Monthly Archives: August 2011

Don’t Know Much About History

On Monday I’ll get back to my series of posts on how I choose books but today I wanted to explore another topic. Namely, the dangerous attitude of Christians – especially those tasked with teaching – towards history. I do not mean that every pastor or teacher must be a lover of history. What I mean is that everyone who claims to teach the Bible should have a respect for history and an understanding of its importance in correctly handling the Word of God.

Here’s why I am bringing this up: several months ago I was perusing the transcript of a Christmas-season sermon from one of America’s most well-known pastors. This man is a bestselling author, the leader of one of the biggest churches in the world, and is held in high regard. Let’s call him Pastor X

No, it is not Rick Warren.

I have always had a healthy respect for Pastor X, though I have never met him or been to his church; his messages are generally faithful to Scripture and rarely resemble the topical mush that characterizes so much of evangelical preaching. Further, he has always struck me as a guy who knows his stuff. I’ve never heard him say something that made me scratch my head and wonder what in the world he was talking about.

Until I came across a particular line in this transcript that reduced me to slack-jawed disbelief. This is essentially what it said–I’ll paraphrase rather than reproduce the entire paragraph:

“The title ‘Prince of Peace’ is sar shalome in Hebrew. So sar means Prince or Lord and the Romans took this Hebrew word sar and it became Czar which then became Caesar, as in Julius Caesar.”

If that doesn’t make your head explode with its wrongness, one of two things is true: you do not have a general knowledge of ancient history (which is unfortunate, but not sinful) or you know it is wrong, but it does not bother you (which is unfortunate and, I would argue, sinful).

In case you don’t know how that statement is wrong: the words ‘Czar’ and ‘Caesar’ are connected, but the Russian ‘Czar’ (and other European titles, like ‘Kaiser’) came from ‘Caesar,’ not the other way around. Further, the idea that the Romans appropriated the Hebrew word sar is laughable. And even if they did, it certainly did NOT become the word ‘Caesar’ which was a family name long before it was a title, and either meant ‘hairless’ (the Julii men may have been known for their baldness) or ‘elephant killer.’ Seriously. Julius Caesar seems to have thought it was the latter, which is why the picture of an elephant can be found on certain coins made in his name.

But regardless of whether ‘Caesar’ meant ‘bald’ or ‘elephant killer’ it certainly did not mean ‘lord’ or ‘king.’ Octavian was adopted by Julius and emphasized his connection to the murdered tyrant with his new name, ‘Caesar.’ Afterwards, emperors all claimed the name Caesar to emphasize continuity and thus the name became the title synonymous with ‘Emperor.’

Pastor X’s statement is so embarassingly incorrect that, if I heard it in church, I might be forced to conclude that I could not trust the speaker to faithfully interpret Scripture. So how did a statement that can’t even be supported with a Google search make it into a sermon heard by tens of thousands?

One word: ignorance. Now, our society tends to equate the word ‘ignorance’ with stupidity, but that is silly. Ignorance can be remedied, while stupidity is sadly incurable.

My point is this: pastors, teachers, are you speaking words of truth? Your congregations trust you. How can you possibly claim to teach truth if you have no interest in learning the history behind the text? The Bible is, after all, an ancient text. Yes, it is timeless and always relevant, but it is still ancient. It requires study; it requires a pursuit – we must chase after the truths of God in order to help our people understand Him better.

The tragedy is that even ten minutes on the Internet would have prevented such an appalling inaccuracy from reaching the message. There are many components to studying the Bible and history is not foremost among them, but I do think it is perhaps the most neglected. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating history lectures from the pulpit. What I am advocating is an understanding of history sufficient to prevent lies from reaching the pulpit.

Tale of Three Kings: Guest Review

[A few weeks ago I decided to try and devote Wednesday posts to book reviews by friends. I asked my good friend Ernest Smith to kick it off this week. Ernest is the Pastor of the College/20 Something at Seacoast Church here in Charleston, SC.]

When I was asked to write a post critiquing a book, I immediately began trying to determine which book had made the most impact in my life.  Many books came to mind.  Whether it was Knowledge of the Holy by AW Tozer or Crazy Love by Francis Chan or The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, there have been many books that have made an impact on my life.  However, I wanted to choose a book that has proven relevant for all and is timeless in its subject matter.

Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards is one of the shortest, simplest books I have ever read, yet it has also had one of the most profound impacts on my life.  I read this book for the first time when I was a freshman or sophomore in college.  I chose it because it was short and it seemed to be an easy read.  As I ventured further into the script, I began to realize that the words may be simple but the context is nothing short of complex.

The book is a look at the story of three kings of Israel, Saul, David and Absalom.  As the author describes each king and how he came into power, a central theme of pride, anger, rebellion and forgiveness began to surface.  King Saul was a man who was disobedient to the Lord and in his attempt to seize and keep power, he displayed anger, pride and resistance toward God’s will.  David, a man after God’s heart, sought to take the high road, resulting in forgiveness, humility and trust in the Lord’s will.  The last king, Absalom, followed in the footsteps of the first and allowed his pride to get the better of him, resulting in anger, violence and disobedience once again.

Although the plot is full of violence, tension and war, this book is anything but an exciting read, because it reveals the very character of most people, pride, and speaks to a disobedience that results when pride becomes evident.  The author uses  the illustration of Saul and Absalom to speak the truth that all men have the tendency, and even the pull, toward  disobedience, pride and anger, but it is a humble man, a man like David, that responds to opposition and hardships with love, grace and forgiveness.

The book challenged me in my response to others.  Would I allow my pride to be what controls me, or would I allow the grace and love of God to become evident in the face of hardships?  I struggle with pride.  I struggle with wanting my will to be done.  Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards, reminds me, time after time, to let go and trust in an Eternal God who knows what He is doing.

How I Choose Books Part 2: Classic Fiction

In yesterday’s post I defended–nay, extolled–the virtues of reading fiction. Today I want to get a little more specific. How do I choose the Classic Fiction that I read? Now, the term “classic” is a bit of a problem–is Harry Potter a classic? Though millions thoroughly enjoyed the series, I would have to say no, at least not yet. However, if people are still reading it 200 years from now then it will certainly have attained that status.

In other words, some books are classics and others are not, and not everyone agrees on what books qualify. The phrase “instant classic” has always struck me as silly, because contemporary popularity is such a horrible predictor of lasting success. So what do I mean today when I talk about “classics?” I thought about drawing an arbitrary line and putting everything after, say, 1900 in Thursday’s Modern Fiction post. But that won’t do–someone will call it a terrible injustice to suggest that Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. are not classics. And obviously time is not the only thing that defines a classic. So I won’t do that.

Instead, I’ll just mention books that I think I can safely assume are generally agreed upon to have attained “classic” status. This is not a list of every classic fiction work I think should be read–that would take weeks of posts. So if you think I’ve left something major out, I’m sure that you’re right–you can leave a comment. In fact, please do so–I’d love to have others’ thoughts about classic works they love.

Ok, with that out of the way, here we go.

Whenever I think about the books I want to read, I ask myself, what are the books I must read before I die? I will never be able to read every book out there; I must choose some at the exclusion of others.

Obviously, at the top of the list are the ancient classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid. Now, these are not really “fiction” as we understand it–rather, they are poetic retellings of historic events. Of course, these are wonderful works but I initially decided to read them because they are at the top of the “have to” list. There is nothing wrong with reading something because others think it is important and these works certainly fall into that category.

So one question to ask yourself is, “What fiction is most important?” Aside from the works above, I think the next names on the list must be Dante and Shakespeare. Again, these works are not “fiction” necessarily but I do not think that one can really understand the Western world without having read them. Deciding what fiction is most important is by no means easy, but “classics” are regarded as such because they are generally considered to be important works.

On the other hand, asking what fiction is important may help you find classics, but once you get past the must-read names like Homer and Dante, how do you differentiate between them? For example, both Pride and Prejudice and The Tale of Genji are important, and both are classics–so how I choose which one to read? That’s a bit harder.

Actually, it isn’t hard to decide what to read–classics are classics. The hard thing is deciding what to read when. Part of it simply has to do with what I am in the mood for, so let me explain what I love about some of my favorite classic authors:

If I want to read a witty story with entertaining characters and a well-developed plot, Jane Austen is by far my best bet. If I want to read a book that challenges my understanding of human nature I read Fyodor Dostoevsky. If I want to read something with an intricate story, something that is at the same time wonderful and tragically beautiful, I read Thomas Mann (can you tell I like him?). Buddenbrooks is my favorite work of fiction, hands down.

Everyone has something different to offer and since I want to read all the classic authors, it is really a matter of deciding what the order will be. If I want to read something Southern, I go to William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor (if you’ve never read O’Connor, go find Everything That Rises Must Converge right now). If I want to read something expansive and grand, Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo are my obvious choices. Dumas’ works are simply exciting and fun to read, surprisingly close to our contemporary novels. And I have a real soft spot for the Russian classics.

Leo Tolstoy always tends to inspire and sadden me in the same work, which I rather enjoy, Anna Karenina in particular. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a repeat reading to appreciate a classic. I hated Albert Camus the first time I read him, but when I went back a reread The Stranger a few years later, I found it wonderful. It was the same with Voltaire’s Candide.

Well. This post is longer than I intended, yet it feels rather inadequate. It will certainly be easier for me to explain how I choose what modern fiction, or history, or religious books I read. Classics should be read simply because they are classics. I’ve left so many out, but I’m afraid I have to. Instead of trying to visit every author who deserves to be mentioned, let me recommend five works of classic fiction for someone who wants an introduction to a range of authors. These are not in any particular order.

Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann)

The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

Go Down, Moses (William Faulkner)

This list is simply intended to recommend some works I enjoy and to provide a wide range of authors. If you’re interested in more titles or recommendations, or have questions, leave a comment. And let me know–what are your favorite classic fiction works?

How I Choose Books: Why Read Fiction

Recently, a friend of mine mentioned that he would be interested in reading a blog on how I choose books. I’m a reader and am known as such, though I think even the people who know me well would be surprised at some of the things I read (for example, Fullmetal Alchemist and The Hunger Games). I read widely and there are two real reasons for that. First, I read widely because I have wide interests. I am interested in history, poetry, fantasy, economics, religion, philosophy, classical and modern fiction alike, and a myriad of other things.

If I could change one thing about some of the guys I know, it would be this: I wish they read more widely. In particular, I wish they read more fiction. I understand the aversion to fiction; the assumption, I think, is that it has less to offer than non-fiction. They aren’t wrong–at least about some fiction. The trick is not to choose the right genres, but to choose the right books, regardless of genre.

I’m planning on making this the first in a series of posts explaining how I choose what books to read. I’ll explore a different genre in each post. Today I want to write about fiction because, again, it is the genre my friends tend to ignore. I get it, I really do. But I think they are missing something extraordinary. Dealing with how I choose fiction books will take at least three posts. Today I want to simply deal with the question: Why read fiction? When people tell me that they don’t read fiction, I doubt that they are thinking of Austen and Dostoevsky–my assumption is that they are thinking of Clancy and King. In other words, my guess is that my friends do not read fiction because they assume that it is all the same and that the genre is characterized by the modern novels they occasionally read for fun. They believe that the genre has nothing to offer the reader other than entertainment.

They are wrong.

Your understanding of any genre should be informed as much–if not more–by its greatest successes as by its failures. It would be silly to say that you decided to stop watching movies because you saw a bad one. The hundreds of fantastic movies should inform your opinion and give you an understanding of what the medium has to offer, regardless of the accompanying failures.

It’s the same with fiction. Sure, there are a lot of terrible novels. But have you ever read Crime and Punishment? That book, more than any other work I have ever read, gave me a profound understanding of the utter darkness of human nature. Outside of my father and brother, I don’t know of anyone who has read Thomas Mann‘s Buddenbrooks–it is my favorite work of fiction. It chronicles the gradual decline of a family over four generations; it is not real history, yet it is more beautiful than any history book I have ever read.

I guess it might be said like this: fiction explores human nature in a way that non-fiction cannot. It’s like the difference between reading a history of ad agencies in the 60’s and watching Mad Men. One is certainly interesting and informative, the other is beautiful yet tragically sad.

And fiction can be transformative. The Lord of the Rings changed how I saw fiction, how I saw writing, how I saw storytelling. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion showed me the power of tragedy, just as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina did. Dostoevsky and Austen changed how I viewed human nature, one in the understanding of evil and one in the assumption of goodness. Dumas showed me that fiction can be exciting; Hemingway that it can be real and harsh; O’Connor that it can be hilarious, and on and on.

My point is this: fiction has so many works of astonishing beauty and depth that it borders on criminal to dismiss the genre as having nothing to offer. It is like saying that you only view those works of art that portray real people or places.

And, by the way–if you consider fiction “only” entertainment, I wonder whether you enjoy reading boring non-fiction? Aren’t the best history books, the best economic books, the best science books; aren’t great non-fiction books of any genre great precisely because they take their subject and make it fascinating? Entertaining?

So read fiction–if you do not, you are robbing yourself and frankly, I think you are stunting your growth as a person. The question is: how do you choose good fiction? For the next couple days I’ll expand on this theme, that reading fiction is beneficial. Tomorrow, I’ll write about Classical Fiction and how I choose what to read within that genre.

What about you? Do you tend to see reading fiction as not worthwhile? Why? What would it take to convince you otherwise?