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?

Tolkien and the Eucatastrophe

Whatever happened to happy endings? All children grow up surrounded by stories that have happy endings. In fact, I remember being confused as I grew older, whenever I would encounter a story that did not have one. Isn’t everything supposed to turn out alright in the end? But when children do grow up, the cruelty of life tells them that there are no happy endings, that such things are, in fact, childish. So many modern stories (especially the critically  cclaimed ones that we are all supposed to read) are gritty and wrathful and sad. Happy endings, we are told, are simply not realistic.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories” J.R.R. Tolkien presents an alternative view. He declares that any ‘fairy story’ (what we would term ‘fantasy’) must have a happy ending to be successful. Further, Tolkien says that happy endings in fact do not deny the horrors of the real world. Indeed, such tragedy and evil “is necessary to the joy of deliverance.” Besides, happy endings are what we all really want anyway.  They deny “universal final defeat and… [give] a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

If tragedy is the highest form of drama, then the fairy story with a happy ending is the polar opposite—yet there is not a literary term that fully expresses this, so Tolkien supplies one: eucatastrophe. Happy endings are probably considered the simplest of endings but Tolkien asserts that pulling off a successful eucatastrophe is actually quite difficult. It requires the storyteller to focus much of his tale around the Turn, which Tolkien considers to be one of the highest forms of literary art: the Turn comes with “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.”

The entire story acts as the setting for the Turn and when done well, such a Turn puts all the previous terror and evil in perspective and actually “reflects a glory backwards” to use Tolkien’s wonderful phrase. We see this, of course, in Tolkien’s own The Lord of the Rings, wherein the opponents of Sauron fight on despite inevitable failure. The members of the Fellowship seem to move from defeat to defeat throughout the books. Ultimate defeat would have made their efforts futile, but the destruction of the Ring and casting down of Sauron actually reflects glory back upon even tragedy.

And that is the real key to what happy endings are–in The Lord of the Rings, the eucatastrophe is not the journey to the West, or Sam returning to Bag End. Rather, it is the final defeat of Sauron and the casting down of the dark tower. The eucatastrophe is less about the “happily ever after” than it is the Turn, the moment when evil is routed and good begins to triumph; the moment when the glory begins reflecting backwards. So for Tolkien, the happy ending is less about actual happiness than it is about hope and the final victory of goodness.

The desire for eucatastrophe is a basic part of our humanity. We are always waiting for the Turn to come, for the moment when things are made right.  Whenever tragedy strikes or evil is on display in our world, we ask ourselves, in the words of Sam Gamgee. “is everything sad going to come untrue?”

The Christian answers “yes.”

Indeed, for Tolkien the Gospel is the greatest eucatastrophe of all. It is the Turn that gives us hope that happy endings are possible at all. Imagine discovering that your favorite story was actually true—imagine discovering that there really are lightsabers in a galaxy far, far away. Or imagine actually receiving an invitation in the mail to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Discovering that such things were real would send a thrill up your spine; a sense of joy that something so fantastic could actually be true.

Tolkien says that this is why acknowledging the truth of the Gospel produces such great joy. He writes that “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”

We convince ourselves that stories that end in sadness, anger, violence, depression, or hopelessness are the truest and closest to reality. The Gospel tells us that this is wrong. The reason the eucatastrophe is a vital part of literature—and a vital part of our very nature—is that, in the midst of a world that is broken and terrible, it holds out the promise of redemption, healing, and the hope of the Great Turn.

Bored With Hell

One of the more interesting features of the whole Rob Bell, Love Wins controversy was the fact that everything died down rather quickly. Bell’s promotional video was released, Justin Taylor blogged about it, everyone else blogged about Taylor’s blog, Matthew 18 was thoroughly exegeted, but once Bell’s book actually came out, things seemed to die down pretty quickly.

Now that the actual book-length responses are coming out (the newest of which is Francis Chan’s excellent Erasing Hell), many people seem surprised; “What, you’re still talking about this? Didn’t we already do this thing to death?” I’ve read a few posts pointing out the fact that since blogs effectively reviewed the book before it is even released, the work itself ended up being rather anticlimactic once it hit shelves. Which is understandable and it makes sense that people have quickly lost interest in talking about Bell.

Except that they haven’t, not really. There are, as far as I can tell, two categories of people who suggest that Rob Bell and his ideas are old hat and not really worth talking about anymore. The first category are obviously Bell supporters (or at least advocates of his brand of theology) who are tired of playing defense. And I get that–it’s understandable that they would rather not have to keep answering whether they think Hitler is in heaven. I imagine they are tired of trying to convince people that Bell is teaching perfectly acceptable orthodox Christianity.

The second group bothers me. These are people who seem to think that the battle has been fought and won. Bell was refuted, his ideas demonstrated to be unorthodox, and we don’t need to trouble ourselves with such things any longer.

We could stand to learn from Athanasius, who won the great theological fight of his day. Until he lost it and was exiled. Until he won again and returned in triumph. Until he lost again and was exiled. Until… you get the point. And the point is that we never stop fighting. Not because we love to fight (well, some of us do) but because the fight is never completely won. Now, I am of the opinion that Love Wins actually was refuted pretty decisively, particularly here. But that isn’t the point. If we convince ourselves that a few book reviews mean that we’ve done our job, we lose.

I don’t think that Bell’s book was popular simply because it presented new(ish) ideas and was controversial. I think it gained traction because of two reasons: 1) It is what an enormous number of people want to believe about God. and 2) It is what most of them already believe anyway. These ideas resonate in a very strong way with my generation (and younger) and if we are not careful, it will come to define their views on heaven, hell, and the Gospel.

The issues that Bell has raised are not going away anytime soon and I am concerned that we in the American Church have largely forgotten how to fight theological battles. Do we really fire just one good salvo and pack it in? Or do we really believe that the rejection of doctrines like hell and the exclusivity of Christ (I don’t care how he tries to package it in his book, Bell does reject it) are important enought to oppose?

In the end, the whole thing makes me feel rather sick–Rob Bell was a significant influence on me while I was in college and at my most cynical. Bell taught me to love the Church again and rekindled in me a sense of wonder for God and a hunger for the Word. Reading Love Wins wasn’t surprising, but it did feel like learning that all the awful rumors you’ve heard about a friend are true. I want to believe Bell is being misinterpreted, I want to believe that he is completely orthodox. More than anything, however, I want to preserve the ancient truths of Christianity for the next generation. Doing that means being willing to fight and willing to remember that the battle is never finally won.

So read the books that come out, educate yourself about the positions in question, and be willing to wait until the fighting flares up again. Because when it does, we need to be prepared to respond.

Non-fiction as Narrative

In my opinion, Robert Caro is the greatest biographer of the last hundred years. Maybe longer. His life’s work is his three (soon to be four) volume series, The Years of Lyndon Johnson. When I read through the books a couple of years ago, I realized that I was reading something extraordinary. A famous author once said that she felt a profound sadness when she finished reading The Lord of the Rings, because there was no more of it and she knew that she would never find anything else like it. That sort of sums up my experience with Caro’s books.

I’m writing this for a reason. In an interview with Kurt Vonnegut years ago, Caro talked about the importance of narrative in non-fiction. He said,

“To my mind, the prose in a non-fiction work that’s going to endure has to be of the same quality as the prose in a work of fiction that endures. And I actually tested this out for myself. I read one hunk of Gibbon ‘s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, then I read a part of War and Peace which is a grand historical novel, right, so I figured that’s the closest to Gibbon. So I would read a part of one then apart of the other. I did this all summer. And the writing in Gibbon is at the same level, you know, they don’t read at the same cadences but it’s at the same intensity and level as in War and Peace. I’ve always felt that no one understands why some books of non-fiction endure and some don’t, because there’s not much understanding among many non-fiction writers that the narrative is terribly important.”

You can read the whole interview here.

The really tremendous thing about Caro’s books is the research. But who cares about that if the writing is crummy? If I can’t get through thirty pages of your book, it doesn’t matter what extraordinary quotes you have, or what startling revelations you share–no one will read it and your book will be forgotten. I think that the real tragedy of historical works is not the occasional inaccuracy; it’s that the majority of historians are poor writers. Conveying truth is important, but cultivating a love for truth in others–that’s the real trick.