Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review: A Meaningful World

Dear Reader,

I bought A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt looking for something for my artsy child to read. My son had read some of Wiker’s books when he studied political philosophy and we had found them very accessible and enjoyable, especially given the complexity of the subject. While Meaningful World is not quite what I was looking for when I purchased it, it still gets a definite “must read” recommendation from me.

This book is an amazing amalgamation of literature, philosophy, science, theology and art. Beginning with Shakespeare and moving through chemistry and biology, touching on astrophysics and subatomic physics, this book shows how materialistic reductionism has invaded scholarship across the board and, more importantly, why it ultimately fails. The book ends with what is essentially a plea for the scholarly community to abandon  this approach which the authors see as a once working theory which, though it has yielded some greater insights, has now been disproven.

What is materialistic reductionism? Simply put, it is the assumption that the material world is all there is. Beginning with this presupposition, the authors show, leads to a reductionism in that everything, from Shakespeare to  the cow, is seen as no more than its most basic elements. As Shakespeare is a combination of words which might equally as well have been typed by monkeys given enough time (the real world rebuttal of this oft-quoted theory alone makes this book worth reading), so the cow is nothing more than its DNA, a random sequence of proteins arising without meaning from a chemical soup.

The counterview which Wiker and Witt espouse is stated simply: “the universe is meaning-full” (p. 15). If it were not, there would be no point to science, and the more one delves into it, the more meaning one finds.

There is a lot here and this is a dense book. I am quite in awe of its authors’ breadth of knowledge. It was not what I was looking for simply because it is too dense and packed with scientific info for my artsy high-schooler. I am, however, going to have her and her more mathematically inclined brother read selections from it. A Meaningful World is an enjoyable and challenging read for advanced high shcoolers and up and I would definitely give a copy to any student heading off to college to study sciences (and possibly also literature and mathematics).

Nebby

 

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Book Review: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God

Dear Reader,

An article on CNN’s website led my to 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God: How Superheroes, Art, Environmentalism, and Science Point Toward Faith by Rick Stedman. Though I often regret clicking on any article that claims to be about religion or faith, I was pleasantly surprised by Stedman’s contribution, enough so that I immediately purchased his book. At the time I was reading The Benedict Option (see my review here) and I thought that Stedman’s work might be a nice counterpoint to it.

The Benedict Option is written for disillusioned Christians who find themselves in a  world that is foreign to them. As such, it presents a pretty negative, pessimistic view of modern American society. From the little I had read, I thought that Stedman might take another view and I was eager to see what he had to say.

I had been thinking for a few months that, though so many of my acquaintances are not Christians and many are even what might be called pagan (proudly so at times), though they do not share many of my political positions or subscribe to biblical standards or morality, that they are not so very far from truth as one might think. So much of what they have to say still betrays some core values. Above all, they care — they care about people, they care about equality and creation (though they may not think it is created), they care about justice. My hope was that Stedman would share this outlook, would help me fill it out, and would give me ways to begin to talk to such people and to draw them out through these sorts of common values.

To the extent that I went into this book with these expectations, I was a little disappointed. Nonetheless I did find a book well worth reading and sharing.

Stedman is up front with what he believes and with what he is trying to do. “God,” he says, “has double coded . . . evidence of his own reality and presence within our world, albeit in very subtle forms” (p. 13). “God intended that normal people should actually discern his existence” (p. 12). However, “our spiritual impulses, when repressed, sublimate and reappear in other arenas” (p. 19). This thesis is actually almost identical to that of another book I quite enjoyed and would highly recommend — Meaning at the Movies (my review here). And Stedman also begins with movies, superhero movies and horror in particular, but he also covers many other topics, 31 of them to be exact.

Before looking at a few specifics, I should note, as Stedman makes clear, that this is not a book that claims to make an air-tight case for the existence of God. As the title and subtitle say, these are reasons that point to a God; they are clues in creation and in our own psyches (see p. 12) but they are not going to convince anyone who doesn’t want to be convinced. If it were so easy to construct a logical argument to prove God’s existence, it would have been done long before this. I actually really respect that Stedman was upfront with what he hopes to accomplish and what the limitations of his arguments are.

31 Surprising Reasons is divided into sections, each one containing from 3 to 7 short chapters. The first, for instance, is on aesthetics — beauty and art and movies. Part two covers issues of justice and morality; three divine elements in our universe; four humanity itself; and five our desire for something beyond this life. Taken as a whole, each of these sections is good. Stedman mentions that because there are 31 short chapters that this book is perfect for a month-long study. I wondered if perhaps he stretched some of his sections to get to that 31 and it might not have been a bit better if some chapters were eliminated or combined. Overall, the ideas are good, however, and the book is well worth reading (two of my favorite bits are the chapters on language and the scientific method).

Having said which, these are not new ideas. I am sure, as Stedman quotes many other sources, that he would admit this. The bit on movies, as I said, was dealt with more thoroughly in Meaning at the Movies. C.S. Lewis has made the arguments about justice and morality in Mere Christianity, and my own favorite Frank Boreham has a wonderful essay on how our desire to explore points us to something beyond this world. Still, I like how Stedman has put all this together. It is not high-falutin’ theology but it is an enjoyable and quite readable book (I am currently reading another which says many of the same things but in much harder words!). This is another one I plan to have my high schoolers read.

Final word: 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God is a good, solid book that is well worth reading. The short chapters mean you can spend just a few minutes a day on it and the readability means it is good for those who are younger or newer to Christian thought.

Nebby

Book Review: The Benedict Option

Dear Reader,

I recently finished reading The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. I am not very up on contemporary Christian culture but I had heard about or seen this book in a few places so my impression is it is quite the in-thing these days.

My short take on this book is that I would recommend it, with some caveats. In fact, I plan to have my 12th grader read it in the upcoming school year. There is a lot here that is good and that the church needs to hear. Sad to say, a lot of it is probably common sense or basic Christianity, but nonetheless we need to hear it.  There are points at which I disagree with the author, or perhaps just have a different take on things; these differences arise on large part from our differing backgrounds and affiliations.

The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” His audience seems to be first and foremost conservative Christians who have been thrown for a loop by the recent legalization of gay marriage and who are finding themselves floundering, wondering how things could have gone so far astray and why right doesn’t seem to be prevailing in America today [the book was written after the election of Trump but gay marriage seems to be the crisis that fostered it; it is clear Dreher doesn’t like Trump (p. 79), but he does not dwell on him]. This is a book for people in crisis who are in panic mode and wondering how their culture got this way and what they can and should do about it.

Which is not to say that the ideas in this book can’t benefit others, but it seems to be directed mainly at the overwhelmed Christian. I don’t find myself in this category, for various reasons, and I don’t have quite as negative a prognosis for our society so there is some extent to which I can say that I don’t even agree with the premise of the book. That is not a good place to start with a book, and there was a point early on when I considered just dropping it altogether.  As Dreher gets going, however, he has a lot of useful things to say that relate to living in a society that does not always (ever?) embody our beliefs and I am glad I persevered with his book.

Before we go too far, we need to ask the most basic question: What does the title of this book mean? What is “the Benedict Option”? The phrase seems to be one Dreher coined — I could not find other references to it, apart from his book — though at times he makes it sound as if it is a larger movement to which he became attached. The “Benedict” part refers to St. Benedict, a relatively well-known monk who established a religious order based on a set of particular guidelines known as the Rule of St. Benedict. This rule, as Dreher describes it, orders daily life; it is meant to bring God into every part of life and to be freeing rather than restrictive. Dreher’s thesis is that in this time of crisis, when our culture has turned so far from Christianity, that we as Christians need to live deliberately in a way that is modeled upon the Benedictine communities. This is not to say that we should all become monks. Dreher’s idea, rather, is that we should have Christian communities in which we support one another but also through which we can reach out to the world.

Dreher uses the Benedictine Order as kind of a disguise for presenting what is really just a lesson in how Christians should have been living all along. This is a point which John Jalsevac makes in his review of the book for Life Site News . I agree with his assessment that Dreher’s ideas might have gained more of a foothold with evangelicals if he didn’t present them in such a seemingly Catholic guise.

There are a lot of ideas in this book as Dreher treats issues from pornography to politics to worship, and I will not address each one, but I would like to highlight a few.

Politics is the elephant in the room though it by no means is the only subject of this book. The problem, which Dreher makes clear (though I wish he had been more explicit about it earlier in the book) is basically that American Christians have put their faith in the political process and it has failed them. They have been like the Israelites trusting in their chariots or sending to Egypt for help against Assyria (my comparison; not his). Though Dreher says we must not abandon the political process altogether, his main solution seems to be to step away from it and build small subcultures instead.

I understand that there are a lot of Christians who had put their faith in the political process and they are probably those most in crisis and who most need to hear what is in this book. But, coming (by adoption) from a tradition which until the mid 20th century did not even allow its members to vote, I find myself holding two contradictory ideas: on the one hand, it was foolish of Christians to ever believe this was a Christian nation and that somehow they could rely upon its processes to accomplish the will of God, and, on the other hand, I am not quite so willing to abandon the process we have as Dreher seems to be. So while I am glad to hear Dreher say that we cannot rely upon the political process to accomplish godly ends, I am at the same time not as negative as he is on the whole subject nor as willing to abandon that arena.

Dreher writes his book for any orthodox (little “o”) Christian who adheres to a traditional form of Christianity. He himself is Eastern Orthodox. His book is broad in its basis — seeking to appeal to the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. Not too surprisingly, this produces some weaknesses. In general, in the areas that most concern me, which are worship and education, I can say that Dreher has good principles but that he seems to see only one way to apply them.

When it comes to Protestant worship, Dreher adddresses evangelicals who are drawn to a very seeker-friendly, contemporary form of worship. And I would agree with him that this kind of worship needs reformation but disagree strenuously on what that reformation should look like. Oddly enough, the principles he espouses are often ones I can heartily agree with; their application is where we diverge. He says:

“. . . the concrete form in which information is delivered is itself a message . . . ” (p. 105)

Liturgy should follow ” . . . a basic pattern derived from Scripture.” (p. 107)

” . . . in the Christian tradition, liturgy is primarily, though not exclusively, about what God has to say to us.” (p. 108)

” . . . there can be no doubt that the form worship takes is a powerful weapon . . . against modernity . . . ” (p. 113)

All of these are good principles. Dreher uses them to argue for a liturgical form of worship, that is, a traditional liturgy that is not “low-church” (p. 112). Reformed Christians, those of us who adhere to the Westminster standards, would use these same arguments to argue for a simple worship– without the Book of Common Prayer; without man-made songs, whether we call them hymns or praise choruses; and with the Psalms of God.

On the topic of education, one on which I write extensively on this blog, Dreher sees the problem — but again latches on to one solution, and not the one I would advocate. I agree with his statement that: “Every educational model presupposes an anthropology: an idea of what a human being is” (p. 147). In fact, that is one of the major premises of this blog — that we have to consider the views of man and God that are behind our philosophies of education (see, for example, this very extensive series on approaches to education). While I am not a fan of the public schools, however, I would not go so far as he does in saying that “it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (p. 155). I do think parents need to think seriously about how their children are educated and what ideas are underlying their education. Dreher treats homeschooling as a last resort (p. 165), a view which I completely reject. His method of choice is classical Christian education. I say his method of choice, but, in fact, he shows no awareness of other approaches to education. His take on classical education seems to be right from the modern classical movement. He refers to Sayers’ famous article (of which I am not a fan), CIRCE Institute, and the Great Books Movement. He speaks of the need to return to classical education, noting Greek and Christian sources, but does not address the very real issue of how and why we should incorporate these Greek (read: pagan) sources.

In short, having rejected our society’s norm (the public schools), Dreher seems to latch onto what is a very popular approach in the world of  Christian education, but nowhere does he consider other approaches or explain why this approach is the best one.  In the area of education, then, as in his discussion of worship, I think Dreher starts with good principles but doesn’t actually go far enough in researching and evaluating all the options out there. He accepts what presents itself as “traditional,” namely high-church liturgy and classical education, and does not delve deeply into what is truly biblical or what God desires.

I went back and forth as I read through The Benedict Option. At times I liked the book; at others it irked me. I would recommend it in the end because I think Rod Dreher raises some issues we need to consider. I think that his title and the way he frames his subject are a little gimmicky and that, while they may initially draw some people in, they can also work against him. But he does raise some good points about how Christians should live and his book serves as a call for the church to return to a more basic understanding of what it is. When it comes to specific application of his principles, I think he often does not go far enough and needs to consider even more radical, more counter-cultural options and  above all to ask what is truly biblical.

Nebby

 

 

Book Review: The Liberated Imagination

Dear Reader,

I recently finished Leland Ryken’s The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts. This is my third (I think?) Ryken book and my overall impression of it is much the same as the others — a pretty good book that made me think but the author and I are not 100% on the same page when it comes to things Christian and theological.

I am not very informed when it comes to art, and especially to art criticism and the theory behind it, but I have one child who is  a born artist; my intention is to have her read this book next school year (she’ll be in 10th grade then; this is high school level or above). Though I’m sure I didn’t get all of what Ryken was saying since I am not familiar with other Christian works on art, this was not a very hard read. It was just newer material for me. There is a lot of what Ryken said, about education and literature particularly, that I liked and agreed with. I don’t know if he has ever heard of Charlotte Mason but I think he’d like her educational philosophy.

I’ll start with the negatives so as to not end on a down note. My sense from this and the other books I’ve read by Ryken is that his Christian slant is different than mine. In this context, discussing art and the Christian, it becomes clear that we have very different views of how worship should look. This is not a huge surprise since my view, and that of my denomination, the RPCNA, is pretty counter-cultural these days. I adhere to the regulative principle which says we should only worship God how He has told us to. What this means is no modern music (only psalms a capella), no statues, no pictires, etc. Obviously, this is going to lead to some difference when we start talking about using art to the glory of God. I believe art, of all kinds, can still be done to the glory of God, but most of it is going to happen outside of the corporate worship of the Church. Ryken doesn’t spend a lot of time on how art can and should figure into worship an dperhaps it is unfair to expect him to devote too much time to this topic but it is an issue Christians need to consider.

Beyond this, I think there is a deeper theological divide between us. Ryken, as he has in other books, seems at time to disparage the truth of the Bible. He speaks of “fantasy” in the Bible (p. 45). I will admit that many prophetic passages are fantastical, but when we label them “fantasy” with no caveat we imply that they are not true. I do believe such passages are true on at least the level that the prophet truly saw what he reports.

Near the end of the book Ryken speaks on people as being “capable of moral and spiritual choice” and even “capable of redemption” (p. 235). As a reformed Christian, I would not speak this way. His language goes even beyond the idea common in our day that people are free to choose the salvation provided by Christ. When he talks of being “capable of redemption” he implies that we have a hand, at least, in our own redemption, an idea which I utterly reject.

Despite these differences, Ryken does have  a lot to say that I like. His view of the role of art is good. When he mentions education, he is right on target, and his view of leisure time is quite interesting. I may come back to these ideas in future posts.

By far my favorite part of this book is how Ryken relates ideas and art. This is where he sounds particularly CM. “Art,” he says, “aims to convey not primarily the facts of life but the truth and meaning of those facts. Art is not about things as they are, but about things as they matter” (p. 26). He makes an intriguing and well-taken point that if we could boil down a work of art (I term I use broadly here to include music and literature as well) to just a list of ideas than we could just read those ideas, we would not need the art (p. 128). But this is not the case. We cannot remove the ideas from their casing, if you will. This is why, in a Charlotte Mason education, we give ideas in the form of living books (and art and music). It is not just a candy coating that makes the ideas palatable. The form, the environment the ideas come in, is just as important as the ideas themselves. You cannot take one without the other. The picture I get is not of ideas, like vitamins, in a sugary coating that is the art or living books, but of two vitamins which the body cannot absorb wthout each other. Both are vital but they must enter together.

But I am digressing but Ryken’s book. Here is how he puts it:

“Exactly what is it that enables the arts to express enduring truth? What do they add to the facts that the news does not? They give us the event plus the meaning. A science textbook gives us the physical facts about nature; a Constable landscape painting or a nature lyric by Wordsworth gives us a sense of the moral meaning of a landscape.” (p. 34)

Thus art (and again I speak of it here in all its forms) illuminates reality (p. 110); it opens is to new experiences (p. 36); it teaches us to cope with our problems (p. 27).

Ryken goes beyond this and, acknowledging that not all ideas are good and true (p. 126), gives us tools to analyze and consider art from a Christian perspective (see pp. 145, 152-53, 169-70, 172-73). Here I find his work very valuable on a practical level, especially as I have children who will be looking at and evaluating nay kinds of art.

Though Ryken and I might not see eye to eye on a number of very important issues, his book was quite helpful and I did enjoy reading it. More than that, I am quite happy to have found it for my daughter as it is a quite accessible, practical and helpful introduction to the topic of art and art criticism from a Christian perspective.

Nebby

A Living Book on Writing

Dear Reader,

Writing seems to be one of the subjects which sends homeschoolers of all stripes into fits.  I’m not sure if it actually is tough to teach, but we all seem to think it is.  When I read through Charlotte Mason message boards, it seems like one area in which we are all tempted to abandon Charlotte’s principles and use some sort of prepackaged curriculum. So what if there were a living book that taught writing? How great would that be? I think I have found just such a book.

I obtained On the Writing of English by George Townsend Warner when it was the free book of the day on Forgotten Books. Though it may not be free today, you can still get the book on their website in various digital formats (I get nothing for promoting them, I promise; I’ve just fallen in love with the site).

Warner’s book was written in the early 1900s and is addressed to the student who is called upon to write essays. I found this book highly readable. It’s language is simple and conversational, its tips relevant, and its tone often humorous.   The goal of this book, as Warner states it, is to teach the student “to think, and to write down his thoughts in good English; that is all” (pp. 1-2). Along the way he covers “the way to gather and sort material . . .[and] the commonest pitfalls which lie in wait for the beginner” (p. 2).

This approach taken by Warner is not that of a highly structured 5-paragraph essay. That is a good thing in my opinion. He discusses sentences and paragraphs and always having a topic sentence, but he also encourages variety in the structure and wording of one’s essay. Frankly, I find it a refreshing alternative to a lot of the rigid curricula which are out there. He says, for example:

“Variety in the shape of sentence is needful; so is variety in words when you can get it. But never shrink from using the same word over and over again when it is the right word.” (p. 55)

And regarding adjectives, he says:

“Some beginners usher in every noun with an adjective clinging to it, like the men and women going down arm-in-arm to dinner.” (p. 72)

Warner instead urges caution with adjectives which I find a refreshing change from some of the curricula out there which require certain numbers of adjectives and the like.

On the Writing of English may not be for everyone. It is not a curriculum as such but a handbook on writing. I happen to think that a child who has been reared on living books could go through this volume a time or two and end up quite a good writer. I plan to test this theory on my own kids so I can let you know how it goes. Though so far I have only read it myself and not handed it over to them, this is definitely on my “highly recommended” list.

Nebby

 

Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Dear Reader,

I have spent a long time on Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura. It is not a thin book, but beyond that there is also a lot to absorb from it. I had come to this book after many unfruitful and frustrating discussions with a recently turned Catholic friend. A large issue for him is authority in the church — Where does it come from? Who decides what the Bible means? I hoped that this book would provide some coherent answers to his questions and mine.

I am going to spend a couple of posts (at least) on The Shape of Sola Scriptura. In this first one I will attempt to give you more of a classical book review — what the book is about, what works in it, what doesn’t. In my next post I will delve deeper into Mathison’s arguments and give my own responses to them.

Mathison defines four views of the relationship between Bible and tradition. He calls them Tradition 0, 1, 2 and 3. He is a proponent of Tradition 1 which he defines as the reformation view of Sola Scriptura which views the Bible as the ultimate authority for God’s people but takes it in the context of the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith (we’ll come back to the specifics of what this means). Tradition 0 is, by his definition, a corruption of Sola Scriptura which he calls solo scriptura. It takes the Bible as the only authority, the result of which is that each Christian interprets the Bible for him or herself with no guiding principles and ultimately no uniformity in doctrine within the church. Tradition 2 adds Sacred Tradition to Scripture, a position which Mathison would say leads to the supplanting of Scripture by tradition as it is tradition which tells us what Scripture means. Lastly, Tradition 3 makes the church the authority over Scripture and Tradition, telling us what both mean. This is the view of the modern Roman Catholic Church with its Magisterium and papal infallibility.

Mathison divides his discussion into three main parts. He begins with the historical evidence from the early church on, asking what the church fathers had to say about tradition, and then moving on through the Medieval church, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, discussing ideas which arise in the process (like papal infallibility). Mathison then truns to what Scripture has to say about tradition and about its own authority and then to more theoretical arguments for sola scriptura in a section he calls “The Theological Necessity of Sola Scriptura.” The very end of the book is devoted to some common objections to the Tradition 1 view.

Mathison is really trying to do two things in this book: to present and defend the view he subscribes to and to critique competing views. While my own view is very similar, though not identical to Mathison’s, I felt that he did a much better job of critiquing the positions of others than of presenting his own.

As I said, Mathison begins with the historical evidence from the early fathers. I found this section quite convincing as it is presented. I did wonder, however, if what he gives us is an accurate and complete account of the evidence. Everybody (or almost so, some “Tradition 0” Protestants don’t care) in this battle wants to trace their own position back to the church fathers. The ones Mathison cites seem to expound a view similar to his. The problem is that the Catholics and Orthodox will both give a different series of quotes, or perhaps even different takes on the same sources, that seem to support their view. I find this one of those subjects that it is very hard for me to draw a conclusion on, like global warming and evolution. “Experts” on both sides seem to present convincing evidence until you talk to the other side’s expert and find his evidence sounds just as convincing. While the body of writings from church fathers should be a finite one, it is nonetheless a large one and is itself subject to interpretation so it is hard for me as a lay person to take it all in and say “yes, this is what the church fathers thought” or “no, that is what they thought.”

Beyond this, there is the problem of being anachronistic, of reading our modern understandings into ancient writings. When we use or read the word “tradition,” we must always ask how it is being used. The early fathers did not have the arguments we are having so they weren’t setting out to answer our questions for us. We are left trying to look back and discern how they would have seen the issue when they never framed it the way we do. Here I should say that I have some problems with how Mathison frames the whole issue. His use of the labels Tradition 0, 1, 2, and 3, I find to be a bit oversimplified and to leave out some legitimate options. I do understand that it is helpful for a book like this to be able to boil it all down, but there is a fine line between giving us helpful terms with which to discuss an issue and oversimplifying or even misrepresenting an issue through one’s terminology. I actually really liked the categories Oberman uses which Mathison briefly references in a footnote on p. 86, but Mathison himself does not choose to use them.

As Mathison moves on from the early church period into the Middle Ages and beyond, he shows how new views of the interplay of Scripture and Tradition developed. His focus is really on the Roman Catholic position and though it is not his direct object at this point in the book, he (at least as far as I am concerned) raises a lot of legitimate questions about the Roman Catholic position and its origins. In fact, I think the strongest part of the book is the questions Mathison raises about the Catholic view. I will treat these specifically in my next post on the content of the book.

Though he devotes a short section to it, Mathison does not talk much about the Eastern Orthodox view and even admits that it does not really fit his categories. Neither does he discuss other, admittedly less widely held, views or address other branches of the Christian tree such as the Oriental Orthodox churches.

A main purpose of this book is to distinguish Mathison’s Tradition 1 view from the common Protestant position which he calls Tradition 0. Proponets of the latter accept no authority other than Scripture, and Mathison does a decent job of showing that this position is quite problematic because it so very subjective and because it leads to many, many divisions in the church and undercuts any attempt at defining absolute truth.

The weakest part of The Shape of Sola Scriptura is Mathison’s defense of his own position. He does acknowledge some of the problems inherent in his own position, most notably that it is quite dependent on our definition of what the church is which is another huge can of worms. Though he defers this discussion of this issue till near the end of the book, he does attempt to address it. I did not find his arguments very convincing at this point, however, nor his definitions of what a true church is very helpful. Though he uses Charles Hodges’ definition of a true church to attempt to define the issue, I was not enamored of Hodges’ approach and Mathison does not bring the issue of apostolic succession into it at all. One can argue that there is no such thing as apostolic succession, of course, but I don’t think we can ignore the question altogether. The fact is authority in the church has to come from somewhere, and Mathison does not address where it originates or what makes the authority of a given church legitimate. His only reference to this issue is a brief statement in passing that “The corporate judgment of the Church normally operates through those who have been especially gifted by the Holy Spirit with leadership and teaching gifts” (p.272). He does not expand upon this, however, and I am left wondering how one can discern the presence of these gifts, who gets to say whether an individual has them or not, and whether there are any other criteria he would use to establish legitimate leadership in the church.

Mathison says a number of times that the only time in history when we have seen Tradition 1 as the established view of the church for any length of time is in the early church. Though he believes Tradition 1, as he defines it, is the view of Reformers like Calvin he also says that it quickly degenerated into Tradition o. As I have noted, while I personally found Mathison’s evidence on the point convincing, there is no consensus on what the view of the early church was as every group wishes to claim it for their own side. We are left then with only a brief period when Tradition 1 clearly held sway to any degree in the early days of the Reformation. If this view did not last, I am left wondering if it is at all sustainable or if it inevitably becomes supplanted by what Mathison calls a Tradition 2 view in which tradition reigns over Scripture or degenerates into a Tradition 0 view in which every man’s opinion is his only guide. And if Tradition 1 is unsustainable, is it then untenable?

My last major criticism of Mathison’s  expounding of his position has to do with how he defines the Rule of Faith, or regula fidei, by which he believes Scripture is to be interpreted. As Mathison says, “The Reformers did not reject tradition; they rejected one particular concept of tradition in favor of another concept of tradition” (p. 345). The concept they favored, or at least which Mathison, proposes is found in the creeds. This, for him, is the Rule of Faith, that standard by which we are to discern orthodox from heretical interpretations of Scripture and also by which we are to discriminate between true and false churches. Mathison does not argue this point; he does not suggest that there might be other rules or embodiments of tradition. Nor does he spend time showing particularly that this is the standard the Reformers used. That is assumed rather than shown in this book. Mathison also does not pick a creed. He mentions the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds but does not pick between them. It is worth noting that the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East do not accept the creed of Chalcedon. I assume that by his definition, then, Mathison would not consider them true churches. Personally, I am not comfortable with doing so and the Roman Catholic church, which Mathison does believe is a true church, has in recent years said of the Oriental Orthodox churches at least that their differences are minor and that they share a common faith.

Mathison at times refers to “essential doctrines.” These he finds, again, embodied in the creeds (again undefined as to exactly which creeds are included and which are excluded). In addition to using these as the regula fidei by which we are to interpret Scripture, he also uses them as the test of a true church. But the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and (most) Protestant churches all accept these creeds. If we are to look at only the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, we can add the Oriental Orthodox churches and Assyrian Church of the East to this list. And yet with this common confession we do not end up with much common belief. The whole point of this book is to show that how we view tradition relative to Scripture, what Tradition we use and what role we give it, are important. And yet in the end, Mathison picks a standard which all these churches accept though they end up in very different places on so many, many issues. The creeds themselves are open to interpretation to some degree and they provide little guidance for us in interpreting Scripture. They rule out extreme positions like that Jesus was not God, but they still leave quite a lot of room on other issues. So my biggest difference with Mathison’s position is that I do not find his definition of what Rule of Faith (which for him is the whole embodiment of tradition) we should be using very hepful. While I do agree with him in a general way on the relationship between Scripture and tradition, I am left still wondering what tradition we are to look to. Mathison’s deferral to the creeds I find very unsatisfactory. I am honestly not sure at this point how exactly I would define my own position. That is something I hope to get closer to working out in my next post in which I will delve more into the content of the book.

To sum up, then, my reactions to the book itself, I would say that The Shape of Sola Scriptura is well worth reading. It raises a lot of issues that need considering. While I am not 100% happy with Mathison’s categories, they do help us to think about the issues. He is strongest in his critiques of others’ positions, particularly of the Roman Catholic and solo scriptura positions, but he falters when it comes to defending his own position.  Ultimately, there is a lot here I agree with, but I am uncomfortable with his deferral to the creeds, and these only generally speaking, as the sole regula fidei by which we are to discern true from false interpretations.

Nebby

 

 

How We are Studying Current Events and Geography

Dear Reader,

We are attempting to study geography and current events together this year. The plan I have devised is based upon the book Why Greenland Is An Island, Australia Is Not-And Japan Is Up for Grabs: A Simple Primer For Becoming A Geographical Know-It-All by Joyce Davis. I really love the idea behind this book though I am struggling to implement its ideas practically. My simple summary of the book would be that it provides steps for looking at news stories and using an atlas or other geographical tools to gather more information thereby allowing one to gain a deeper understanding of world events. I went through for myself and wrote down the basic steps. They are:

  • Identify the geographical issue
  • Study maps
  • Compare with more detailed maps
  • Look at large area maps
  • Combine geography and other facts
  • Picture the scene you have been studying

While I love this idea, I am wishing that the book had more examples, more detailed examples, and more contemporary examples of how all this plays out. The first example given is of the break up of the Soviet Union. Davis gives a brief blow by blow account of the events, sends us to look at more detailed maps, and then gives her own conclusions. But I am left wondering how exactly the geography played into it all. She supplies in her conclusions information we could not have gathered on our own from simply studying maps which makes it all a bug useless in terms of teaching how this process it to be carried out. We did to start off out studies begin with her Soviet Union example, however. It was somewhat useful. I did not feel like we achieved any ground breaking insights, but we could see, for example, how the mountain range on Russia’s southern border separates it from the countries below. We also talked about why Finland, alone of all the nations surrounding Russia, was never absorbed.  I don’t know if our conclusions are historically accurate, but they made sense to me. And, because every good post needs a picture, my older daughter doodled this cute image of the Baltic states while we talked:

IMG_0117

For our second endeavor, I picked a news story that seemed liked it would be relatively easy to understand and have a natural connection with geography: the plight of refugees in Slovenia.** These refugees have come from the Middle East and are hoping to get to Germany and have been pushed off into Slovenia by neighboring Hungary. We read the story, looked at our atlas, and then talked about where the refugees came from, what their easiest means of travel would be (sea travel across the Mediterranean), why they would choose the Slovenia area, and the like. I think it was a somewhat fruitful conversation. I would like to gain the ability to delve deeper and deeper into such stories and to get more out of our studies but it felt like not a bad beginning. My goal is to do such studies once or twice a month. I will try to post here about how they are going.

Nebby

**Side note (well, footnote, really, I suppose): My source for this news blurb and a magazine I really love is The Week. If you are not familiar with it, is is a news summary magazine. Issued weekly, it purports to be “all you need to know about everything that matters.” If you are like me and can’t always keep up with everything in detail, it is a great way to make sure you are not completely out of the loop, current events-wise. Plus I think it will prvide great fodder for these sorts of studies.

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