Monday, March 25, 2013

Commentary on John

by R.C. Sproul
409 pages, 2009

In Acts 8 an Ethiopian studying God’s Word asks a question that will sound familiar to most of us: “How can I [understand it] unless someone explains it to me?” While the Bible is generally clear, there are sentences and even chapters that defy the average lay person’s understanding.

That’s why I’m always on the look out for a great commentary - a really good one can be like a teacher coming alongside to offer personal instruction. And I’ve found nothing better than RC Sproul’s commentary on John. I’ve never before read a commentary front to back. I’ve never before found a commentary that so completely answered my every question. And I’ve never before been midway through a commentary and felt the urge to skip to the back of the book to get a sneak peek at how it all turns out! It seems so odd to say a commentary knocked my socks off, but this one did.

Sproul has helpfully integrated the entire text of John into his commentary, which meant I could walk around with it, reading snatches whenever and wherever. The book started as a series of sermons, which gives it a very different feel than other, more detailed, and verse by verse, clause by clause, word by word commentaries. Sproul was addressing themes, and narratives, and not analyzing each word. That said, any time there was a phrase or word that might be conjuring up some controversy, Sproul was sure to address it. So it was a commentary that had the flow of a story, never getting bogged down into too much details. And yet it was thorough. Yes, there are some commentaries that may be even more thorough, but Sproul dives deep – I felt like I was learning something new every page.

I would recommend it to everyone: this was an edifying, educational, joy-filled encounter with the book of John and I can't wait to check out other titles in this series.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The secret thoughts of an unlikely convert

by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
2012, 150 pages, Paperback

13 words: Post-modern, lesbian activist, university English professor becomes Reformed Christian homeschooling pastor's wife.

Intrigued yet? There is so much to love and so much to learn from this book. One of the biggest lessons is in how God got the attention of this professor. After she wrote an article in the local paper critiquing Promise Keepers she "received so many letters... I kept empty Xerox paper boxes on both sides of my desk, one for hate mail, and one for fan mail." But one of the letters she received wasn't so easy to categorize. It was from a Reformed pastor, and instead of commending or condemning her, it was "a kind, inquiring letter." The pastor wanted to know "how did you arrive at your interpretation? How do you know you are right? Do you believe in God?" The letter concluded by inviting "me to call its author to discuss these ideas more fully." After a week of repeatedly throwing out the letter and then digging it back out of the recycling that's what she did.

As you might expect from an English professor the writing is delightful. She is also no quiet convert, and her pointed questions uncover wonderful Christian truths but also unmask the shallowness and hypocrisy that is such a prevalent part of the Church.

One caution: In the course of her conversion the author is confronted with, and takes on so many different theological issues (adoption, homeschooling, the Regulative Principle, etc.) it's likely readers will find some point on which they disagree. But for a discerning adult, that is a minor issue. And to them this book is highly recommended.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
Harper Collins, originally published 1960
336 pages, paperback

Over the next few months, I'll be reviewing some of the novels that are studied in our school. Obviously, any book that is studied in my classroom is, by definition, a "really good read" (though such novels do require the discussion that they receive in a school classroom). For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird is such a really good read that it made a really good movie, which is really unusual. Often, Hollywood ruins a great story; however, the 1962 version starring Gregory Peck is successful, largely because it trusts its source, featuring frequent narration from the novel to set up crucial scenes.

So... why is the novel a great story? To Kill a Mockingbird is what is called by teachers and other academic sorts a bildungsoman. It's not as pretentious as it sounds. Bildung is German for growing, and roman refers to a novel. So, like Old Yeller or Anne of Green Gables, Harper Lee's novel is a novel of growing up. And what a childhood the story's narrator, Scout Finch, has!

As the novel opens in the summer holidays, Scout is a six-year-old growing up during the Depression in the sleepy Alabama town of Maycomb County, with her ten-year-old brother Jem, and their friend Dill, who is small but a little older than Scout, and meets them while he is visiting his aunt for the summer. The three of them do what kids of that age would do when their widowed father Atticus is at work - get in trouble. Mostly, they spend time trying to spy on the neighborhood recluse Boo Radley, but they also incur the anger of their neighbour Mrs. Dubose when Atticus, a lawyer, takes on the case of a black man accused of rape.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

God gave wine

by Kenneth L. Gentry Jr.
148 pages, 2000

"Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Should we then prohibit and abolish women?" - Martin Luther (from the back cover)

Ken Gentry dismantles the notion, common in some Christians denominations, that alcohol use is a sin. He also tackles a second, more compelling, anti-alcohol stance that says partaking isn’t sinful, just unwise. Since the Bible condemns drunkenness, it’s argued it would be best for Christians to abstain entirely - this is the abstention position.

But does this logic hold? As Gentry notes, the Bible also condemns gluttony; should Christians then abstain from food? And God condemns prostitution; should we respond by taking vows of celibacy? Clearly we go too far when we discourage proper use just because something can be abused. God has placed boundaries within which all these things can be enjoyed to His glory; God has not called us to abstinence, but instead to self-control and moderation.

Gentry works through the New Testament and Old to methodically rebut every anti-alcohol argument - his book is the best on this topic, and the one to buy if you, or someone you know, frowns at the idea of Christians drinking.

But interestingly, Gentry's point can be applied more broadly. For example, a similarly argued book might be titled God Gave Dance. Our young people are taking up dancing, and the gyrating they do gives God no glory. However, the Bible is clear that dancing can be godly (Eccl 3:4). So, rather than take an “anti-dancing” stance (and, in doing so, going further than God does!) shouldn’t we respond to this abuse by teaching our young people dancing’s proper godly use?

Abstention undermines moderation

Now this is important. If we get this wrong – if we treat alcohol consumption as shameful – then we are running right up against the true biblical position of moderation. And running up against the Bible is never a good idea. In this case the unhappy result may well be that we’ll contribute to the very drunkenness we are trying to curtail because abstention undermines the teaching of moderation.

How so?

Well consider this example. I know of a church that wanted to address the very muted way its young men were singing. So the pastor invited the young men down to the church for a psalm-singing kegger – everyone would be given some singing instruction and a tall glass of amber brew.
How would you react if such a proposal came your way? I know how I reacted – that is not the sort of thing that ought be done in a church!

But why did I think that? Clearly I wasn’t objecting to the psalm-singing. And I knew that a glass of frothy goodness would be an excellent aid in helping young men learn to sing with vigor. So on what basis could I object?

It was my closet “absentionism” coming out. I know God speaks of moderate drinking as a good thing, and yet deep down I feel I know better, so when an opportunity comes up for young men to see how a drink can be enjoyed responsibly – when an opportunity comes for them share a cold one with their minister – I want to pass up that opportunity. But could there be a more God-glorifying way to enjoy a glass?

Now we all know bush parties happen. We know many of our young people gather at homes or apartments where this is no parental supervision so that they can drink to excess. In that context it might seem reasonable to sound a general warning against all alcohol consumption.

But blanket condemnations don’t foster maturity. What our young people really need is instruction in moderate use. They need to learn how to drink to God’s glory. So long as we parents lean in any sort of “just don’t drink” abstention direction are we properly motivated to teach our children how to drink? If we think that it’s more pious to abstain than partake, are we going to teach our children about moderation? When we forbid what God allows, then our children will still learn how to drink, but from peers who don’t care a whit about moderation.


Of course, Christians don’t have to drink. In God Gave Wine, Gentry rebuts both prohibition and abstention, but he himself has always been a teetotaler, drinking no more than a half dozen glasses of wine a year (and now a medical condition precludes even that). No one needs to drink…and some most definitely should not.

But we need to accept what God says and acknowledge that moderate use is not only not shameful but a blessing from God. When we sit around the campfire with a s’more in one hand and a glass of red in the other, and friends all around, it is a wonderful thing. We can drink to God’s glory! Let’s teach our children how.