full piece here.

It’s unlikely that Donald J. Trump will be remembered by posterity among the great orators of American history. Then again, I suppose that’s a big part of his appeal. Those who flocked to his rallies were attracted largely because he’s “not a politician”; a well-crafted and brilliantly-delivered speech wouldn’t jive with that persona.

So, for all his rhetorical faults, perhaps it’s worth acknowledging that he has mastered the art of Atkinson’s sixth “secret of success”. And in today’s America, that may just be the most valuable.

Book Review: Genghis Khan and the Quest for God

51ljycapjhl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom” by Jack Weatherford

2017 Reading Challenge – Book 1: A Book About History

This book’s subtitle certainly grabbed my attention, and Weatherford did not disappoint as he argued compellingly for the claim that the freedom of religion currently enjoyed in most of the Western world owes a great deal to a 13th century Mongolian warlord. Definitely a fascinating way to kick off my goal of at least 52 books this year as part of Tim Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge! (I’d originally chosen this as a biography, but since the scope of the book turned out to be much broader than the life of Genghis Khan, I elected to count this as a history book.)

As a pastor with a deep love of history and of this country, I’ll admit to some skepticism about any meaningful connection between Genghis Khan and the 1st Amendment. Then again, I must also admit to having spent very little time studying Eastern civilization, and so I really didn’t know much about “the world’s greatest conqueror” at all. I sure do now!

Weatherford’s lifelong devotion to the study of Genghis Khan is apparent in the depth of his research and the passion of his writing. He certainly presents a more positive view of the Mongol leader than I expected–after all, most of what little I had previously heard about Genghis Khan reduced him to little more than a bloodthirsty savage. And while he undoubtedly was often savage in the conquest of his enemies, in this book we also encounter a man of vision, with sincere interest in tackling the great spiritual and philosophical questions of life: Is there a god? If so, how can we know him? What is he like, and what does he want from us?

The history presented in this book is fascinating. I had no idea just how vast the Mongolian empire was! In addition to conquering and controlling an unprecedentedly large span of land (with relatively few resources initially at his disposal), Genghis Khan had to effectively administrate an empire consisting of Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and shamanistic citizens; not to mention all the competing sects within each of those faiths. To combat the religius factionalism he encountered during his conquests, he decreed that “each should abide by his own religion and follow his own creed.” This edict became known as the Great Law of Genghis Khan.

As the book points out, this was not the first example of religious tolerance in history, but the empire ruled by Genghis Khan was the first to make freedom of religion an individual right. And while the ruler himself never became an adherent of any particular religion (with the possible exception of the steppe religion of his ancestors), he successfully cobbled together an administration consisting of leaders and spiritual advisors from all walks of life who, remarkably, all coexisted relatively peacefully (provided they submitted to his ruling authority) throughout his reign.

The final chapter and epilogue was perhaps the most compelling, as this is where Weatherford connects the 13th century with the 21st. He recounts how interest in the life and rule of Genghis Khan was revived periodically throughout history, with writers as prominent as Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Voltaire writing of him. The Enlightenment was one era in which this interest was especially strong, particularly among Deists, who looked for historical examples of religious toleration outside of Western civilization.

And so it was that biographies of Genghis Khan came to be found in the libraries of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. And while Jefferson never explicitly mentions Genghis Khan in his writing, the similarity in wording between his “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” (which was later incorporated into the US Constitution as the First Amendment) and Genghis Khan’s Great Law is unmistakable. And so it now seems plausible–if not probable–that, to some extent, this great conqueror really did “give us religious freedom.” Amazing!

Two and a half centuries later, the influence of Genghis Khan remains prominent in both the Eastern and Western worlds, and interest in his life and his policies is once again on the rise. If this review has piqued your interest, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Genghis Khan and the Quest for God here.