Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent 1: Putting on Armour of Light

The First Sunday in Advent
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 21:1-13
     Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise again to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
     The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. In the next four weeks we anticipate and prepare for the Christmas festival. Please remember that Advent is the season of preparation; Christmas is the season of celebration.
     Indeed, earlier in church history, Advent was observed as a lesser lent—a time of fasting and repentance. As Lent prepares us for Easter, so Advent is meant to prepare us for Christmas. Try not to let the world squeeze you into its expectations of frantic shopping and overindulgence. The Christian mood of advent is joyful, but somber, anticipation. “Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” This is the mood of advent. Sober, reflective, waiting.
     Then after those 4 weeks of waiting, the liturgical calendar gives us 12 days of Christmas celebration. I wish the school and business calendar could be more in synch with the church’s calendar. But I think we can find ways to incorporate more of the rhythm of the church in our lives.
     I am struck by the opening sentence of today’s collect, which calls us to pray that we may “cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light.”
     Let’s think about what this might mean. Why do we need armour? How can light serve as armour? How do we put it on?
     The phrase is taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 13th chapter, which we read for the epistle lesson this morning. There Paul admonishes the Christians in Rome: “the night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armour of light.”
     To get the point that Paul is making here in Romans 13, we need to consider the surrounding context. We need to go all the way back to the beginning of chapter 12. Remember Paul is writing to Christians in Rome, the most powerful, humanly glorious, and one of the most corrupt, cities of the day. It was the seat of the Roman Empire, and in many ways Rome represented all that was opposed to the truth of the gospel. Paul says in Romans 12:1-2

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

     Paul realized there would be a tendency, a temptation, for Christians to allow themselves to be conformed to the world around them. He knew that to be a Christian in Rome would be difficult. It would be costly. It might mean giving up influence, wealth, even one’s life. He says we must not be conformed to the world, but transformed, in order to prove, or live out, the will of God. Almost all of the rest of this letter consists of Paul teaching and encouraging the church to live out the truth of the gospel: that Jesus Christ has transformed and is transforming our lives.
     Paul calls the church to a radical, transforming witness in the world. Think about what he says here. Are we doing this?
Romans 12:9-21 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; 11not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; 13distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. 17Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord.
20Therefore"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head."
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul continues in chapter 13:

Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." 10Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
     To do these things, I think, is to put on the armor of light. We live our lives in a way that is dramatically and noticeably different from those outside of Christ. We are the light of the world.
And then comes this note of expectancy. Paul seems to anticipate an eschatological, or end-times event.  Romans 13:11-12
And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. 12The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.
     Paul was anticipating the return of Christ, and tells the Church that we must all be ready. This is the message of the season of Advent. Christ is coming. He has promised to return. He commanded us to be ready, watching, and waiting.
So much of Jesus’ teaching speaks of being prepared for his return. Do you remember the parable of the wise and foolish maidens: It is Matthew 25:
Matthew 25:1-13
"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
     Paul tells us to put on armor of light. Jesus also speaks of light: those waiting for his coming should have light with them: they should be waiting with the light, in the light.
     These reminders of the need for light tell us that around us there is going to be darkness. The bridegroom comes at night. Jesus said he would come as a thief in the night--suddenly, unexpectedly, perhaps when the world seems very dark. The darkness is coming, More and more I see and feel the certainty of its coming.
 Some of you may know that I was previously a minister in the mainline Presbyterian Church, the PCUSA. In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was pastor of a PCUSA church in Shreveport, Louisiana. Sometime ago I came across an article concerning one of the Presbyterian churches in the Shreveport area.
     Bossier City is just across the Red River from Shreveport, and is the home of one of our largest U S Air Force bases, Barksdale AFB. When I lived there, there were two Presbyterian congregations in Bossier City, but recently these two have merged into one. That left them with an extra church building to dispose of.
According to this article, the church turned down two offers from Christian organizations, and sold the property to the Shreveport/Bossier Islamic Association. What was once a place of Christian worship is now to be a house of prayer for Muslims.
 Included with the article was a photograph showing the front of the large brick building, classic Presbyterian architecture, but now with its steeple topped not with a cross, but with the star and crescent moon, the symbol of the religion of Islam.
When I saw this I was at first outraged. But in a few moments my emotion turned to deep sadness. My heart was heavy. I wept. This event and this photograph are deeply symbolic, I believe, of the impending darkness in which we dwell.
The light of 1st Presbyterian Church of Bossier City has gone out, as it has in church after church of the mainline denominations of our nation. And the star and crescent is raised in triumph, as Christians capitulate to the spirit of the age.
Scripture directs us to put on armor of light. Armor suggests the one who wears it is in danger. It suggests that there is a life and death conflict going on.
There are two other places Paul uses the analogy of armor. Here is one of them:
1 Thes. 5:5-8
. 5You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. 6Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. 7For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. 8But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.
And the other passage, perhaps more familiar is in Ephesians:

Ephes. 6:10-13
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. 11Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

     So here Paul makes it plain that we are in a battle: we war against principalities and powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places. There is an evil day coming, perhaps it is now at hand, and we must be prepared to take our stand against it.
The lines from T S Eliot describing his day, seem appropriate in ours as well:      
“The Church disowned, the tower overthrown,
                  the bells upturned, what have we to do,
                 but stand with empty hands and palms upturned
                 in an age which advances progressively backwards?”
Eliot is considered a modernist poet, but he was one who was ill at ease in the modern age. I’m not sure how he meant these lines to be taken, to “stand with empty hands and palms upturned.” Is this an expression of futility?
Perhaps we can read them this way. Realizing the modern age’s view of progress is actually backwards from the direction we should be moving, we turn our backs to that, let go of the things that hinder faith, and turn our empty hands up to God in worship. The response to the coming of the night is to worship God.
      How do we stand against the coming of the night? What are we to do?
     We simply must be the people of God. We must be dressed in light. We must put on Christ and his works. The light of Jesus Christ must adorn us, surround us, and define everything that we do. He is our hope, and for him we wait in patient expectation. Let us be about the business he has given us to do. Do your jobs. Love God, worship Him alone, teach your children, love your neighbor. It’s the simple things. Even against the coming of the night, we are called to live in hope.
     The darkness falls, but Christ is coming. Even so, come lord Jesus. Amen.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Remembering Van

If you lived in Lynchburg anytime prior to 1996, and were a reader of our local newspaper, you were probably familiar with the name of Sheldon Vanauken. Vanauken, or "Van" to those who knew him as a friend, was for many years a professor of English and History at Lynchburg College and a frequent contributor of letters to the editor published in the Lynchburg daily newspapers. He was also the author of the spiritual autobiography A Severe Mercy, published in 1977 and still in print today. I had the privilege to meet Vanauken around the year 1994, and visited with him on a couple of occasions prior to his death in 1996. He was not well in those years, and I regret that I did not have the opportunity to know him better. I will always remember him as a kind and generous man, and he was, to me at that time, a link to the world of C. S. Lewis and the Inklings, and helped inspire me on the path I have followed since that time.

To remember Van on the 15th anniversary of his death, the New Oxford Review in October published reflections written by another friend, Chene Heady, which you can read here (for a fee if you are not a subscriber)

I was very pleased to see the recognition for Inklings Bookshop and the White Hart Cafe in the concluding paragraph of that article:

Seeking a sign that Vanauken’s legacy will prove permanent and endure, I often visit the Inklings Bookshop & White Hart Café in downtown Lynchburg. This nineteenth-century storefront — with hardwood floors, an English-style wooden bar, and random interior Greek columns — holds a wide selection of books whose content echoes Vanauken’s intellectual life. Whole bookcases are devoted to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, to authors associated with the Inklings, to the classics, and to what the shelf tag carefully designates as “The War Between the States.” The Rev. Edward Hopkins, a Reformed Episcopal priest and a friend during Vanauken’s final years, founded the shop in 1995. Vanauken was “very supportive” of the project and helped the fledgling store along by signing many copies of his final book for them. Over fifteen years later, the Inklings Bookshop & White Hart Café has also, perhaps improbably, become the fashionable hangout for artsy types from all five Lynchburg-area colleges. Here you can sit under a framed photo of Tolkien and Lewis’s favorite Oxford pub, the Eagle and Child, while eating an authentic Southern breakfast. Here you can attend folk and alternative rock concerts on the weekends and the C.S. Lewis Reading Group on Mondays. Here evangelical devotees of the Inklings mingle with migrant hippies; activists from the tiny Lynchburg Democratic Party argue energetically with High Church classics scholars; and, as so often happens in college towns, young couples fall idealistically in love. Here I see all phases of Vanauken’s life re-enacted in a new generation, and I get the sense that his work will always endure, for we will always be his contemporaries.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Narnia Code

I had the opportunity to meet and visit with Michael Ward a few years ago, when he did a book signing at Inklings Bookshop and was introducing his book Planet Narnia. Now there is a video production of the book which first was broadcast on the BBC, and now available in the U. S. on DVD. Here is a link:

Books I am Reading

I can't seem to ever read just one book at a time, as one may see from my list of books in the sidebar. I wanted to make a brief notice of two of these, both novels, because I am enjoying them, and think they are worthy of note.

T. M. Doran's book, Toward the Gleam, is a mystery set in and around Oxford, following the adventure of one John Hill, an Oxford philologist, who accidentally discovers an ancient manuscript which contains the legends of a lost civilization. The character of John Hill is built around the actual J. R. R. Tolkien--the author creates an alternative history, to create a mystery-adventure story. Along the way, the reader is introduced to G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and others friends of Tolkien.

Another novel with an Inklings background is Looking for the King by David C. Downing. Also set in the environs of Oxford at the beginning of World War II, the story follows two young Americans who set out to follow the legends of King Arthur and along the way are introduced to Lewis, Charles Williams, and others.

Both of these titles are published by Ignatius Press. This publisher has produced some excellent fiction in recent years. Worthy of note from Ignatius is also the series by Michael O'Brien, including Father Elijah, Sophia House, Strangers and Sojourners, and several more. If you haven't tried him, you should.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Resurrection Controversy in the Burg

In the last couple of weeks, the letters to the editor pages of the Lynchburg News and Advance have featured a controversy over the bodily resurrection of Jesus. On May 1, a retired United Methodist minister, William F. Quillian, Jr. tells us there is no evidence for the resurrection of Christ.

Of course the letter brought various rebuttals: from the United Methodist district superintendent and another UMC pastor, among others, and support: from a retired mainline Presbyterian minister. The most intelligent and carefully reasoned response came from a Liberty University philosophy professor.
Dr. Foreman pointed out that no claim of a historical nature is subject to the evidence afforded by “scientific” investigation, so by the proofs of science, there is no proof of the resurrection. But of course this is the case with any matter of ancient history. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon in 49BC? Well the historical evidence seems pretty conclusive, and historians accept this as a fact of history. But is there scientific evidence for this? Can it be proven, Mr. Quillian may ask? Well, no.

On May 10 Mr. Quillian responded
in what is titled (by the paper?) “The last word on the resurrection.” Quillian writes, “No letter writer has pointed to any “evidence” of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.” I am wondering, did Quillian not read Dr. Foreman’s letter, or is the distinction between scientific and historical evidence too subtle for him to understand? Or perhaps this is just a case of “what my net don’t catch ain’t fish.” If someone offers evidence that points to a conclusion he doesn’t like, Quillian just says, “that’s not evidence.”

Quillian then admonishes his readers to hear Jesus’ "final" message to his disciples and he quotes the passage from Matthew 25 concerning ministry to the poor and needy. But I wonder why Quillian thinks this is really the word of Jesus, since the same Gospel of Matthew that records this also records a detailed account of the bodily resurrection of Christ. Could the gospel writer accurately report the lengthy discourses of Jesus, but totally botch the matter of the resurrection? If the "resurrection" was only a dream, or a delusion, or a matter of Jesus being "alive in the disciples consciousness," or something like that, then maybe the idea of mission in Matthew 25 is likewise just as unreal.

I also wonder why Quillian says this is Jesus’ “final message.” Matthew records these as the Lord’s final words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” And Luke records this: “Thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations. And you are witnesses of these things.” Among the final words of Jesus in the gospel of John are these: “”reach your finger here, and look at my hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing. …Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Now what is a fair evaluation of the testimony of these three writers of the first century? Is it reasonable to conclude that they believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Apparently they did. The same gospel writers who tell of the wonderful words of Jesus, also tell of his wonderful works. Is it reasonable to accept one and not the other?

So, Mr. Quillan, if you give no credence to what the gospel writers affirm was seen, why should you believe what they claim was spoken?

Unfortunately such “experts” as Bishop Jack Spong, and those enamored by his writings, such as William Quillian, apparently demand scientific proof. But the bodily resurrection, if it happened, is a matter of history, not science, and it is therefore not subject to scientific proof. It is a matter of faith. But while it is a matter of faith, it is not unsupported by reasonable conclusions from the historical data. But nevertheless, it is a matter of reasonable faith that all Christian churches have demanded of those who are ordained to teach the faith.

(I am amazed at how often writers reference Bishop Spong as competent scholar or guide in matters of religion. In my opinion he is anything but a competent scholar of a reliable guide in matters of faith. See my next two postings for my impressions of the bishop from 10 years ago.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Jack Spong in Lynchburg

I had the opportunity to hear Bishop John Spong when he spoke in Lynchburg about 10 years ago. Since Spong is frequently referenced by writers to the Lynchburg newspaper, I thought some might appreciate my take on the man.

Jack Spong is a very funny man. He is a master of the clever quip, the amusing anecdote, the humorous aside--an entertaining speaker. He is the kind of person who would probably be an enjoyable companion for drinks or dinner. But as a bishop, as a shepherd of the people of Christ's church, I find him anything but a reliable guide.

The crowd nearly filled the large sanctuary at St. John's church in Lynchburg this evening, and welcomed back its most famous rector. Jack Spong served this, one of Lynchburg's influential and wealthy congregations, during some troubling years of the late 1960's. Now Spong declares that every book he has written (his 18th will soon be released) had its beginning in the adult Sunday School class he taught during those four years in Lynchburg.

The bishop is introduced as, and he seems to style himself as, a man who has fought courageously all his life against prejudice and ignorance. As the reverend relates his life's story, we learn that he had the good fortune of being, from the age of 3 1/2 years, morally superior to his parents. He recalls an incident when, at that age, his father severely reprimanded him for addressing the black workmen at his home as "sir." He admits he didn't understand fully, but he says he knew then that his father was wrong.

His life's story is a fascinating one. It seems he once held every prejudice known to man, but had the great good fortune of overcoming them all. The racial thing was overcome at an early age, but it took a few more years to overcome the anti-Semitism, chauvinism, homophobia, and biblical fundamentalism he absorbed from his Episcopalian home and Sunday School.

One of the many anecdotes that fail to ring true was his saying that growing up in his church he never knew that Jesus and the disciples were Jewish. Jews were always bad people, he was taught. Jesus was light skinned and blue-eyed. Spong thought he was a Swede!

Another thing he ascribes to conservative Christian faith is the idea that only men are made in the image of God. Again, it strains credulity to suggest that such an idea was at all common even in the most fundatmentalist churches within the bishop's lifetime.

Perhaps the most outrageous statement of the evening was his assertion that the Ten Commandments are immoral. He believes they are immoral because the commandments assume that women are the property of men (the 7th and 10th commandments imply this, he says.) Some of his most effective laugh lines were delivered in making this point about his overcoming his prejudice against women.

Throughout the lecture, the bishop derided a conservative view of scripture, appealing to the idea that since the Bible has been interpreted in ways that we find unacceptable today, the Bible cannot be a reliable guide to us today. In doing this it is the bishop's unfortunate tendency to misrepresent what the Bible actually says. For instance, he says that Deuteronomy teaches that a child that talks back to his parents must be stoned to death. "How many of you every talked back to your parents?" the bishop asks. "How many of you would be here today if this law were enforced?" Surely even he knows that this is not the intention of the passage (Deut. 21: 18f) that speaks of the execution of incorrigible sons. But this is the way Spong usually refers to Scripture with which he is uncomfortable. He presents it in its most unfavorable light, or actually distorts it, to the evident delight of his audience.

The bishop spoke of the challenge of overcoming homophobia in his own life, in his diocese of Newark, the house of bishops, and the church at large. He tells of the vast opposition among the church leadership to his ordination of an openly homosexual priest in 1989, but evidently feels vindicated in that today most bishops of the church are on his side of this issue. Bishop Spong seems to have indeed led a wave of change in the Episcopal Church USA, and we can expect if trends continue in this direction. the church membership will be so liberated from its past that they will no longer know who they are, and the ECUSA will quietly fade into oblivion.

The Rt. Rev. Spong ended his talk and the congregation responded with a lengthy standing ovation. My hands were still; I remained in my seat. I was entertained, this is true, but I somehow expect more from a bishop.

More on Bishop Spong

This was a letter to the editor of the Lynchburg News and Advance from March 2001.

As reported in your pages March 28, the Rt. Rev. John Spong spoke to a near-capacity crowd at St. John's Episcopal church Tuesday night, and the crowd seemed very pleased with his performance. Bishop Spong is presented by his publishers and promoters as a man of integrity, and a scholar of significant learning. However, based upon reading several of his books and from hearing his talk, I would say that he is neither. Let me explain by citing a couple of examples from his talk Tuesday evening.

When speaking of the Old Testament law, Spong told the audience that Deuteronomy teaches that children who talk back to their parents should be stoned to death. He asked the crowd "how many of you would be here tonight if that law were applied?" That book of Scripture does prescribe the death penalty for incorrigible sons. The passage in question speaks of a son who is stubborn, rebellious, gluttonous and a drunkard. The Biblical example is in no way equivalent to "talking back to" a parent, as Spong described it. I am not arguing for the application of this law, only that the Bishop did not honestly describe what the Bible actually says. Therefore, we can conclude either of two things. Either Bishop Spong doesn't know what the Bible says, and therefore he is not a good Biblical scholar, and should not be trusted concerning the Bible; or, Bishop Spong knows what the Bible actually says, but chose to distort it. In the later case, Bishop Spong is a dishonest man, and should not be trusted.

Another example has to do with his assertion that Jesus was not relgious, and that the New Testament barely even mentions the practice of religion. Spong declared that the term "religion" is only found in the New Testament in the Book of James, which, he pointed out, Martin Luther thought should not be included in the canon of Scripture. Apart from the fact that the Greek word used in James for "religion" is indeed found in two other places in the New Testament, Bishop Spong confuses his audience with the suggestion that the lack of a certain word ("religion") proves the lack of concern for religious practice. This would be like saying I rarely see the word "journalism" in the News & Advance, therefore this newspaper cares little for journalism.

That Jesus did observe many religious practices of his day is beyond question, if we accept the near contemporary accounts of Jesus life--the Gospels. There we read of Jesus at the age of twelve making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, and studying Torah in the temple with the elders. In the gospels we learn that Jesus regularly attended synagogue. We see him journeying to Jerusalem with his disciples for Passover and for the feast of tabernacles. We see him practicing acts of charity. We see him receiving the baptism of John. We see him observing the passover meal with his disciples and instituting the continued observance of this meal--what we call the Lord's Supper. We see Jesus at prayer in public and in private. He said that his disciples do not fast now, while he is with them, but they will fast later when he is taken away. In the sermon on the mount he instructed his disciples in the practice of prayer, alms giving and fasting.

Once again I must conclude that either Spong doesn't really know what the Bible says, or he does know and distorts it. In the one case, he is not a person who should be trusted as a teacher of Scripture; in the other case he should not be trusted as a moral guide.

Jesus did of course strongly object to some of the religious observances of the Pharisees--especially their tendency to add on to the requirements of the law, making it nearly impossible to fulfill. But Jesus also objected to the religion of the Sadducees, that rationalistic, anti-supernatural party of first-century Judaism. In Spong's zeal to avoid the errors of the Pharisees, it appears that he has embraced the spirit of the Sadducees. Such a spirit will be not the life of Christianity in the 21st century, but its death--as the declining membership in Spong's diocese of Newark and the Episcopal Church as a whole would seem to show.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Buying Used Books on the Internet—Caveat Emptor

When I started selling books in 1994, the Internet was still a novelty, and there were, I believe, only one or two avenues to purchase used books online. The number of online booksellers was very limited, and the level of professionalism was quite high among those dealers. Now there are thousands of online book dealers, and the overall quality of service has declined dramatically. (Prices have declined dramatically too—very nice for the buyer, but not so nice for us dealers).

There are many venues for your online book purchases. You can shop through Amazon, of course, and EBay, but there are many more, including Alibris, and my favorite, One online listing site for independent dealers is ABE Books, which lists books from 7,058 dealers in the United States.

I have just received a copy of James Safire’s novel of the War Between the States titled Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. (This 1100 page monster was recommended in another volume that I highly regard, Jeffrey Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War.) I searched online for a used hardcover copy and ordered it through ABE Books from a dealer located in Florida.

I often search for used books on ABE, and nine times out of ten, it seems, this particular dealer has one of the least expensive copies available, often priced with no additional charge for shipping. Another thing you will notice if you search for a book and find it at this dealer, it will almost certainly be described as “a wonderful copy.” Here is the dealer’s description for the book I just received: “A wonderful copy with some minor edgewear to the cover. Dust jacket has some edgewear present. Hardcover, Very Good/Very Good.”

I have usually assumed the cheapest copy available is not going to be a very nice copy, but I’ve always wondered about this dealer’s “wonderful” copies, so I ordered this one to find out. I now wonder how any book dealer could describe the book I received as “wonderful” or “Very Good.”

First of all, this hardcover is a Book Club edition, which should always be noted in a book’s description, as often these are of inferior quality compared to the publisher’s original edition. Then there is that “some edgewear” on the dustjacket. The jacket of this book was not only worn but also torn along the edges in several places, the corners worn through, with another one-inch tear on the rear. The jacket would rate no more than “Good” in my shop. The book itself probably rates a Good or Good+. The edges are worn (as described), the spine is bent, and it shows rough handling.

The condition of this large book was probably worsened as it came through the mail because the packaging was totally inadequate. This 2.5-inch-thick volume came in a padded envelope, which had come open in transit, with no other wrapping around the book, and there was no invoice or packing slip.

On the plus side, it was cheap. For this massive volume I paid $3.64 including shipping. I ordered it on March 2 and received it March 15—about average shipping time for Media Mail. So, if you are not too concerned about the condition of the book, and you can wait a couple of weeks to get it, this dealer might be the place to shop. However, if you are concerned about quality or condition or speed of service, I would recommend that you not buy the cheapest copy you can find. If a dealer boasts of listing 1.2 million books and has the cheapest copy available, they are not paying much attention to accuracy in their listings.

The Internet certainly offers some bargains for book hunters—but caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Transforming Culture

A few months ago the Barna Research Group released findings from a study that found "Six Megathemes" that are characteristic of the Church in the U.S. today. Among the six was this one:

"The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible."

The Barna article explains:
"Christianity has arguably added more value to American culture than any other religion, philosophy, ideology or community. Yet, contemporary Americans are hard pressed to identify any specific value added. Partly due to the nature of today’s media, they have no problem identifying the faults of the churches and Christian people."

It was the concern for Christianity's influence on the culture that has motivated much of my work over the past 20 years. In 1991, newly arrived in the Lynchburg area, my wife and I learned of a new school that was practicing something called "classical Christian education." We were intrigued, and the more we learned, the more we knew that this was the sort of education we wished we had been able to have for ourselves, and this was the education we would desire for our children. A few months later, my wife was employed by New Covenant Schools as a teacher, and our sons were enrolled as students. A few years later, I became a member of the school board, on which I served for a number of years. My family and I were blessed in our association with New Covenant for at least 15 years.

From a beginning with about 16 students and volunteer teachers, New Covenant Schools has grown to a student body of about 350 within lovely, modern facilities located on 50 acres off Lakeside Drive. Graduates of this school have gone on to study at many first-class universities, including the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Johns Hopkins, and Duke. Perhaps more impressive in academic accomplishment is the performance of these students on the National Merit scholarship exams. Since 1996, New Covenant has graduated 95 seniors, and of these, seven were National Merit Finalists, and seven more were ranked as commended scholars. As a percentage of total graduates, this is a record unmatched, I believe, in any school, of any size, in the area. Arguing against the trend found in Barna's reseach, I do believe that the classical and Christian education found in schools like New Covenant is positive, lasting, and transformative in the lives of its students and the surrounding communities.

Around 1994, I read Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. That book changed my life. In it, Cahill describes how, following the upheaval in civilization following the breakup of the Roman Empire, Irish monks in their remote monasteries preserved the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans by copying manuscripts. It was such a simple thing--copying manuscripts. The monks labored in obscurity. But the fruit of their efforts was the preservation of culture, and indeed the creation of a new culture--classical and Christian.

Inspired by this example, I determined to open Inklings Bookshop in 1995. The purpose was to preserve and propagate learning--to help promote what I saw as the best of the classic literary tradition of the West. It has not been monetarily profitable. But I believe the quiet witness of promoting the good, the true and the beautiful has born some fruit.In modern society we tend to think that bigger and newer is always better. But the recovery of classical learning in schools like New Covenant, and the promotion of literary work in places such as Inklings, shows, I hope, that the life and learning of our ancestors offers great wisdom and promise for ages to come.
For the Barna research:

For New Covenant Schools

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

If you think the Post Office is efficient, you will probably love nationalized health care.

I wrote this over a year ago, before the passage of the national health care reform. As we are now beginning to see the true costs of nationalized health care, and are also hearing that the post office is loosing billions and considering service reductions, I thought I would post this piece, which was previously published in the Lynchburg News & Advance.


We hear that Washington politicians are suggesting they can "fix" or "reform" our nation’s health care and medical insurance. Before we allow the Federal government to take over control of health care perhaps we should first consider its effectiveness in other government-operated endeavors, for instance, delivering the mail.

I have operated a business in downtown Lynchburg over the past 14 years. During this time I have noticed a continual deterioration in the services of the Post Office, while costs have been regularly increasing.

A few years ago a new post office was built downtown at the corner of Clay and 12th Street. With the opening of that office, the office on Church Street and another near Miller Park were closed. The planners of this move apparently determined that the new post office could serve the same number of customers as previously were served at two post offices, with no increase in parking spaces being provided. Therefore, the new post office has the same number of spaces available for parking as were available for the one office on Church Street and far fewer than were available at the Miller Park station. Furthermore, the number of workers at the counter is no more than were available at one of the old post offices—often only one, sometimes two, so now one can always expect to stand in line for service. The hours of service have also been shortened, and the self-service stamp machine is no longer available.

I have also been dismayed at the loss of street receptacles for mail. Just as the new Market Loft apartments were ready to open, bringing dozens of new residents to downtown, the Post Office removed the mail drop directly across the street from these apartments. Recently several other Main Street mail drops were removed, even as the number of downtown businesses and residents continues to increase.

In the past couple of weeks I have received the wrong mail in my post office box at least four times, and nearly every week someone else’s mail arrives at my business address. A few months ago, a postal carrier decided to deliver my mail into an open cardboard box sitting on the sidewalk in the front of my business doorway. The mail carrier that brings the mail to our home apparently cannot tell that our house is not part of Randolph College (10 blocks away), since we frequently get mail clearly marked as belonging there.

Since I opened my business downtown fourteen years ago, the cost of a first class stamp has risen from 32 cents to 44 cents, an increase of 37%; postage for a flat rate Priority envelope then cost $3.00, now it is $4.95, an increase of 65%.

Now of course health care and delivering the mail are very different activities. Yes, health care is much more complicated and personal. Top-down government management is extremely impersonal, inefficient, and ineffective. Is this really what we would want in the delivery of medical services?

Increasing costs, less access, and declining quality—this has been my experience of the United States Post Office. Citizens of Canada and Great Britain have seen the same in nationalized heath care in their countries. I think we can expect the same if our health care falls further under the control of Washington politicians.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reevaluating U. S. Presidents

Recognizing Presidents' Day this past Monday, the Lynchburg News & Advance wrote about the streets in Lynchburg that are named for United States presidents. Some of our most revered presidents are honored: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Some of the more forgettable presidents also give their names to our streets: Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan. Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, is honored, as is the eleventh president, James Polk. John Tyler, the tenth president, who was Harrison's vice-president and ascended to the presidency following Harrison's sudden death after only a month in office, was at the time not deemed worthy of Lynchburg's honor.

Chris Dumond, writing for the paper, indicates that the omission of Tyler was likely no accident: he had fallen out of favor because of his opposition, as president, to some of the policies favored by the newly formed Whig party and one of its most powerful leaders, Henry Clay. Clay had been a candidate for the presidency, and had received a warm welcome when he visited Lynchburg in 1828. Clay is honored by Lynchburg with a named street, but not his opponent, John Tyler.

It is the more surprising that Tyler was not honored by Lynchburg when we recognize his distinguished service to the Commonwealth. He served many years in the Virginia House of Delegates, the U. S. Congress and Senate, and was a governor of Virginia. He was a champion of states rights and sought to limit the role of the federal government vs. the states. He first tried to keep Virginia from seceding from the Union and was a chief sponsor of the Peace Convention in early 1861 which sought to prevent war. After the war began, Tyler supported the cause of Virginia, and was elected to the first Congress of the Confederacy, but his death prevented him from serving in that capacity.

Many of us who are concerned about the rapid expansion of presidential powers might agree that the legacy of Tyler needs to be reviewed. In The Beacon of the Independent Institute, Mary Theroux writes about John Tyler as a presidential role-model. She references Ivan Eland's 2009 work Recarving Rushmore, in which this author evaluates all the U. S. presidents, ranking them from first to last using criteria of peace, prosperity and liberty. Eland's choice for the best U. S. president? John Tyler.

Theroux's article can be seen here, Presidential Role Model
and at the end of that article is a link to an interview of Eland conducted by Ron Paul on CSpan's Afterwords.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why Johnny Can't Preach

Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
T. David Gordon
P & R Publishing, 2009
108 pages, $9.99

T. David Gordon has been listening to preaching, and helping to train preachers, for over 25 years. In a recent serious illness (in remission at the time of publication) he decided he must write the book he had long delayed writing. I'm glad he did. This is a fine book, and should be read by ever preacher, would-be-preacher, and those who train them in our colleges and seminaries.

The author, with degrees from Westminster Seminary and a PhD from Union in Richmond, was a pastor for nine years, a professor at Gordon-Conwell seminary for several years, and now is a professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, where he also teaches a course in "media ecology." The term media ecology was new to me, though I was somewhat familiar with the writings of Neil Postman, who is known for using this term for the analysis of how the media "environment" shapes contemporary culture. In this book, Gordon writes, "I am asking a media-ecological question: 'How has the movement from language-based media to imaged-based and electronic media altered our sensibilities, and how, in turn, has this change in sensibility shaped today's preachers.'"

Gordon shares anecdotal evidence that modern preaching is mostly very poor. "I would guess that of the sermons I've heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point...Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read. That is, no competent effort was made to persuade the hearer that God's word required a particular thing; it was simply asserted." This statement I find astonishing, all the more so because most of these sermons have been in conservative churches of Reformed heritage, where one would expect to find preaching most closely-tied to the Biblical text.

Gordon relates a conversation he had with a Presbyterian ruling elder, active in his presbytery, who had served on many pastor search committees and heard many sermons from young ministers. Gordon asked the elder why a certain minister was hired, who apparently had little skill in preaching. The elder's reply: "David, of course he can't preach, but I've served on pulpit committees off and on for thirty years, and nobody can preach." The elder goes on to say his experience in listening to public speaking at Rotary meetings is very different--he can always tell someone the point of the talk at the Rotary Club, but rarely is he able to do this after listening to sermons.

Gordon suggests that the cause of this lack of ability in our preachers is, in effect, textual illiteracy. Preachers haven't learned to interpret texts and compose language. When one is raised up on television, computers, and cell phones, one doesn't spend much time reading great literature and composing written communication. Email and text messaging, with all its spelling and grammatical mish-mash has become the norm. Many have written of the steep decline in language skills in our culture at large. Anyone of my generation who has taught at the college level is likely to bemoan the abysmal preparation of the typical college freshman, who apparently cannot compose a complete, grammatically correct paragraph. Unfortunately, even four years of college may not cure this lack, and young pastors-to-be enter seminary ill-equipped for the advanced level of textual exegesis required to become skilled communicators of Scripture.

The problem has no easy correction; there is no extra seminary course that can fix this, but Gordon ends the book with suggestions on how preachers may cultivate the sensibilities of reading texts and careful composition.

Well-written, helpful, and a delight to read, I look forward to his next work: Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The rewards of perseverance

I grew up in the small town of Stuart, Virginia, population about 900, the county seat of a rural county with about 17,000 people. There was not a whole lot going on in Patrick County and not much to celebrate. Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was born there--the name of the town was changed in his honor after THE war. I always shared a sense of connection with Jeb because of our home place and because we share the same birthday.

The one other thing some people in the South might know about Stuart, and the BIG thing for many of us who grew up there, was that Stuart was the hometown and headquarters of one of NASCAR's most revered racing teams, the Wood Brothers. Now I've never really been a big race fan, but I do like to tell people I used to go head to head on the race track against the Wood Brothers. Later I might tell them this was model car racing. Does anyone else remember slot cars?

For most of 1960's and 70's, the Wood Brothers were regular contenders on the NASCAR circuit, with legendary drivers such as Marvin Panch, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson. But its been a long dry spell for the Wood Brothers; maybe 10 years since they won a race--until yesterday. A 20-year-old driver, Trevor Bayne, put the #21 Ford back in the winner's circle--the first time the Woods have won at Daytona since 1976.

Congratulations to Eddie, Len, and all the family and team!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Doing Business in Downtown Lynchburg

I have been a coffee drinker all my adult life, but with the opening of a coffee shop, my life became in another sense, "coffee driven." Hence the name of this blog.

My family embarked on this adventure in early 2007. We created the White Hart Cafe in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia, as a place for people to gather, have good food, friendship, and excellent coffee. Much of this dream has been realized. It has been the most tiring and, perhaps most interesting, four years of my life. It has not been financially rewarding, but the accolades from the community are very satisfying. For 11 years prior to this, we had operated a small bookshop in the space next door to our cafe. I believe that Inklings Bookshop and the White Hart cafe make Lynchburg just a little bit of a better place to live. And I'm happy about that.

So in the past 15 years I have been in the middle of the revitalization of the downtown of our small city, and have seen many changes, most for the better.

In 1995, when we opened the bookshop, the block of buildings on the corner of 12th and Main was being refurbished by a local entrepreneur, Eric Spain. Prior to his obtaining them, the buildings had been in an advanced state of disrepair, to the point the city was considering tearing them down. Eric created several retail spaces and apartments, including several loft spaces. Some fantastic buildings were saved, and Eric has continued to buy and renovate property in the downtown. Now there are dozens of loft apartments, many new businesses, and more people are moving into downtown. There are unique locally-owned restaurants. A former factory building is now a boutique hotel with two first-class restaurants. There is an outstanding children's museum, a thriving arts co-op, two local theatre groups, a ballet school, a martial arts academy, an indoor climbing center; and the list goes on. Downtown Lynchburg is thriving once again.

There have been many contributors to the downtown revitalization effort, which has been a creative partnership between private and public sectors. There are many persons who could be singled out for accolades, and I probably don't know half of those responsible for the success of downtown as it is today. But I want to offer my thanks to two that I do know. Thanks to Eric Spain and his wife and business partner Tobi Jaegar for taking the risks. Thank you for your vision and investment and hard work. They led the way, and I believe the record shows that free enterprise, with the encouragement of local government, can be profitable for all.

Why I Hate "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on."

The tune that we identify with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was composed in 1856 by William Steffe. It was adapted to the lyrics known as "John Brown's Body" which was sung by abolitionist-minded forces of the Union Army early in the war. After a visit with President Lincoln late in 1861, Julia Ward Howe was encouraged to write a new song to be sung to that familiar and catchy tune. Her lyrics were published in early 1862 and became very popular during and after the war years.

The lyrics draw heavily on Biblical language and it seems obvious that Howe interprets the scripture to support the cause of the union army against the seceeding southern states. The "terrible swift sword" of the Union Army has been unsheathed against the south. Her eyes have seen "the coming of the Lord" in the actions of Lincoln's army. The cause of the North is "God's righteous sentence." God is "sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement seat." Union soldiers, should "die to make men free" as Christ "died to make men holy"(this is often now changed to "live to make men free" and so obscures the hymn's actual context of bloody battle). In a verse often omitted in modern hymn books, Howe says "I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:'As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on.'"

John Brown, heralded in "John Brown's Body," was perhaps America's first domestic terrorist. From his murders in "bleeding" Kansas, Brown came to Virginia in 1859, attempting to capture the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry and incite a slave rebellion throughout the south. He was financed in this endeavor by a group of six wealthy abolitionists from New England. The "secret six" included Samuel Gridley Howe, the husband of Julia Ward. John Brown's cause became the cause of Julia Ward Howe.

I hate the song for several reasons. First, I think it distorts the scripture, and with that, the redemptive purposes of our Lord. Secondly, I think it distorts the historical reality of the causes and conduct of the War Between the States. Thirdly, I think the sentiment of the song was used to validate the wanton destruction of private property throughout the south and I imagine most who sing it today are oblivious to the pain and suffering inflicted on the families who suffered the rape of the South. Finally, I fear that such martial-flavored hymns, sung in our churches and at political gatherings, reinforce a tendency to think that our nation's military policy is probably approved by God.

The thing that ties all of these together is the use of Scripture, faith, "God," to justify armed agression. The War Between the States did not begin in an effort to end slavery, though later in the war Lincoln and the abolitionists used this purpose to justify the continuation of the war, and it helped to give moral force to the position of the north against the south. It was found that many men could more readily be convinced to die for the objective of "making men free," when they perhaps were not so ready to die "to preserve the union." In modern times, it is easier to sell the glory of combat in Iraq or Afghanistan as "establishing democracy" rather than as a war for less nobler, but perhaps more realistic objectives.

I am not a pacifist. I support classical Christian just-war theory. Among the conditions of just war is that the war be conducted as a defensive action against an agressor and as an effort of last resort. I believe the war of the United States against the southern Confederacy can not be justified under Christian just war doctrine. The Southern states appealed to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the example of the colonies who left their "union" with great Britain for independence. Jefferson said the colonies "are, and of right out to be, free and independent states." Like the colonies at the time of the revolution and in order to maintain the independence won at that time, the southern states withdrew from the union, and sought to do this peacefully. Lincoln called upon the remaining states to give soldiers to form an army to force the seceeding states to return to the union and to prevent other states from moving toward secession. War, rather than diplomacy, was Lincoln's preference, and he repeatedly refused to entertain overtures for truce with the south until the surrender in 1865.

The war became a war of conquest, with the terror of Sheridan and Sherman seen as the "terrible swift sword" of God's justice as farms and homes were burned and pillaged throughout the south.. But after the war is over, what are the warriors to do? Soon the tactics of total war were waged against the American Indians. After the Indian wars, there continued U.S. military agression against Spain in 1898, intervention in Europe in 1917, then World War II (which may well have been justified in its beginning, but not in its conduct), then Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Eisenhower warned us to beware the "military-industrial complex." As one of the greatest generals of the 20th century, he knew that the forces that lead to war are often simply money and power. "Who gains" is the question that must be asked. Who gains in what appears to be a permanent state of war in Iraq and Afghanistan? It is an ugly truth that often those with the most to gain are those who already have power and wealth, such as the manufacturers of arms and munitions. The gainers are also the factory workers who make the tanks, planes and helicopters and keep the economy moving here at home, and indeed all of us who benefit from the trickle down of a war-economy. And of course the politicians who win votes and maintain their positions of power and influence with their support of war have much to gain. Who loses? The common soldier and their families, and the poorer inhabitants of the lands we bomb and invade, are the ones who pay the heaviest price of war. And our children and grandchildren lose, as they are burdened with an ever-increasing debt as we borrow trillions of dollars to keep the engines of war turning.

I hate the Battle Hymn of the Republic because I think it represents one of the great evils of modern times, an evil that appears again and again in history. That is, it celebrates and encourages a false sentiment about war. God's truth marches on, indeed, but not, I believe, in the wars of Lincoln, Wilson, Johnson, Bush, or Obama.

Let us pray:
ALMIGHTY God, the strong Tower and Refuge of thy people; We entreat thy favour upon the officers and all who are enlisted in the service of defence of our country, upon land, and on the water, and in the air. Ever spare them from being ordered into a war of aggression or oppression. Use them if need be, as thine instruments, in the defence of our national life and liberty. But restrain, we beseech thee, the greed and wrath of man, that wars may cease in all the earth. Deepen in the hearts of our defenders the spirit of peace; and, for his sake, may they ever love and serve the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.