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.