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December 28, 2020

Here is a good idea for spending the Amazon gift cards that you got for Christmas:  Pick out some of the winners of this year’s Christianity Today Book Awards.

The quarantines, shut-downs, and lockdowns of 2020 were miserable, but at least they made time for reading.  I’m told that book  publishing was one of the industries that more or less held its own during the year’s economic woes.

Every year, Christianity Today comes out with its awards for what its panel–I used to be a member–considers to be the top Christian books in multiple categories:  Apologetics/Evangelism, Biblical Studies, Children & Youth, Christian Living/Discipleship, the Church/Pastoral Leadership, Women, Culture & the Arts, Fiction, History/Biography, Missions/Global Church, Politics and Public Life, Spiritual Formation, Theology/Ethics, and “Beautiful Orthodoxy.”  A “Book of the Year” and an “Award of Merit” are given in each category.

Browse the list, but I want to highlight two titles.  (Note: If you buy any of these books from the links to Amazon, I’ll get a small commission.)

Bezalel’s Body:  The Death of God and the Birth of Art, by Seattle Pacific art historian Katie Kresser, took the Award of Merit for the Culture & the Arts category.  My first book, The Gift of Art (expanded into State of the Arts) focused on Bezalel, the artist called and equipped by God to craft the art of the Tabernacle.  I’m glad to see that this long-neglected Biblical figure has since then been getting his due.  This book approaches Bezalel and the Bible’s legacy for the arts with great sophistication.

She argues that the art of Bezalel is different from the graven images of the pagans.  Whereas the latter made it possible for worshippers to identify with and manipulate their gods, the sacred art of the Tabernacle–which could not even be touched– required and created distance.  Similarly, Christianity emphasizes a personal relationship with God, which requires that He be “other” than ourselves.  This is manifested in Christ’s crucifixion–what she means by the “death of God” in her subtitle–and His ascension.  Conceptually, these mindsets made what we consider art today to be possible. She says that the value of art is that it makes us encounter and treasure “otherness,” as opposed to fixating on ourselves.  This is contrary to the views of art that focus on “self-expression” and the inwardness of the self, and strikes me as a very salutary and exciting approach, which Prof. Kresser develops with theoretical and scholarly expertise.  I haven’t read it yet, but the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon is tantalizing, and it’s first on my list.  (It is illustrated with pictures of works of art, which I have found are hard to page back and forth to on Kindle, so I’ll be getting a hard copy.)

I was also thrilled to see that my long-time friend Harold Senkbeil has a book on this honors list for the second year in a row.  Last year his The Care of Souls took the top prize for The Church/Pastoral Leadership.  This year the Award of Merit for “Beautiful Orthodoxy” went to his Christ and Calamity:  Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley.

I was sort of in on the beginnings of that book.  Lexham Press wanted him to toss off a quick book in response to the Coronavirus Rev. Senkbeil agreed to give it a try, but, in doing so, put together the makings of a spiritual classic.  He sent me the manuscript and asked for a rushed endorsement.  Here is what I wrote:

As we face sickness, death, economic disaster, uncertainty, fear, and every other kind of suffering, we need consolation. In this little book, in just a few pages, Pastor Senkbeil gives us the consolation of Christ.

This is not just good advice or positive thinking or abstract theology that tries to explain why God allows suffering.  Rather, this is the cure of souls.  Pastor Senkbeil takes us into the depths of spiritual reality.  Here, in the midst of our actual tribulations, we encounter God, not as a being far above us looking down, but with us, in His cross.

This is a book to read and to read again whenever we need it, a book to give away to people who are hurting.  This book will be a classic.

Rev. Senkbeil–former seminary professor, founder of the ministry to pastors Doxology, and, above all, a pastor–has written a masterpiece.

This is a small book, only 168 pages.  Pastors should buy it in bulk to give away to people they are ministering to.

Check out too the Gospel Coalition Book Awards.  I’m especially interested in Carl Trueman’s analysis of the huge worldview shift entailed in the phenomenon of transgenderism and the notion of sexual identity:  The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution Hardcover.  

 Other suggestions for spending your gift cards:  the eye-opening Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World
by British historian Tom Holland, a 2019 title that completely upends the criticisms of the New Atheists.
And I had a book that came out in 2020: Post-Christian:  A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture.
 What other books from last year would you recommend?

 

Illustration:  award book by Flatart from the Noun Project

December 23, 2020

What we know about the nativity of Jesus comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Mark starts his account of Christ with His baptism, and John goes back as far as possible for His origin:  “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  Then, like Mark, John jumps to John the Baptist.

But John does write about the Christ Child, not in his Gospel but in the Book of Revelation.

Like everything in that description of a vision, the account is enigmatic and mysterious.  But it’s John’s Christmas story.  And it’s also about us today:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule  all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.  (Rev. 12:1-6)

Most of the attention given to this passage has to do with the identity of the woman.  We’ll discuss that controversy later.  But most commentators agree that the child “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” is Jesus.

This passage describes the great hatred that the dragon, explicitly identified as Satan, has for Christ.  How he sought to kill the child, recalling his servant Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.  All through the child’s life, Satan tried to “devour him,” until Christ’s Ascension.  Whereupon this “dragon” is defeated and “thrown down.”

Even though Satan is defeated and thwarted, he continues to persecute the woman and “the rest of her offspring”; namely, us Christians:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. . . .

13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.  (Rev. 7-9; 13-17)

So who is the woman who gives birth to the child?  The Virgin Mary?  Catholics certainly think so.  They see in the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” the Queen of Heaven, whom they portray in their iconography as standing on the crescent moon with stars in her hair.  (I had heard that the medieval depictions of Mary with the moon under her feet derive from depictions of the pagan moon-goddess Diana, which is evidence that the veneration of the Virgin Mary is simply a displacement of early European goddess-worship.  But the imagery clearly derives instead from this passage.)

And yet, this passage does not completely accord with Catholic Mariology.  This woman “was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”  Catholics believe that Mary had an “immaculate conception,” so that she was born without original sin.  That means that she was not under the curse of Eve, which included “pain in childbearing” (Gen 3:16).  Thus, Catholic piety insists that she experienced no pain in giving birth to Jesus.

A Protestant reading could also allow for the woman to be the Virgin Mary.  We know that Jesus on the Cross entrusted His mother to John’s care (John 19:17).  Revelation is said to have been written by John when he was at an advanced age.  By then, Mary would have died–or, as Catholics believe, ascended into Heaven, since her lack of original sin meant that she was not under the sentence of death–and John would have surely thought of her as being in Heaven.

Yet the passage goes on to describe the dragon’s persecution of the woman in extended and elaborate conflicts.  We don’t know how Satan might have tormented Mary after her Son’s Ascension, but what Revelation describes here sounds more universal.  The dragon is also making war “on the rest of her offspring,” clearly identified as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus”; that is on Christians.  I’m not sure that even Catholics would consider Christians to be “offspring” of Mary.

This leads to other interpretations of the woman’s identity.  Some say she represents the Church.  But the Book of Revelation depicts the Church as Christ’s bride, not His mother.  And surely the Church doesn’t bring forth Christ; rather, He brings forth the Church.  Others interpret the woman as Israel.  Certainly, Satan has persecuted the Jews since Christ’s ascension, but, as a group, they have not been in league with Jesus.

The Lutheran Study Bible probably gives the best answer in saying that she represents “God’s People,” both in the Old Testament and in the age of the Church.  The Jews did give birth to Christ, and the Church was being severely persecuted at the time of John’s vision and thereafter, including today.  Then again, as Al Collver of the LCMS points out, the Virgin Mary is a type of the Church, the New Israel, so perhaps the symbols all come together.

At any rate, the message of Christmas is unambiguously given in John’s account:

10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers[b] has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!  (Rev 12:10-12)

(This post revisits a topic from 10 years ago.)

 

Image:  “The Virgin of the Apocalypse,” by Miguel Cabrera (1790), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

December 14, 2020

There have been many attempts throughout the centuries to ascertain exactly when Jesus was born.  Researchers in Italy have offered a new approach to the question. Looking at the timing of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, Jewish religious festivals, and some new astronomical data, they conclude that Jesus was born in December, 1 B.C.

First of all, despite what we keep hearing, Christmas was NOT a Christianization of the pagan feast of Sol Invictus.  Nor the pagan feast of Juvenalia.  Historians now agree on that.  Follow this link for a historian’s explanation of why we celebrate Christmas on December 25.  (It has to do with the ancient belief that prophets die on the anniversary of their conception.  We know Jesus died around the Passover, which would be in our March.  Nine months later brings us to December.)

As for the year of Christ’s birth, the calculations that gave us the numbering of the years as B.C.  [Before Christ] and A.D. [Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord] have long been thought to be off a few years.  One factor is the necessity of going back and forth between the Jewish lunar calendar, the Julian solar calendar, and the Gregorian solar calendar, which we follow today. The consensus, I believe, is that Jesus was born sometime between 3 and 6 B.C.

But Liberato De Caro of the National Research Council in Bari, Italy, working with Prof. Fernando La Greca, of the University of Salerno have re-examined the issue.  In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Dr. De Caro works from the time of the annunciation of the angel to Elizabeth, Mary’s visit to her in “the sixth month” (at which time she was already pregnant with Jesus, since the unborn John the Baptist responds to Jesus in utero), and the timing of the various Jewish feasts of pilgrimage that would account for everyone’s movements.  He concludes that the Annunciation to Mary must have been just before Passover.

That would put it in our March, which means Jesus would have been born in our December.  I would add that these calculations would accord with the liturgical calendar, which celebrates the Annunciation on March 25, and nine-months later, we have Christmas on December 25.

As for the year of Christ’s birth, Dr. De Caro says that since Herod figures into the Christmas story, the birth of Christ must have been before the king’s death.  The ancient historian Josephus says that Herod died after a lunar eclipse.  Scholars had found such an eclipse that would have been visible from Jerusalem in 4 B.C., leading them to conclude that Jesus must have been born before then, perhaps 5 B.C. at the latest.  But Dr. De Caro says that astronomers now believe the 4 B.C. eclipse of the moon would not have been visible in Jerusalem after all, but other possible eclipses would suggest that Herod died in either 2 or 3 A.D., meaning that Jesus could have been born in the year One B.C., with his first year being the first Year of Our Lord.  Thus giving credibility again to our calendar numbering.

Read De Caro’s explanations, which are more detailed than my account of them.  (You can access the published scholarly articles in Italian here and here.)

 

The Visitation [of Mary and Elizabeth] by Sebastiano del Piombo (1519-1521) , CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

December 25, 2019

No, Christmas did not have its origins in a pagan holiday.  Scholars now know (see this and this) that the Feast of Sol Invictus, Juvenalia, and similar celebrations were, if anything, influenced by Christmas, rather than the other way around.  But lots of religions and cultures do have winter festivals of one kind or another.  What is striking, though, is how different Christmas is from what we might expect.

Winter is cold.  Winter is lifeless, as the birds have migrated, many of the animals are hibernating, and the plant life to all appearances is dead.  Winter is a time of starvation.  Livestock would be slaughtered at the beginning of winter and the fermentation of alcohol would be completed, so there would be feasting for a while, but only as a prelude to the so-called famine time. Winter is dark, with the nights being longer than the days.  This is especially true in northern latitudes, some of which have nights that last close to the entire 24 hours.  The Winter Solstice, which is just a few days before Christmas and which has its own religious observances, is the longest night of the year.

You had to keep the Yule log burning, or you would freeze in the dark. The religious observances in winter and the Winter Solstice were desperate pleas for the light to come back, with sacrifices to fend off the spirits of darkness and to implore the sun to return.

Winter was a grim time for most of the world throughout human history.  And yet, for Christians, their winter festival, in the words of the song, is “the most wonderful time of the year.”  It’s all joy, good cheer, and merry-making.  To be sure, Christians also suffered–and many still suffer–in the cold of winter.  The old Christmas observances included–and still include– beneficence to the suffering, as seen in the carol “Good King Wenceslas,” Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and today’s Salvation Army kettles.  Somehow, Christmas makes us able to sentimentalize winter weather, so that snow, ice, and the cold are no longer mortal threats but constitute a “winter wonderland”!

Conversely, in the Spring, which one would think would be a season for happiness and abundance, is the saddest and most somber observance in the Christian calendar.  “Lent,” a word that just means “Spring,” is a time to contemplate one’s own sins and the suffering and death of Christ, who paid their penalty.  But in other religions and cultures, Spring is a time of fertility and revelry.  Once again, Christianity seems out of step with “natural” religion.

But Lent culminates in Easter, and Christ’s resurrection from the dead is symbolized by the new life that is springing back to life out of the dead ground.  And immediately after the Winter Solstice (December 21) is when Christmas is celebrated, the days start to get longer, whereupon the light begins to conquer the darkness.  So the Christian holy-days are in line with the symbolism of the seasons after all, sort of.

Still, the Christian holidays are surprising.  At the point of our greatest darkness, coldness, and death, that is when Jesus comes.  This is the message of Christmas, the theology of the cross, and the proclamation of the Gospel to those stricken by the Law.

Whereas the Gospel of Matthew tells about the Wise Men and the Gospel of Luke tells about the shepherds, the Christmas account in the Gospel of John starts even further back and unpacks what it all means:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. . . . 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son  from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1)

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  Of course we are going to celebrate Christmas in the teeth of winter.  Of course we will do so with lights–candles, Yule logs, brightly-colored electric lights–gifts, emblems of God’s grace, and plants that are alive in winter.

The old Christmas carol “Lo, how a Rose E’er Blooming” gives us a rose from the stem of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1)–that is, the Son of David, Jesus–that blooms not in the Spring, as other flowers do, but in the depths of winter:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As men of old have sung.
It came, a flower bright,
Amid the cold of winter
When half-gone was the night.

The rose in the snow, like the fir tree in “O, Tannenbaum“–and thus our Christmas trees–depicts life in a season of death.  This is Jesus and the gift that He brings.

 

Illustration:  “Winter Landscape:  Christmas Eve,” (1890) by Fritz von Uhde* [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

*For more works by the 19th century Lutheran artist Fritz von Uhde and discussions of how he expresses his theology in his art, see thisthis, and this.

November 1, 2019

Whatever happened to All Saints’ Day?  The time-honored holiday designed to celebrate the eternal life of those who have died in Christ has been overshadowed by holidays that celebrate death.

In the early church, All Saints’ Day, or All Hallows, was a commemoration of the martyrs, those who gave their lives for the faith.  In the Middle Ages, it became an occasion to honor all of the saints, particularly those who didn’t have a saint’s day of their own in the church calendar.  With the Reformation and its insight that all Christians, while being sinners, are also saints, the holiday became an occasion to reflect on all the redeemed who are now in Heaven, especially friends and family members who have died.  All Saints’ is the church’s Memorial Day.

One of the customs in celebrating All Hallows was a vigil the evening before, parallel to the Christmas Eve vigil before Christmas day.  This was called All Hallows Eve, contracted into “Halloween.”  No, Halloween was not the Samhain of Celtic and modern Wicca paganism, as is often claimed today.  All Saints and its vigil were celebrated extremely early, way back to the 2nd century, and in places far removed from Celtic lands.  Also the Celtic Samhain originally had nothing to do with the dead, as such.  Scholars think the later pagan festival was derived from the Christian observance, not the other way around.

But now Halloween has taken on a life of its own (so to speak) and has completely overshadowed All Saints’ Day, which has all but faded from the awareness even of Christians.  And the meaning of Halloween has completely changed.  I have no problem with little kids dressing up and going trick or treating.  But I do have a problem with the way many adults observe the day, such as welcoming little trick or treaters by decorating their yards with depictions of hanging corpses, decapitated heads, and mutilated  babies (made from baby dolls).  (See Joy Pullman’s Stop Turning Your Yard into a Hellscape for Halloween.)  This adult version  of Halloween is all horror.  And some people find horror, death, evil, and the demonic entertaining.  Some people love darkness rather than light (John 3:19).  For 9% of Americans, Halloween is their favorite holiday.

Halloween is the day before All Saints’, and now the day after All Saints’ is getting more and more attention.  November 2 is celebrated in Mexico as the Day of the Dead.  Since the Roman Catholic All Saints’ Day is more about the cult of the saints than a Christian Memorial Day, Mexicans originally took the next day to honor their deceased family members.  It became a curiously light-hearted day, featuring family picnics in cemeteries, but it soon brought back the animistic practice of ancestor worship, complete with offerings–food, liquor, cigarettes, cash–to the dead.

One can already see the Day of the Dead spreading to the United States too, with its whimsical skulls, skeletons, and other merchandise on sale at a wide range of businesses, including Walmart.  The commercialization of the Day of the Dead will surely herald its embrace by Americans, especially those who would love a reprise of Halloween.

All Saints’ Day, a celebration of life eternal, is thus bracketed by two days that celebrate death.  All Saints’ is about a Christian view of death, which is different from both the macabre darkness of Halloween and the cheerful superstition of the Day of the Dead.  For Christians, death is tragic, to be sure.  It can lead to judgment, to a darkness and horror that goes far beyond Halloween fantasies.  But for those who are in Christ, those sinners who are saints through the cross of Jesus, death ushers them into a state of everlasting joy.

All Saints’ Day services are serious and thoughtful, yet serene.  The central custom is simply reading the names of the church members and members’ loved ones who have died in the previous year.  The simple act of naming the dead is very moving, calling them into remembrance and honoring them as persons.  And the service typically includes Holy Communion, in which we join together, in the words of the Proper Preface, “with all the company of heaven.”

As I grow older, I find that the more people I know who have died–especially those whom I have loved and admired–the less I fear death.  I don’t know why that is.  It is not some intellectual conviction, just a feeling.  The poet John Donne seems to have had the same impression.  In his great poem Death Be Not Proud, a good one for All Saints’ Day, he says, addressing a personified Death, “our best men with thee do go,/ Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.”  If the very best of us have passed over into death, how bad can it be?  Won’t it be good to join them?

That’s what I get from All Saints’ Day.  Christians should recover that holiday and revel in what it means.  Maybe that could spill over into the day before and the day afterwards.

 

Illustration:  All Saints by Fra Angelico – Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here. Transfer was stated to be made by User:richardprins, Original uploader was Sampo Torgo at en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3000363

 

December 25, 2014

The arguments are going around that Jesus Christ was little more than a mash-up of ancient mythical figures.  It is true that, as C. S. Lewis has said, that myths–such as those about death and resurrection–often do find their fulfillment in Christianity, in which, in Lewis’s words, “myth became fact.”

But that isn’t what these folks are arguing; rather, they show that they understand paganism no better than they understand Christianity.  Their assertions are just flat-out wrong when it comes to the most basic facts about the myths. (more…)




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