It was 4 o’clock. One hour to church. Our daughter is visiting her grandmother, so we call and ask if she wants to come to church or wants to stay longer. She wants to come to church.
Half an hour later, she comes home. As soon as she walks through the door she tells me she has something to show me. She tells me to go to the other room and asks her mother to come help her. Two minutes later she bursts through the door as Darth Vader. I laugh approvingly and tell her how cool she looks, reciting a line or two from the films. I take the photo above.
At this point, we only have a couple of minutes before we have to get into the car for church. I know my daughter. She wants to wear the Darth Vader costume to church. I don’t think that’s a good idea. So I break it to her gently. She freaks out. Falls on the floor crying, super grief mode. I try telling her that she can wear it after church. I try bribing her with candy. Nothing helps. In the end, we agree on a compromise: We’ll bring the costume to church, but in a bag. She won’t be wearing it as we walk in. I just hope she’ll forget about it and not put it on.
We arrive at church. She runs off with her friend and I get a moment to think.
After the service she comes for the bag. I let her take it upstairs where she puts on the costume. A minute later she enters, a look of pride and serious intent behind the mask. Just like I did at home, I tell her how cool she looks. I tell her how cool she is and I cheer her on.
As we walked to the car some ten minutes later, I looked at her, mask off now, but cape flying in the wind. She wasn’t giggling. This was no joke. As far as she was concerned, she was wearing the coolest clothes she owned. She loves Star Wars. It’s something she and I have together. Her mom isn’t a fan and her brother is 1. She is 5 and a massive fan, particularly of Padmé Amidala and Princess Leia. We’ve watched the films together several times (all except Episode 3, which is a bit too dark for her in my estimation). She plays Angry Birds Star Wars on the iPad. She has me print out Star Wars colouring pages all the time. We read the comic books together when she goes to bed. She really, really loves Star Wars.
I don’t believe in indulging your kids. I don’t think their every whim should be taken as ontologically significant. But good parents recognise when something is genuinely special and precious to their children, and they nurture that affection, encouraging it to grow in healthy ways. There were two things special and precious to my daughter that night: Star Wars, obviously, but also church. The fact that she wanted to bring the Darth Vader costume to church and to show it off there, says something about how she regards church. Remember how she wanted to go to church, all on her own? That’s special and precious. So is the sense of belonging, of trust and of genuinely positive relation that lies behind a wish to show off your best clothes to the people at church.
I think it’s somewhat important to wear nice clothes to church and we usually do. I wouldn’t approve of a grown man, for example, donning full Stormtrooper garb in church. It would feel disrespectful. But to me, facilitating the connection to church I could see in my daughter’s wish not only to be there, but also show off her cool new costume, is much more important than teaching my daughter a lesson about respectability. We can do that later. Right now, I want her to know and to feel that church is good. That church approves of her. That church loves her. Knowing that will help her through some dark times when she gets older. When she feels alienated by church, she’ll have this positive memory to hold on to. When other Christians treat her badly, she’ll remember the ones who treated her well. When she doubts her faith, the love and acceptance she felt from the Christians in her childhood will put intellectual questions in their right place in the larger context of loving God and loving neighbour. She’ll know what to look for in a church. And she’ll know how to be in church.
My number one duty as a Christian parent is to model the love of Christ in the lives of my children. To ensure that the love of Christ isn’t an abstract dogma, but something they’ve experienced tangibly and can put their finger on. I hope that’s what I did yesterday when I let my daughter wear her Darth Vader costume to church.
…was delivered by my dad, pretty much impromptu, almost two years ago. I was the one scheduled to do the sermon that morning, though. But the night before, a leader in our church (a church I’ve left since) very aggressively attacked me for proposing some unorthodox outreach ideas. I was well on my way of completing the sermon manuscript when I left for the fateful meeting, but I just couldn’t continue when I returned. It was such a blow. It knocked the wind out of me completely. I tried to pick up the writing the next morning, but found it impossible. We lived with my parents at the time and they saw how hard a time I was having. So my dad asked if he should do the sermon instead. I was a bit embarrassed to let down the church, but very thankful and relieved for his offer.
The sermon itself started quite somewhat obscurely. Quotes from the Psalms and various places in the Old Testament about the faithfulness and love of God. Then it moved unto Jesus, if I remember it correctly, as the embodiment of God’s faithfulness and love. About halfway through, though, I got what my dad was doing. How can we say that we worship and follow God, when we are less than loving towards our own brothers and sisters in church? Subtly, yet with the authority hard-won after years of faithful full-time work, my dad was disciplining the church, and perhaps a certain few individuals within it, reminding all the congregation to be holy as God is holy, loving as he is loving. At this point I broke down and started crying. My dad was defending me, and encouraging me. Yet, that was the least of it. He drew upon deep wells within himself – his knowledge of the Bible, his intimacy with God, his personal experience with and of the church – and he spoke into the situation, singlehandedly reoriented the church unto or closer to the narrow path again. He was protecting me to a degree, but in actuality he was protecting the church itself.
I remember one line in particular, towards the end of the sermon. “It’s a tried and true fact that some of the most bitter opposition a servant of the Lord will face, will come from within the church.” His voice was emotional at this point, betraying painful experiences in his past, where he had been betrayed and ostracised by people trying to use him and his situation to demonstrate their own superiority and self-righteousness. Many years later, having come through these times of hardship and trial with his faith and dignity intact, he was seeing his son going through a measure of the same sort of thing. And he was seeing the church of his birth and long life, or at least certain members within, turning into the same sort of people who hung him out to dry. And he was not having it. The fatherly love of Christ demanded no less.
I cried for some 15-20 minutes as my dad was preaching. I must’ve looked like crap, puffy-eyed and face flushed red, walking up to the platform to play bass for the last hymn before the end of the service. But I felt deep gratitude for what my dad has done – and I thanked him, awkwardly, afterwards. Part of it was because I just needed it so damn much. But more than that, I was thankful to have witnessed what true holiness and spiritual authority looked like that morning.
I should have made this list weeks ago, but never mind, here it is.
Protest the Hero, Volition
Heart of a Coward, Severance
Tesseract, Altered State
Ian Barbour died on Christmas Eve, 90 years old. The eminent, perhaps the original, scholar of science and religion leaves a huge legacy behind, one which many of us are very thankful for. Anyone who takes science-and-religion seriously is familiar with his classic 1966 book, Issues in Science and Religion. He had a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago and did graduate work in theology at Yale. He was, by all accounts, also a very pleasant man.
Here is the announcement from Carleton College, where he taught. Connor Wood bids his farewell here, Thomas Jay Oord offers a tribute here and so does Karl Giberson here.
I familiarised myself with his Issues when I was in university. As I’ve thought about the whole science and religion thing over the years, and as I think back on that thinking, I have found that particular book especially helpful and influential in shaping my thinking.
What I appreciate about it particularly is how scientific it is.
Our culture is full of voices, often those invested in setting science and religion up against each other, claiming loudly how science and religion should relate to each other. According to these voices, shouting from pulpits on both sides of the divide, science and religion are perpetually at war. We must choose: Either science, or religion. Either the godless science of Richard Dawkins, or the pseudoscientific religion of Ken Ham. It’s a zero-sum game, an either/or, according to them both.
What’s ironic, perhaps especially in regards to those who claim the mantle of established scientific credibility, is that such an attitude is deeply unscientific. If you’ll allow me to be a bit Humean for a second, science concerns itself with the “is” and not the “ought”. And bold, sweeping pronouncements about the necessary ought of science/religion relations are quite simply unscientific.
Which Barbour’s typological approach in Issues isn’t. In the book he argues for a four-fold typology describing the relationship between science and religion. The models for engagement are: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue and Integration. I won’t go in to them in details. You should read the book if you want that detail. What I want to note is, again, just how scientific Barbour’s approach is. He isn’t announcing how science and religion ought to or should relate, but rather attempts to understand how they do relate. And the fact is that they relate in several different ways. There’s nothing wrong, as such, to throw your lot in with one particular kind of relation – say, independence, like Stephen Jay Gould did with his NOMA model -, but you’ve stopped being a scientist when you do so, and have proceeded to sit down in the philosophical armchair. Which is quite all right, of course. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But it isn’t scientific.
Nor is it very clever. I think it’s the mark of a mature and subtle intellect to be able to acknowledge and articulate positions different and contrary to your own, humbly reserving judgement and noting whatever strengths and weaknesses might characterise that position. So many find that an insurmountable challenge. I’m grateful to Ian Barbour for helping me come closer to that ideal, an ideal he embodied in his work.
Sometimes – a lot of the time, actually – in my relationship with God, I feel like the man frantically scurrying around doing all sorts of stuff for his family, but never being present with them. He buys them things, takes them places, tells hilarious jokes round the dinner table, arranges elaborate birthday parties, he makes grand proclamations of his love for them in front of his friends – but he’s never available, he never talks to them, he’s never intimately there. I do a lot for God. I preach, I teach, I play music, I comment, debate, discuss, defend, encourage, celebrate. But I find it really, really difficult to be prayerfully present with God. Maybe I’m afraid of what I’ll find once I go to the inner sanctum. Maybe I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m the last person present in my own heart. Trying to hide, or trying to forget.
Here’s a post about some books I read in 2013.
It’s not a list of the best or worst or most or least important books to be published in 2013. I’ve read far too few books published in 2013 to be able to make such a list. And honestly, who cares what I think about the matter? There are lots of other people with opinions much more informed than mine that can give you a list like that. This is just a list. A list of books I read this year that I think deserve to be put in a list. Some were good, some were bad, some were important (to me), some made me forget all about 2013 and the earth and the universe.
I read a lot of fiction this year, which I plan to do next year as well. A mixture between new and old, and mostly sci fi/fantasy. I didn’t read enough theology and the theology I did read wasn’t heavy enough. I plan to rectify that next year.
So, yeah. The list.
Best Theology Book
Timothy Keller’s Center Church (Zondervan, 2012)
There are two ways you can be a Calvinist, I think, and hold to the doctrine of total depravity, specifically. You can either distrust human reason so much you become a total dogmatist, uncreatively constructing theological structures out of wooden literalism and uncritically attributing their design and execution to God himself. Or you can develop a more subtle understanding, distrusting human reason, yes, but also your distrust of human reason, therefore not isolating yourself in theological solipsism, but rather opening yourself up to God where ever he sees fit to reveal himself. Tim Keller is a Calvinist of this latter kind. He is a Calvinist of the best kind.
To me, Center Church was incredible important. As I talked about in a post a couple of days ago, it was an almost providential read for me: I started the book in the spring, but lost interest towards the end, so I put it down. In the summer, a pastor friend of mine approached me to join their church and become part of the ministry team there. I was very conflicted about this, wanting to say yes to an exciting opportunity, but not wanting to let my old church down. As I was thinking these things through, I picked up Center Church again and read the last chapters. They, as they say, spoke to me, right in to my situation. They helped me sort through the issues and become OK with my eventual decision to leave the church of the first 30 years of my life and join a new one. For that reason alone, Center Church was the best theology book I read in 2013. Incidentally, it’s also a really, really good book. It is full of wisdom. It’s born out of decades of thought, research and, most importantly, experience. It is balanced and fair. It’s worth getting for the chapter on missional church alone.
Other Good Theology Books:
Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel
Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels
Best Fiction Book
Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings: The Stormlight Archive (Gollancz, 2010)
I like fiction that takes its time. That isn’t afraid of properly telling a story, with all its details fleshed out. With its 1000 pages, The Way Of Kings, then, was a deeply satisfying read. Don’t you just love that feeling when, 300 pages in, you think, “I don’t want this to end!” – and you’ve got 700 pages to go! It’s beautiful. The book is so epic. Sanderson has built a world steeped in mythology and mystery, with God-like beings and powers, both good and bad, setting the stage for humans, both good and bad, to make do and rise above their lot. The main characters – Dalinar Kholin, Kaladin and Szeth, especially – are flawed and deeply sympathetic. I really appreciated Sanderson’s depiction of goodness and honour and virtue, particularly in relation to leadership. The sequel, Words of Radiance, will be out in March. I cannot wait. Perhaps I’ll have time to read Sanderson’s Mistborn books, which according to the friend who originally recommended I read The Way of Kings, are really good too.
Other Good Fiction Books:
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy
Timothy Zahn, The Thrawn Trilogy
Best Science Book
Mary Roach, Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life In The Void (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010)
What is space like? And how can we know? Packing For Mars details the sometimes insane, sometimes tedious, sometimes incredibly exciting lengths scientists, astro-/cosmonauts and space agencies have gone to find out. With discussions ranging from sex in space, to astral hygiene, to space psychology and a beautiful tribute to animals in space, Mary Roach, with her characteristic and funny voice, answers all the questions you could dream up – and lots you probably couldn’t. Lots of anecdotes to impress your friends with.
Other Good Science Books:
Rupert Sheldrake, The Science Delusion: Freeing The Spirit of Enquiry
Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience
Roger Ebert, Life Itself (Grand Central Publishing, 2011)
I bought this the day after Roger Ebert died. After having read the book, I’m sorry I didn’t know the man in person. Yet I’m thankful for getting to know him, to the extent that that’s possible, through these, his memoirs.
What emerges is a deeply sympathetic man, who was essentially conservative (especially in his relationship to place and to the past), but who lived quite an exciting life. He was an unashamed liberal, but he cherished tradition – his non-theological devotion to Catholicism being the most touching instance of this fusion. The book is funny, it’s touching and like so much of Ebert’s other writing, it’s poignant in its observations on human nature and experience. Some of my favourite parts are his memories of other people, some famous like Lee (“F…ing”) Marvin and John Wayne, some not so much like Chaz, his wife.
It’s bittersweet to read a book about the life of a man so recently departed. Especially one as alive as Ebert was. But somehow that makes the book and the life partly contained within its pages that more precious. Ebert was a good man. He lived a good life. And this was a good book.
Other Good Memoirs:
Rod Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming
Rachel Held Evans, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood
Yngwie J. Malmsteen, Relentless: The Memoir
Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale House, 2013)
I read a lot of Lewis in my teens and I loved it (and, more recently, I’ve read “Narnia” for my daughter – she loved it), but over the years, especially during my theological studies, I’ve “gotten over” him somewhat. He turned out not to be as brilliant a philosopher as I used to think. I’ve changed my mind now. What I most appreciated about McGrath’s new Lewis biography, more than the detailed account of his life, the critical engagement with the form and development of his thought and writing, the contextualisation, both during and after his life, was how it rekindled not only my love, but my respect for Lewis. He wasn’t trying to be an academic philosopher or theologian and I guess I forgot that. Now I remember. I also remember he was a popular apologist second to none. As a result, I’ve recovered all my old books from the attic, especially Screwtape Letters and Until We Have Faces, and put in orders for the ones I didn’t get around to reading when I was younger, the space trilogy chief among them.
A most highly recommended book.
Another Good Biography:
Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
Best History Book
A compulsive read! Reel masterfully weaves together a very complete portrait of both a deeply sympathetic and intriguing man, but also of a time that is no longer: Where there still were places on this Earth genuinely mysterious and unknown, where men could forge for themselves mythic legacies of bravery and discovery. Paul du Chaillu was such a man. Coming from humble beginnings, he was a genuinely self-made man – a remarkable feat in his time, characterised as it was by overt class and race snobbery, du Chaillu accomplished this through a staggering amount of inner strength and force of character. Following his story I found myself growing truly fond of the man and I was rooting for him throughout his remarkable journey(s). The story centres around the beast, the gorilla, but is ultimately about humanity – at its best and at its worst.
In other words, a really, really, really good book.
Another Good History Book:
Best Economics/Philosophy Book
Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)
Markets leave their mark.
Michael J. Sandel has written a very interesting and thought-provoking book on the morality of markets. With an abundance of anecdotes and examples he quite effectively illustrates that markets often exert a moral influence on both product and consumer, and that that moral influence is often negative. He argues convincingly that standard market thinking is unequipped to deal with this negative moral influence. As such, What Money Can’t Buy is a defence and call to return to good old fashioned moral reasoning. I found Sandel’s broader conception of corruption to be especially helpful and as someone who sees himself as something of a virtue ethicist, I resonated with his concerns about the corrosive effects markets have on consumers’ characters.
This is not only a book of economics. It’s a book of moral philosophy. And it’s very accessible, with literally no jargon or equations. It’s not ideologically driven. Sandel is not against the free market. He just recognises, as he says in the beginning, that we should have a market economy, not a market society. His argument is not one that cannot be trampled underfoot by the rigid logic of market thinking. But those who are honest with themselves and open themselves up to their reasonable moral intuitions will see the sense he makes.
Worst Science/Philosophy Book
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010)
This was a frustrating read. I read it because a friend kept bringing it up in debates about morality, science and religion. While I found some parts of the book quite interesting (specifically where Harris details neuroscientific findings, both his own and others’), I found following his train of thought annoying. I kept bringing up what to me felt like obvious objections. He simply ignored most of them and the ones that he did address, he more or less dismissed. Careful argumentation against critics is very hard to find in this book. Which in the end just comes across as arrogance. With arguments so lacking, Harris very much failed to convince me of his brain based moral system. Also, his chapter on religion was literally the worst.
Worst Fiction Book
Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro 2033 (Self-published (I think), 2005)
A post-apocalyptic zombie story? Set in the Moscow metro? Sounds like a brilliant idea! And it is. Unfortunately, the author drops the ball almost immediately and gets lost in a maze of irrelevant plot lines and characters the reader couldn’t care less about. The ending is pretty cool, but that’s about the single positive thing I can say about this book. Don’t know why I forced myself to read this one, but for some reason I did. Which I regret. It’s terrible.
Another Bad Fiction Book:
Veronica Roth, Allegiant (Book 3 of the Divergent Trilogy)