Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking Back on 2013

What follows is not an exhaustive review of 2013, but just a few impressions that have stuck with me about my year.

Home & friends

This year has seen several changes. The first was moving to a new neighborhood. I was initially upset at the prospect of moving from a location in which we had been comfortable for nearly three years. It seemed to portend changes in other routines in which I felt secure. As it turned out, the new apartment (and the relative ease of finding it!) have been an example of God's provision for us. Even though I was not excited to move from the edge of the suburbs into St. Louis proper, we have found the new place to be a better deal and a more suitable situation than we would likely have sought out otherwise. Living in South City is pretty much like living anywhere else that we have lived together, though a bit of a trek from church and most of our friends.

One of the happy outcomes of our move, however, has been living closer to my friend Rebekah. It has been lovely to connect for more than one cramped lunch-hour per week, and our friendship has flourished more than ever. This fall Bekah launched a Psalm-singing group which has proven to be a delightful occasion for fellowship. One day we were discussing Rosaria Butterfield's book, and just a few days later, my friend cheerfully announced that a stack of psalters had arrived in the mail and that we were all invited over for singing and dessert the next Lord's Day evening! It is one of the many reasons I love this girl. I hope the group will draw more interest in the coming year.

Speaking of fellowship, one of the very hardest things has been saying goodbye to the Cowans. Since we met in the same small group at our pastor's house in 2011, Coralie, Jonathan, and their family have become some of our dearest friends. We felt sought out by them, even though we weren't a seminary family like them and many others in our church, and we'd been attending the Kirk for several months longer than they had. It meant so much for me and Kevin to be invited into the life of a family in this way, something I don't think either of us realized we missed and longed for after years of frequent moves and the rootlessness of student life.

This month the Cowans moved to New Brunswick where Jonathan will be pastoring a church, an opportunity the Lord has clearly prepared them for. Even having prayed for such a thing and knowing what a blessing it would be for them and for Christ's church, I was caught off guard by how painful the reality of distance can be -- that even when it accompanies something beautifully right, the loss of proximity somehow feels wrong. I suppose it has something to do with that sense of home and presence that marked our time together.

The most wonderful thing, though, has been the way that spending time with them has consistently moved us to love Christ more. It is a precious thing to have friends who make Jesus more beautiful to you, and that is something that won't change or fade. Even though the feeling of presence will no longer be quite the same, I hope God will teach us to extend hospitality to others as has been graciously done for us, and as I know the Cowans will continue doing in their new church.

Academics & depression

In light of multiple changes, it isn't surprising that, this year, St. Louis didn't feel as much like the haven we imagined it to be when we first arrived. While the Lord was gracious to bring us here, His purpose wasn't necessarily to shelter us from hard things.

One case in point is that this year felt like being stuck in a rut. It's easy to exaggerate, because on one hand, I successfully defended my dissertation topic and advanced to ABD/candidacy status, which is a major milestone! I am so thankful to have reached this point after months of struggle and uncertainty, and to have the opportunity to write a dissertation in my field after more than a decade of working toward this point.

On the other hand, I experienced an almost overwhelming sense of stagnation this year. It's as if my passion, creativity, and focus have seeped out little by little, along with the facility with language and love of study I've depended on for as long as I can remember. Reading and writing have become wearisome in a way that they never were before. It is dispiriting, even humiliating, to feel as if the gifts I have spent my entire adulthood, really my entire life, exclusively cultivating and building much of my identity around are slipping from my grasp. Attempts at tweaking my routine and "just trying harder" have mostly amounted to finding new ways to fail and become discouraged.

One factor is depression. I believe I've been seriously depressed over the past year, and likely longer than that. It's nothing new; it's been recurrent through much of my adult life, and rather than being strictly situational, it probably has a physical basis that is triggered by anxieties and other factors. It can be fairly manageable, but I've dealt with it better at some points than at others. This past year was not one of the better times. Ironically, the best way to not let chronic depression define me is not to avoid admitting or dealing with the problem, but to confront it head-on. Seems pretty obvious, right? Somehow, though, in the thick of it, it just isn't.

The worst thing about depression, for me, is the overall sense of uselessness it brings. When I am unable to work well, my confidence that I have something to contribute plummets, and I start to feel like dead weight wherever I go, whether at school, at church, even hanging out with friends. As you might imagine, after awhile, that feeling erodes any sense of connection to community. It is hard to believe that I bring anything of value to others when my mind and emotions seem to be perpetually out of whack. Hopefully, with treatment, I'll start feeling like my old self soon, these feelings will fade, and I'll be more capable of connecting to people again. And I am getting help with the symptoms, so while I am grateful for understanding and support (VERY grateful -- I know that another person's depression can be frustrating to sympathize with, even if one has experienced it personally), you don't need to be too worried about me. You could pray that I will regain my ability to concentrate so that I can progress on my dissertation, and maybe that I'll regain some of my love of writing in the process.

Looking toward next year

Thankfully, I've never lost sight of my manifold blessings -- a husband who loves me so well (who would have thought that would happen for me?!), a supportive family, a comfortable home, a church where I can count on being fed with the Word every single week.

While part of me just wants to say good riddance to 2013, and to wish that even if things don't become less hard, at least they might be a different kind of hard, I'm content with whatever God will use to mold us into better servants of His church. I am trusting Him to reign well over my life, as He does over all things.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

An unlikely hymn of thanksgiving

Last summer I described this as the hymn of my heart, and that's still decidedly true. Over the past several months, though, a different old hymn-text, likewise authored by John Newton, has been uppermost in my thoughts. Here is the lightly edited adaptation by Laura Taylor of Indelible Grace (I could offer some funny commentary on the archaic language in the original, but that's for another day):

I Asked the Lord

1. I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace,
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face.

2. 'Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair.

3. I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He'd answer my request
And by His love's constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest.

4. Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part.

5. Yea, more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low.

6. "Lord, why is this," I trembling cried,
"Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?"
"'Tis in this way," The Lord replied,
"I answer prayer for grace and faith."

7. "These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me."

I knew this hymn before, but it made my stomach hurt. I couldn't quite imagine singing it in church with anything like a grateful heart. I didn't want to believe that the Lord might go about answering my prayers in such a way. Certainly I prayed to know His presence better, and seeking Him might entail some rough seasons—indeed, it already had—but He would meet me with something gentler than despair and crossing of schemes. Right?

More than a year later, I think I can understand something more of what Newton was getting at in this hymn. The Lord has been working out a lot of things in a deeper way in my heart, and very little of it has been easy. In fact, much of it has involved His removing those things I stubbornly look to for comfort and purpose instead of Him, blurring my images of the future so that the only thing I can discern with clarity is Himself. He is the only thing I can rest on, because He doesn't change or disappoint. Not like my abilities as a writer or scholar, or my plans for how things would unfold for us as a family, among other things. Most of those dreams aren't bad, and the fact that my direction and purpose in those areas has withered doesn't mean they'll never be restored, if not in the way or timing I'd expected.

The point, though, is that He is greater than those, by an incommensurable measure; they cannot even be compared. And there isn't going to be some definitive moment when I believe this once and for all; even if it isn't always this intense, His work of subduing my sins and setting me free from myself is going to be, mercifully, ongoing. Until the time of earthly joys is ended.

I can't pretend I understand the depth of woe Newton is describing here; I've been preserved from so many things. And I still don't know if I could sing this hymn in church without grumbling or tears. Certainly not every week. But when I read or listen to this hymn now, I recognize His work, and the sweetness of it, much more clearly than I could have a year ago. I wouldn't trade it, and that realization alone is something to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church

Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church edited by James Stuart Bell. Zondervan (2013), 384 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

I was excited to review Awakening Faith for obvious reasons. I'm well acquainted with the resurgence of interest in the church fathers among evangelical Protestants, and it's one of the things that compelled me to pursue doctoral work in patristics. Though I'm aware of a few books responding to that interest from an academic perspective, I was not familiar with any devotional books geared to that demographic.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the daily entries included no citations indicating the larger works from which the excerpts had been drawn. I don't think this only bothered me because I'm a grad student; I felt that it got in the way of my ability to fully understand and appreciate what I was reading.

Here is an example of what I mean. I was really struck by #107, "Death's Power is Broken," by Braulio, a figure I had not heard of before (the helpful biographical sketch in the back explained that he was a seventh-century Spanish bishop). However, I had to do a fair bit of Googling before I was able to identify the letter this excerpt came from, and then, though I was not able to confirm this in a scholarly edition, I was a bit surprised to notice that the translation in Awakening Faith seems to have omitted a line. The book's translation reads, "The hope of resurrection encourages us because we will see again whomever we lost on earth. [Christ] is so powerful that it is easier for him to raise someone from the dead than it is for us to wake someone who is sleeping!" But when I tracked down a rendering of the work elsewhere, I saw that the line, "Of course, we must continue to believe firmly in Christ; we must continue to obey his commandments," seems to have appeared between those two sentences originally, though the book includes no ellipsis to indicate an omission.

I'm not suggesting that this is an illegitimate choice on the part of the editor, but that it made me wonder what other editorial choices were made in this compilation. Without knowing more about his principles for selection, it is hard to guess; and the lack of citations makes it difficult not only to read more of a work that piques one's interest, but also to get closer to the original language and intent of the various authors. I was surprised not to find a bibliography at the very least.

I hope this illustrates that I'm not setting out to be pedantic, but that some gesture toward the larger context of these writings is important -- not only for appreciating the writings in themselves, but for one's ability to apply them personally, much less use them devotionally. If Bell's goal is to encourage more reading of the fathers, then I thought he might have done more to make the fathers' writings accessible to an unfamiliar audience.

This leads me to a hesitation about the reading of the fathers within an evangelical or confessional Protestant setting (as my friend Coralie discusses in her own review). It would be easy to pick up Awakening Faith expecting consistency of thought among the figures represented, and continuity of theological ideas between their period and ours; but neither is reflected in this selection of readings, especially when it comes to areas like the sacraments, soteriology, and sanctification.

While looking at areas of difference can be illuminating, prompting us to ask different sorts of questions than those we are accustomed to asking, it can also be very confusing. I am still running into this challenge, as I am beginning a dissertation on fourth-century preachers and finding that some of John Chrysostom's sermons are not recognizable to me as the proclamation of the gospel. It's disorienting, and I think it would be even more so for readers who don't encounter it every day.

I liked aspects of the book. There were many beautiful excerpts I enjoyed reading and that were worth lingering over (especially, I noticed, on the person of Christ, and on suffering and death), and it presents an impressive variety -- far from being limited to a few famous names, it covers a wide swath of the Latin-, Greek-, and Syriac-speaking church, even pushing into the more northern frontiers, and it extends from the second century through the eighth.

Though it contains plenty of good material, and I expect to refer to it again for my own purposes, I hesitate to recommend this book for general use. Even as someone who has studied the church fathers for the better part of a decade, I felt a bit like I had been tossed into the deep end without the means to orient myself properly. I think a volume like this is needed, but that to be as edifying as possible, it should provide more guidance in how to read the fathers well.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review

Saturday, November 2, 2013


"Strong scholars and successful professors experience bumpy roads in graduate school and after. Learn how to fall on your face and pick yourself up. Learn how to turn the train around. Learn how to glean good lessons from bad teachers in an effort to be a good teacher to those undergraduates under your care. Learn to look up, act on faith that the Big Principle has purpose: failing an exam does not mean that you don’t belong here. The only people who don’t belong in the classroom, library, laboratory, or lecturing from the podium are those who fear confrontation of incommensurable truth-claims, and who seek safety over the production and excavation of ideas—even scary ideas. [. . .] If you remember the Big Questions and claim them in your heart as your Big Questions, you will find that there are more ways to succeed than to fail and you will be connected to something that matters. Don’t fret because your path to those Big Questions doesn’t look like somebody else’s journey. Don’t fret when the path is lonely or treacherous. Look up." --Rosaria Butterfield, in The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert

As I mentioned last time, I didn't pass my prospectus defense at the end of September. I was fully expecting to have to endure a second defense sometime this winter (and, if that wasn't successful, of possibly being asked to leave the program); but, after submitting revisions to my advisor early last week, I was thrilled to learn that he and my committee members not only approved of them, but thought they were excellent, and had given me clearance to begin writing my dissertation. I could hardly believe it, in fact. I am so thankful to have ABD status and to be moving forward at last!

This past year has been a truly awful experience in many respects. I never quite reached the point of wanting to walk away, but my confidence in my academic vocation was nearly shattered on more than one occasion. I'm not sure I could give a clear and consistent explanation for why the past 15 months were such a mess for me. I think there are multiple factors, and I'm not too inclined to delineate them here. While I still have questions about my long-term suitedness for academia (and, unfortunately, I don't entirely have the luxury of putting those on the shelf while I work on the dissertation--there's the matter of the job market, for one), I am more confident that I have a place here for the time being. It is such a relief to be on the other side of this long year of waiting and ambiguity!

Some of my classmates have suggested that the prospectus is the toughest obstacle in the Ph.D. program, and that it will become easier from here. I don't know whether that will prove true for me, but I am betting that, as difficult as it's sure to be, researching and writing the actual dissertation will turn out to be a much more pleasant (or at least tolerable) experience than writing 6 or 7 drafts of a 30-page proposal. Either way, as other friends have pointed out, I've been confirmed in the hunch that getting through a dissertation is as much about persistence and stubbornness as it is about particular intellectual gifts.

I have a tentative goal of finishing in the spring of 2015, but I am still discerning how feasible that really is, especially if I am teaching next year, etc. For now, I'm thankful for the privilege of getting to focus exclusively on writing until next May. And of getting to spend a little longer in school, with the time and resources to pursue questions that are of interest to me, and that I hope are important to the church.

Thanks for loving me and being patient with me through this process (you all know who you are)--for not letting me lose sight of my Big Questions, or lose perspective on where my lasting joy and identity lie. More than anything, the past year has given me greater trust in God's faithfulness in bringing me through difficult circumstances, even when the significance of what I'm enduring feels like a mystery at best and useless at worst. I'm going to need a lot more gumption to get me through the rest, so please keep me in your prayers.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The state of the dissertation is . . . tenuous. But I'm hanging in there.

If you've followed my dissertation posts over the past year, you know that nothing about this process has been easy. That's continued to hold true, as I have long exceeded the timeframe within which I had hoped to defend my dissertation topic and begin writing chapters. Two weeks ago, I failed my first attempt to defend my topic to my committee. I'll have another shot, so right now I am trying to make some revisions that were suggested to me at the defense. If I can submit passable revisions within two weeks, then I will be in a much better position and might even be able to begin writing.

One of the issues that was brought up surrounding my defense was whether I have enough passion to sustain this project. Maybe that is supposed to be a straightforward question, but I have never found it to be so. Even at the point (two years ago . . . a time I've been foolishly longing for of late) when I could unhesitatingly say that I enjoyed my academic work, my enthusiasm and energy could vary considerably over the course of a given week, subject to so many factors of mood and circumstance. I really don't know how to quantify something like "passion."

If it's a question of whether I can muster the perseverance to write a good dissertation, then I believe I can. And I know that even if I struggle all the way through the painful dissertating transition from student to "scholar," that doesn't necessarily mean I can't be a great teacher. If anything, some failures along the way might help mold me into a better teacher.

All the same, I do wonder if my committee is onto something, in that I think I might be a better theology nerd/avid hobbyist than theology scholar. Maybe I'll write more about this at another time. I assure you the distinction means something in my mind, even if I'm not quite able to articulate it yet.

Anyway, no matter what happens or what I discover about myself as a scholar in the next few weeks, I can say that the past few years of graduate study have been a wonderful privilege, I wouldn't trade them, and most importantly I believe that God is using them and will continue to use them. It hasn't been a waste. I'm so grateful for everyone's kind interest, support, and ongoing prayers along the way. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things I Learned at Patristics Camp

Last week I was given the wonderful opportunity to work as a Teaching Fellow for an intensive summer program at a seminary in Boston. I jokingly referred to the week as "patristics camp," but this actually turned out to be a fairly apt descriptor for the week. It consisted of approximately six hours each day spent doing close readings of texts from the early church in small groups, interrupted only by meals in the dining hall and occasional trips around the lake to buy ice cream. My job was to guide these discussions under the supervision of a faculty member, and in my class the topic happened to be that of my dissertation: Patristic Homiletics (i.e. preaching in the early church). The program director had also described the week as a chance for graduate students to explore their vocations as teachers, and I also found that to be true. In no particular order, here are a few thoughts I had through the course of my week:

  • I'm not sure how "comfortable" I will ever feel about the act of teaching. I believe I've grown a lot in the past decade; things like presenting my work at professional conferences are now thinkable for me in ways that maybe they wouldn't have been ten years ago. But if shyness and self-confidence are still issues for me at 30, then I don't know that they are things I can just shake off, or that I will wake up one day to discover they have been abruptly healed. I think I will just have to keep confronting them, one day, one situation at a time. It's frustrating, too, when my best efforts at assertiveness seem to be undermined by the fact that many people interpret me to be much younger than I actually am. (I've been told I should feel flattered by this; mostly, it's just maddening.)
  • On the other hand, the effort expended on such things is often worth it, because I have found that interacting with others around my work is one of the only things that motivates me academically. This has come as a big surprise to me in the past year. I had always assumed that, because of my personality, I would thrive when it came time to spend most of my days alone at my desk, immersed in my own research. So, when that time came and I found it to be a tremendous struggle, it was quite disorienting for me. I've even been wondering if I'm cut out for academia at all! But I wonder if it simply means that I am less of an eccentric hermit than my own self-caricature had suggested. I noticed that I felt so much more motivated while I was talking with students and colleagues about my research than I do when I've spent weeks toiling, often fruitlessly, in my home office. I have noticed similar things from attending conferences, as I did in May, or even just chatting with people (especially pastors) on the topic of patristic preaching. I suppose it makes a lot of sense. I mean, the past year has largely consisted of spending time alone with nothing to listen to but my own thoughts -- sometimes without even the outlet of being able to write them down in a coherent fashion. No wonder I've felt like I've been losing my marbles in the past year! So, looking ahead, I'm trying to think of some ways that I could incorporate . . . *gasp* . . . more social interaction into my working routine.
  • It's possible that I have been experiencing some burnout in focusing so intensively on the Early Church period. And I don't think that's a crime. I need to persevere with it for the time being, because it is too late for me to switch my major area of concentration, but I think that in later years, I might be just as excited, or more, about working on Reformation/early modern material, and that's okay. In fact, maybe it will even be an asset to my teaching, lending a broader scope to my scholarship. It wouldn't change anything about my fundamental sense of academic calling.
  • In that vein, I think we really, really need a Reformation Camp! How awesome would this be? I've lost count of the number of times I've talked with people in churches, who are not academics, but nevertheless have a strong interest in the history of their tradition, yet don't necessarily have the opportunity to sift through the foundational writings or know where to begin. I think there is a subset of people who would jump at the chance to spend a few days reading, say, Calvin's Institutes or some Puritan texts in a low-pressure environment. I would love to be involved in something like this!
  • The Lord keeps putting me into situations where I am in the minority theologically. This has never been a very comfortable position for me, but I know there must be a reason for it. First there was Yale. Now I am a confessional Protestant enrolled in a Jesuit Catholic university. Last week, I was one of relatively few students who was not Eastern Orthodox. Some of these students grew up Protestant and converted to Orthodoxy at a later age. It should be noted that, at one point not so many years ago, I believed I would likely end up among them. Since then, I have obviously chosen not to convert (though I have definitely changed!). I think that any time someone joins a church that is markedly different from the tradition in which he or she grew up, that intensely personal, hard-won "choice" can easily become freighted with defensiveness. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but for now I'll just say that last week gave me the opportunity to recognize some of those same roots of defensiveness in myself and to understand why others, who ended up in very different places than I did, feel them just as acutely. I think there are times when speaking defensively is not all bad, but it probably depends on just what one is defending and how . . . and it takes wisdom to discern the difference. There are times when it is better to back off and abandon the defensive posture, no matter how chafing someone else's offhand critical remarks might be, and last week was definitely such a time for me.
  • Finally, one of the highlights of the week was getting to visit with my sister-in-law and nieces in Maine before I flew home. The visit confirmed my belief that my family and close friends are one of the most important things in the world to me, a joy I would rank high above anything academic. I long to be able to make such trips a priority in future years.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book Review: Prepared by Grace, for Grace

Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God's Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley
Reformation Heritage Books (2013); 287 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

One of the things that helped me find my home in the Reformed tradition is its emphasis on the fact that salvation is something that God accomplishes, from beginning to end. As one of my favorite hymn-texts puts it, "The work which his goodness began,/ The arm of his strength will complete."

But from the earliest generations, Reformed thinkers have not neglected the question of how human faculties are engaged in the process of spiritual birth. Indeed, their historical circumstances forced them to contend openly with this question. They had to differentiate the Reformed position from the Roman Catholic teaching of "congruent merit" on one hand and Arminian teaching on the human capacity to respond to the gospel on the other. In doing so, they sometimes differed slightly from one another.

Beeke and Smalley aim to show, however, that the concept of "preparation for salvation" was a thread which ran consistently through early Reformed thought, from Calvin to the eighteenth century. In making their argument, they counter much modern scholarship, traced especially to Perry Miller, which reads the theological development of preparation as a betrayal of Calvin, even an Arminian encroachment. The key point here is the doctrine of creation -- God created our mind and conscience, and while the Holy Spirit could sovereignly override these faculties to effect our salvation, he ordinarily chooses to work through them. As they sum it up so well, "Puritan preparation was a thoughtful attempt to do justice both to man's total inability to love God apart from spiritual renewal and his remaining dignity, responsibility, and ability as a person created in God's image." (69)

The authors illustrate this attempt by delving into writings from both sides of the Atlantic: English figures such as William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, Jeremiah Burroughs, and John Flavel, and figures from New England such as Thomas Hooker, Thomas Shepard, and Jonathan Edwards. While their study of each writer's corpus is not exhaustive, it is thorough and careful enough to highlight subtle distinctions. For example, Thomas Hooker laid great stress on the "saving sorrow" people ought to experience before salvation, to the extent that he blurred the line between initial conviction of sin and actual conversion to and union with Christ. Later figures like Thomas Goodwin and Giles Firmin critiqued this ambiguity, as well as what they saw as Hooker's over-emphasis on the Law at the expense of pointing people to the grace of Christ. Jonathan Edwards, too, sought to make the teaching on preparation more biblically consistent. Over-schematizing the steps of preparation could actually draw attention away from the central truth of justification by faith in Christ, and pastors must remember that not all people will experience distinct "steps" in a set order. Finally, the point of preparation is not to set one's spiritual house in order so that it will be fit for Christ; rather, it is to make the sinner realize how helpless and enslaved by sin he truly is, and so to drive him to Christ alone.

For a student of historical theology, the draw of this study is self-evident. Indeed, I would have loved to read even more about each figure's historical/intellectual context to understand why preparation was a crucial matter back then. But why should a pastor invest the time in reading this book today? In a Reformed setting, I think the most obvious reason is to help one think through the role of the Law in the preaching of the gospel. The Puritans took for granted that human beings needed to be brought to grief over the offense of their sins; this way of thinking does not come naturally to most of us today. The past often surprises with fresh insights, especially when it touches on matters we tend to regard as uniquely pressing in our generation, such as approaches to preaching and evangelism.

As you will likely have gathered, these are deep theological waters, and I would not recommend this book to readers who do not have a basic exposure to Puritan texts and systematic theology. But an advanced degree in theology isn't necessary, either. Beeke and Smalley do an excellent job of guiding readers through the thickets of seventeenth-century literature, and the book, believe it or not, is a pleasure to read. It reminded me anew of how precious Christ is, and that the only goal of preparation is that the soul be "so far cast down as it sets a high price on Christ, and on grace, above all things in the world." (Richard Sibbes, 47)

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Disappointment, bits of encouragement, and the prospect of a long summer

I know my posting on this blog has been pretty sparse this year. With the exception of book reviews, that is. As much as I enjoy doing the book reviews, it has never been my intention that this be primarily a book review blog. I anticipate doing at least one of them this summer, but aside from that, I'm hoping to get back to more of the blog's original purpose -- to keep my family and friends up-to-date on what I'm doing, and to provide an informal platform for other thoughts.

So what have I been up to in recent weeks? I can tell you something that hasn't happened; I didn't succeed in getting my dissertation proposal approved before the end of the semester. That's something I had hoped would happen back in the fall semester, if you remember, and I'd hoped that I'd be well on my way to completing a couple of chapters by now. So that's a major disappointment. In fact, it's probably the hardest academic struggle I've ever faced, and it's been enough to bring on some doubts about my chosen career path. I have always assumed that because I'm introverted, bookish, and good at school, that tasks like independent research and writing would come very naturally to me. So it's rather disorienting to find those tasks so difficult and unappealing at this stage. I just really don't know what to do with that data. How seriously do I take the fact that this year has been such a (largely) unhappy sludge? Does it necessarily mean I'm not cut out for this kind of work?

On the other hand, I presented a paper at a conference last week. It was the primary conference in my field; relatively small, but attended by most of the top scholars in the study of Early Christianity. In case you're not familiar with academic conferences, the main idea is to provide an opportunity for discussion and networking within your field. Each conference presenter has about 20 minutes to present an excerpt from his or her current research and then to receive questions and feedback. As you can imagine, that's an intimidating prospect even for someone who isn't particularly shy. I have presented at conferences before, but this was my first time presenting my work at such a major one. My presentation on Gregory of Nazianzus was well received, though, and I got some nice feedback -- including, notably, some very warm words from an elderly, retired clergyman who appreciated the richness of my material and asked me to share a copy of what I had written with him. It was so kind of him to encourage me like that! And it reassured me that, whatever happens on the academic end of things, there still may be an audience for the kind of writing I'm good at.

So there you go. It seems I do have things to say that may be helpful for people, whether or not that audience falls primarily inside of academia or outside of it; the question remains whether I can sustain the energy and motivation to finish this degree and seek out a niche where I can do that kind of work. At the moment I just can't envision what that's going to look like.

And as for this summer? I'll keep trying to revise my proposal in the hope of getting it defended and approved first thing in the fall semester. Hopefully I'll emerge from that, too, with some solid material that can be readily developed into chapters; that way I won't be so terribly far behind.

Honestly, summers in St. Louis have not tended to be the most fun, and in light of everything I have to do, I'm hoping I can manage to keep my spirits up. I will really need some encouragement in the coming weeks and months.

Thanks for reading, and I will try to keep you all posted more regularly, even though I don't imagine it's going to be the most fascinating thing to read!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: Contentment, Prosperity, and God's Glory by Jeremiah Burroughs

Contentment, Prosperity, and God's Glory (Puritan Treasures for Today), by Jeremiah Burroughs; edited by Phillip L. Simpson
Reformation Heritage Books (2013); 119 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

If you know me personally and/or academically, you can probably guess how excited I was to have the chance to review an edition of a work by Jeremiah Burroughs (1600–1646), a Puritan Congregationalist minister and Westminster divine. I have scarcely waded into the vast body of Puritan literature so far, but I have enjoyed everything I have had the opportunity to read from this era. About two years ago I read Burrough's lovely (and better-known) work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, so when I saw that the contents of Contentment, Prosperity, and God's Glory had been intended as an appendix to the former book, I was eager for more.

This book is part of Reformation Heritage Books' "Puritan Treasures for Today" series, which is meant to remove barriers to modern readers by smoothing out difficult seventeenth-century language and presenting works in a less intimidating (shorter!) format. After reading this book, I think the editors are onto something great. First, I didn't feel that the "updating" of the language was at all clunky or distracting; it was readable and still felt true to the style of other (decidedly not updated!) Puritan works I've read. Second, though this isn't the type of thing I would usually dwell on, the book is quite pretty! The paperback is attractively designed and the perfect size to stick in my bag to read at spare moments.

I don't want to belabor the details of this book, because I think the best way to entice you to read it is to offer a sampling of rich quotations. But I'll preface that by noting that Burroughs' theme is a simple one: based on Paul's statement in Philippians 4:12, he wants his readers to "learn how to be full." While he wants Christians to know how to suffer affliction faithfully, Burroughs' concern here is the difficult, in some ways more subtle, calling of stewarding abundance with a contented heart. It's also important to note that, while he refers to those who administer vast estates and own prosperous businesses, he classifies as "full" anyone whose daily needs are amply supplied.

  • "A man knows how to be full when he can keep under his command everything he enjoys, and he can retain command over his own spirit in what he enjoys. Therefore, he is not a slave to what he has, but he makes what he has a slave to himself." (21)
  • "You do not know how to abound when you cannot take into account the good of mercy when you consider an affliction. Even when God afflicts you in something, He still gives you an abundance of occasions to bless Him and praise Him. But when you can bless God for all mercies and be humbled for all afflictions at the same time, then you are a man who knows how to abound." (32)
  • "Fullness will . . . feed self-love to the extreme. When a man perceives himself to be self-sufficient, he sees no need for God or Christ or mercy or the Word and its promises. [. . .] This is the reason the Word rarely ever does any good to those who are full." (43)
  • "A godly man learns how to be full by regularly surrendering up his estate, his comforts, and his possessions to God . . . This is a way that a natural man understands little of--to know how to enjoy his comforts by surrendering them up--yet that is the way of a gracious heart. [. . .] A man who can just as easily resign everything up to God as he can receive anything from God . . . is the only man who is blessed in what he enjoys in this world." (77)
  • "God has set this time of your life as the time to provide for eternity . . . This would make you cautious of spending so much time in the use and enjoyment of the things of this world if they hinder you in the least in fulfilling the great work for which you live: the advancement of the gospel and your own spiritual good. Learning this lesson would move you to use all that you own, to the utmost of your ability, for these great purposes. In doing this, you will learn how to truly abound." (100–101)

If you have never read Puritan writings before, don't be intimidated by the thought of a book that's going on 400 years old. I think you'll find this book to be as timely, inviting, yet challenging as I did.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Signs of Health

This post can serve as a "state of the dissertation" update of sorts. When I last updated, things were pretty unsettled with my topic and proposal draft. Realizing that was less than six weeks ago, I am thankful to be able to report that the proposal is coming along much better. In fact, the proposal is essentially written. Right now, I'm basically revising.

My defense date is still up in the air. Even though I've received some excellent feedback from my colleagues at school, there's still quite a bit of work to be done, and plenty of consultation with my advisor that will need to happen, before I can meet with my full committee. Because it's so perilously close to the end of the semester, that's a lot to ask for at this point; I'm not 100% sure the defense will happen within the timeframe that's technically required. But, given where I was a couple of months ago, I'm relieved to be where I am.

The other great thing, and this is more the intended focus of this post, is that my attitude is markedly improved. I feel more confidence in what I'm doing and more hopeful that it's worth doing and can be done. It's still very difficult; I've become painfully aware of the weaknesses in my work ethic and ability to self-structure. There are days like today, when I find it next to impossible to make headway. But I think my mindset and morale on most days reflects an undeniable improvement. That's a definite answer to prayer, so thank you to everyone who's been following along.

I'll have more to write about this later, but I think one of the toughest things about this phase is that all your academic insecurities have a way of surfacing. If that starts to get the better of you, to the point that you've all but ceased believing in your project, then motivation dies. Too often, self-regard and sense of direction go with it. No matter how well you know that your self-worth isn't supposed to be determined by your academic success or failure. When you've sunk years into academia as your main area of gifting, and then you lose both your edge and your will to fight for it, it is devastating. It also starts to feel as if everyone in the world is more "useful" and is doing something more worthwhile than you. It's a terrible cycle.

However, I have been encouraged lately to see what I am interpreting as signs of health, personally and vocationally, in a few areas. The first is simply the fact that I can envision a future for my current project. A lot of the credit for this goes to my colleagues who've hung in there with me through several different drafts and offered genuinely helpful feedback. When people you respect are excited about your work, it's harder to dismiss it, no matter how much you might want to!

Second: Since I started my doctoral program, on the recommendation of a professor, I've been keeping a list of ideas for future research and possible books and articles. I have no idea how soon I will have the opportunity to pursue any of them, much less how many of them will prove viable and interesting. But the encouraging thing is that I have been adding things to the list again. For a while, I felt so burdened by the mere idea of a future in academia that I wanted to pretend that the list didn't exist.

The last thing is that, recently -- I forget which day it was, maybe it was Monday, maybe last week -- I found myself thinking, sincerely, "I am thankful to be in graduate school." I can promise you I don't say that every day. But the fact that I was able to say it and mean it, after the troubled months I've had, is a huge deal.

My feelings about where I am in my life right now remain pretty complicated. But I am glad I didn't quit.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Book Review: John Newton by John Crotts

John Newton (Bitesize Biographies series) by John Crotts
EP Books (2013); 141 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

I had the opportunity to review a Bitesize Biography a couple of months ago and enjoyed it, so when I learned that a volume on John Newton -- author of one of my favorite hymn texts -- was available for review, I couldn't pass it up.

One thing I appreciate about this series, at least in the couple of examples I have read, is the various styles of the authors. Simonetta Carr's Renée of France has a historian's touch. While that style is more to my taste, John Crotts' lively storytelling would probably appeal to readers who aren't typically drawn to biographies. His book also struck me as being just as well-researched.

Crotts has an infectious love for his subject that leads the reader to give thanks for God's gracious work in sinners, including themselves, as they move through Newton's story. It wasn't hard to share his enthusiasm for Newton: I immediately started learning new things about this remarkable pastor. Many people have heard about Newton's involvement in the slave trade, his eventual repentance, and his authorship of "Amazing Grace." There's so much more to his story, however.

I appreciated Crotts' emphasis on the slowness of Newton's conversion. I find it comforting to read accounts like this -- not everyone can pinpoint the moment when the Holy Spirit regenerated them, or they may be led to doubt the genuineness of their conversion because of later failings. It took awhile for spiritual fruit to become evident in Newton's life, but he was able to look back on his prodigal youth with gratitude for the Lord's patience and mercy.

Probably my favorite part of the book, though, was the story of Newton's friendship with the gifted poet William Cowper, who suffered terribly from depression. Even though I was familiar with the basic outline, I couldn't read this section without tears.

This book could be especially encouraging for ministers or seminarians; I was quite impressed as I read about Newton's sheer energy and creativity for sharing the gospel and caring for his flock. He personally catechized children, hosted (beside his wife) teas and prayer-meetings in his home, became an adoptive father at an advanced age, and seemed to have an equal love for preaching God's Word in rural and urban settings. Of course, he is best remembered for his prolific hymn- and letter-writing ministries, which Crotts sums up very nicely in the book's final chapters.

It's a quick read, it's engagingly written, and I recommend it. If you're anything like me, you'll be inspired to track down a copy of Newton's published letters as soon as you can. At the very least, you'll be moved to celebrate God's gracious work in sinners like Newton and yourself.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Monday, March 18, 2013

State of the Dissertation update (March)

The last time I posted an update about my dissertation, things were a lot less settled than I had hoped they would be by that stage. Truth be told, they still are . . . hence the lack of updates. There have been several frustrating ups and downs even since the beginning of this semester. And now we're approaching the end of the semester with alarming speed.

The upshot is, I have about a month to finish writing my proposal draft. There's really no wiggle room on that. I have to complete it before the end of my third year. And after the draft is complete, I have to submit it and defend it before a committee of about five faculty members. This is frightening, because it's hard for me to imagine that I will be prepared to pass a rigorous oral defense in six weeks' time.

The good news is that I seem to have a better developed thesis than I did a few months ago. Also, one of my professors helped me break down the parts of my draft and assign due dates over the next several weeks, so that I have a path for getting the entire thing written and critiqued in an organized way.

I think it can be done. It does mean that I will have to work harder than I have done all year, basically. Because, truthfully, my brainpower, energy, and engagement with this project has been effectively halved since last summer; I've been aware all along that I am operating at half my capacity, at best. I'm not really able to account for that. I have some inklings about what's at the root of some of it, but I can't really explain it. Not that there would be an excuse, even if I could explain it. It doesn't change the fact that I have to get this done.

I'm praying that I will gain the physical energy to concentrate on this project, as well as the renewed sense of investment I need to really own it and have confidence in what I'm doing. Also faith that the Holy Spirit is supplying what I need through this process. Any piece of that would feel like a miracle at this point. I just want to do what I need to do in order to pass my defense, advance to candidacy, and begin actual writing. Less than two months, now, in which to pull that off.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thoughts on turning 30

Today my pastor quoted from this 1889 sermon by Charles Spurgeon. I found this excerpt particularly resonant:

I would suggest to everyone here to cry to the Lord to make us conscious of our natural barrenness. Gracious ones, may the Lord make us mourn our comparative barrenness, even if we do bear some fruit. To feel quite satisfied with yourself is perilous: to feel that you are holy, and indeed that you are perfect, is to be on the brink of the pit of pride. If you hold your head so high, I am afraid you will strike it against the top of the doorway. If you walk on stilts, I fear you will fall. It is a safer thing to feel, "Lord, I do serve thee, and I am no deceiver. I do love thee; thou hast wrought the works of the Spirit in me. But alas! I am not what I want to be, I am not what I ought to be. I aspire to holiness: help me to attain it. Lord, I would lie in the very dust before thee to think that after being digged about and dunged, as I have been, I should bear such little fruit. I feel myself less than nothing. My cry is, "God be merciful to me."

I didn't have too many expectations of what turning 30 would be like. I don't think I expected the last bit of my 20s to feel so empty; so low on hope and direction. I can't pretend to understand what God might be doing in all of that. It does seem that He has been removing things that I have looked to for security and self-definition, and using that process to expose my sin and great need of Him. I know that is a gracious and grateful thing for Him to do. It isn't always easy to feel and acknowledge it as such.

My twenties were turbulent in some ways -- I guess that's not unusual -- and I'm experiencing something I might describe as introspection fatigue. The "who am I and what am I doing?" questions might be healthy for a time, but even though the answers seem far less resolved than I had hoped they would be at this age, I am weary of focusing on myself. I long to pour myself out, but at the same time, I'm becoming painfully aware of how empty I truly am. I don't know what's there for me to give.

The only cure for that I can think of, and the only goal I would dare to venture for the coming decade, is for Jesus to become greater before my sight, greater than my own troubled spirit. I hope and pray that as I become more fixed on Christ, His love would become so much more real to me that the identity questions, the insecurities and fears, would echo less and less insistently. Maybe then I can start to be freed up to love His people more and grow in the desire to serve His church. Would you pray this for me? I can't think of a better birthday gift.

I don't know what to expect in the coming years, except that I am certain there will be challenges; on my best days, I'm dazed by their number and scope. At those times, I can only pour out my anxiety and vexation to the Lord and ask Him to remember me. At such times, He mercifully reminds me of what He has done in the past. Today, for example, I spent my birthday going to church and hanging out with my husband. It hit me just how shocking those two things would have been to my twenty-year-old self, when I couldn't have wanted less to do with the church, and couldn't have fathomed that in a little more than five years, I'd have a husband. The Holy Spirit has been at work in me, in ways that have always been beyond my prediction and my petitions -- and He still is! Fed by that promise, I can go my way with a glad heart.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Renée of France by Simonetta Carr

Renée of France (Bitesize Biographies series) by Simonetta Carr
EP Books (2013); 128 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

I have been intrigued by Simonetta Carr ever since I heard about her Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, so when I had the opportunity to review a biography she has written for a general audience, I was quite excited! The book, introducing French princess and Italian duchess Renée of France
(1510—1575), didn't disappoint.

What I love about this book is the choice of subject. Not only is Renée a less familiar figure (I knew very little about the Italian Reformation when I started reading), but she provides a window into the complexities of her era -- theological, pastoral, and political. As Carr points out from the very first page, our perception of events as monumental as the Reformation tends toward the simplistic. The story of a layperson like Renée, who was caught up in those changes with all the doubts and challenges they provoked, can help us understand what was at stake -- truths and freedoms we take largely for granted in our context.

I won't detail Renée's biography here, except to note that she struggled to stand for her newly Reformed convictions in the midst of many pressures: a religiously unsympathetic husband; the sometimes questionable theology of fugitives to whom she offered hospitality; witnessing the horrors of the religious wars seizing Europe. At one point, isolated from her family and under pressure from an inquisitor sent by the king of France, Renée renounced her Protestant faith and agreed to receive the Catholic Eucharist. We know little about what was in Renée's heart at this time, but we know that, after her husband's death, Renée eagerly provided refuge and education to many persecuted Huguenots. Carr does not attempt to settle the scholarly debate as to whether Renée is better viewed as a Protestant heroine or a vacillating Roman Catholic. While Renée's apparent fluctuations can be frustrating to us, as they were to her contemporaries, her will indicates that she died with a humble confession of God's sovereign mercy.

Carr brings out a number of questions posed to us by Renée's story -- questions that we often avoid in today's church. Is it okay to participate in religious behaviors that conflict with our beliefs, especially to avoid offense to others? What does it look like for Christians to love their enemies? The differences between the Mass and the Lord's Supper were life and death matters in Renée's time, and her stumbles appear to have been due in part to poor pastoral oversight. Do we still see these matters as crucial today?

This book also provides a wonderful glimpse of John Calvin's pastoral character, as much of the narrative is based on Renée and Calvin's correspondence lasting from 1537 until his death in 1564.

While this book assumes some knowledge of Reformation history, it is certainly not just for historians. Anyone interested in the impact of Reformation events on individual lives will find it a fascinating read. There is an excellent annotated bibliography for those who would like to venture into more scholarly territory. Simonetta Carr is a keen interpreter of history, and I can't wait to see which personalities she will acquaint us with in her future projects!

If you are interested in hearing an interview with Simonetta Carr, please click here.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Book Review: Suffering Well by Paul Grimmond

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond
Publisher: Matthias Media (2011); 166 pp.

I was glad for the opportunity to review Paul Grimmond's book Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering, part of the Guidebooks for Life series published by Matthias Media. This book challenged me, and not in the way I was expecting.

The author makes it clear from the beginning that this book isn't a study of theodicy (an attempt to explain why suffering exists in light of God's goodness), but an exploration of how the Bible calls Christians to suffer well. In other words, as he puts it, the book is "more of an inoculation than a remedy."

Grimmond sketches the increasingly dominant cultural myths which have begun to color our reading of the Bible instead of vice versa. This "modern anti-suffering grid" inhibits us from thinking biblically about the nature of suffering and skews the questions we ask about it. We demand that God explain Himself to us, instead of remembering His sovereignty over us, His creatures.

The hinge-point of the book is chapter 5, "The Surprisingly Predictable Surprise." Here Grimmond makes the argument that, unlike the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, the New Testament is not primarily concerned about the suffering which is the result of the fallenness of our world (terminal disease, natural disaster).  Rather, it repeatedly makes the claim that suffering at the hands of an unbelieving world is guaranteed for those who follow a suffering Lord. Belonging to Christ is a death sentence for every believer, because it's only through the suffering that comes of living for Jesus that we will also be glorified with Him.

Most Western Christians don't think in these terms anymore. In this respect, there is a tremendous distance between us and our earliest counterparts. Grimmond argues that, while we tend to think of this form of suffering in terms of physical persecution, the New Testament actually uses much broader language to describe it. We've forgotten how strongly Scripture exhorts believers to be ready to be reviled, spoken against, and maligned for their obedience to Christ.

Grimmond sums it up this way on p. 97:
The great danger for Christians living in the West is not physical death at the hands of persecutors, but the slow, spiritual death of a thousand tiny compromises crouched at our door, waiting to devour our hearts. And one of the saddest predicaments of our age is that at the moment we need it most, we have let go of a robust theology of belonging to Christ and suffering for him.
He goes on to say that, while it is right for relatively privileged Christians to remember their brothers and sisters who are subject to physical persecution in other parts of the world, we don't serve each other by denying that we suffer at all. When we downplay other forms of suffering, "we fail to teach each other to live without shame in the face of the more subtle pressures in our culture." Or, we become preoccupied with defending a God who lets cancer and tsunamis happen, forgetting that the Bible's focus is to call us to live such godly lives that the world will hate us for it.

In summary, I think what Grimmond's arguing is that we will make any excuse for our disobedience, hiding from the fact that our Christian lives should be marked by discomfort in this world. We will even use the distant reality of persecuted Christians, and our sophisticated arguments about theodicy, as screens for our unwillingness to live in a way that marks us as belonging to Jesus, not to the world. This wasn't quite the direction I'd been expecting the book to go, and I have certainly been convicted by it.

The book doesn't ignore the issue of "general" suffering. In fact, it is linked to the suffering caused by outward persecution in that every earthly struggle is used by God to conform us to the image of His Son. This teaching on the Father's discipline of His children is deeply comforting to me. Honestly, I don't know how I would begin to cope with pain in my life if I didn't believe that the Lord was using it in some way (though I may not understand how or why) for my good and His glory.

Suffering Well has a lot more excellent content. It includes advice on how to praise God with integrity and to do good in the midst of suffering, and, most importantly, it closes with the precious reminder of believers' union with Christ. The latter truth is what affords us genuine hope in suffering: "If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." (Rom. 6:5) Only as we learn to savor this truth will we be free to suffer well.

This book is meant to equip believers with biblical nuts and bolts, not to be theologically exhaustive. I'm sure that someone with greater exegetical skills than mine could critique Grimmond's claims in this area. But I can say that this book led me to repentance and made me want to spend more time in God's Word, dwelling on His promises. I'm so glad I read it, and I hope it will prompt both new and seasoned Christians to a renewed discussion of suffering in Christ.

To listen to an interview with the author, check out this link.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Odds & ends in January

Traditionally, January has been one of my least favorite times of year. The transition from rest and family to the prospect of unbroken weeks of stressful obligations is wrenching. At least that's how it has usually felt. But even though coming back to St. Louis after Christmas was pretty painful, this January hasn't been quite so bad. I wouldn't say it's categorically wonderful, either. It's just been odd.

For one thing, it has continued to feel as if God's been gently shaking loose my attachments to some expectations and daydreams of how I think my short-term future would best unfold. As if, just when I imagined myself comfortable, God started shaking up some of the lesser things as if to steel me for bigger ones.

To give an innocuous example, we will likely need to search for a new apartment in the next few months. Wasn't expecting that. I had pictured us staying put for as long as we could, perhaps even for the duration of our time in St. Louis. But now I'm not sure where we're going to be living. The odd thing is how comparatively little I've been stressing over that. It hasn't been sitting heavily on my chest like these things often do. I can't say I'm excited by the possibility of moving further into the city, if indeed that turns out to be necessary. But whatever we end up needing to do, I feel mostly at peace about least for now.

For another thing, my husband is starting to pursue the process toward ordination in earnest, which is actually a wonderful development and an answer to prayer. I'm very proud of his perseverance in the process, and as I think about him beginning to work on internship requirements, I feel confident that God is going to be bringing about great things for His purposes. But that's the thing...I hadn't pictured myself being included in those purposes. Ministry has always been something that other people do; that category of "other people" has expanded enough in my mind to include my husband, but I have only the blurriest concept of how it would include me. I have enjoyed picturing myself as the wife of a professor and myself a professor, and all that would mean for our life together. I just can't picture myself in the role of a pastor's wife. This is not to say I'm resistant, exactly; it's simply beyond my imagining. I was telling a friend today that I still feel puzzled sometimes by my personality and what God could be doing with it; I suppose I tend to think of it in terms of limitation rather than gift. But I know that God didn't haphazardly assign me to a family and church I would be unable to serve; and my temperament, the things I love and the ways I encounter the world are not accidents either. This is another area where I have to walk by faith on a daily basis.

In summary, a lot of things feel open-ended right now. There's this waiting feeling. Even more than before, I'm being asked to trust without being able to see far ahead. (Or while my imagined scenarios are being lovingly papered over with something real.) Surrounded by the love of Christ's people, I certainly don't feel alone or without hope. It's unsettling, though. And just odd.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

It's no secret that I'm fond of the writings of Carl Trueman. Admittedly his sardonic wit is one of the things I enjoy about him; but what I appreciate even more is that he is a clear-eyed historian and brings strongly pastoral sensibilities into all of his work. While his latest book, The Creedal Imperative, ummistakably bears Trueman's voice, and his careful contextual work makes my historian's heart happy, it's the pastoral aspect that is most in evidence.

Dr. Trueman doesn't hide the fact that he is out to persuade those whose churches adhere to "no creed but Christ." While it's clear that he holds the latter to be an untenable position, he doesn't spend the book ruthlessly tearing into it. Instead, he invites such Christians to embark on a thought-experiment. In chapter 1, he lays out several cultural forces which militate against historic, creedal faith and have influenced parts of modern evangelicalism -- such as devaluation of the past, anti-authoritarianism, and pragmatism ("the notion that truth is to be found in usefulness"). Trueman invites readers to "reflect critically on the cultural forces that are certainly consonant with holding such a position [anti-creedalism] and ask yourself whether they have perhaps reinforced your antipathy to creeds and confessions in a way that is not directly related to the Bible's own teaching. . .[S]etting aside for just a moment your sincere convictions on this matter, read the rest of this book and see whether creeds and confessions might not actually provide you with a better way" of adhering to and communicating biblical faith. (p. 49) I really appreciate this approach.

Dr. Trueman goes on to present a positive case for creeds and confessions. He begins by arguing for, among other things, the adequacy of language to convey theological truths, the importance of the institutional church, and the Pauline precedent for holding to "form[s] of sound words." Next he launches into two quite delightful chapters on the creeds and councils of the early church and the Protestant confessions of the early modern period (including the Anglican Articles, Lutheran Book of Concord, Three Forms of Unity, Westminster Standards, and London Baptist Confession). What I enjoyed about these chapters is that Trueman takes care to describe the historical circumstances that gave rise to the councils, the theological questions the church sought to answer through the creeds, and the further questions prompted by this linguistic and conceptual fine-tuning. Even though I've studied historical theology for several years, I found Trueman's discussion of theology as a "cumulative and traditionary exercise" so informative. The only quibble I had was on p. 99, when he mentions the Coptic Church's rejection of the Chalcedonian definition -- shouldn't other "monophysite" communions be mentioned here as well, such as the Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox churches? (It might be that other non-Chalcedonians get grouped under the "Coptic" label, and I'm just unfamiliar with that terminology.)

The book wraps up with excellent chapters on "Confession as Praise" and "The Usefulness of Creeds and Confessions." The latter includes some of the more hard-hitting conclusions of the book: "The standard evangelical objection to creeds and confessions is simply not sustainable in light of. . .the Bible's own teaching and the history of the church. [Creeds] actually fulfill a vital role in a function that Paul makes an imperative for the church and her leadership, that of the stable transmission of the gospel from one generation to another. Thus, if you take the Bible seriously, you will either have a creed or a confession or something that fulfills the same basic role." (p. 161) Trueman suggests that all churches have a creed, whether they put it into writing or not. If churches don't put their creeds into words available to public scrutiny, then, ironically, it becomes harder to test the church's teachings against the ultimate authority of Scripture.

I do remember what it's like to have a visceral discomfort with written creeds. I actually rejected them for about the first half of my life as a believer. Now that I've worshiped in creed-affirming churches for most of the past decade (first Anglican and now Presbyterian), I'm not sure how I would have received this book when I was younger. Because Dr. Trueman's arguments are strong and his approach is charitable, I earnestly hope that believers who reject creeds would give his thought-experiment a fair shot. Even for confessional Christians, I commend this book as an immensely helpful resource. No matter which side you identify with, I think you'll find it a compelling read.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A little more on Secret Thoughts

I've been pleased to discuss the book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, which I blogged about back here, with a few of my friends in recent months, and yesterday I learned of this interview with Dr. Rosaria Butterfield which took place last week at Patrick Henry College. At first I had little intention of watching it (I have a weird aversion to multimedia on the Internet; I like text, if you please), but I decided to watch "just a few minutes" while having coffee this morning, and pretty soon an hour had elapsed. Dr. Butterfield is a wonderfully compelling communicator in every way.

Unsurprisingly, the interview overlaps closely with the book, but it also has a lot of neat moments that I think you'll find insightful whether you've already read the book or not. This week, I was talking with a friend about how intimidating we both found the author to be. She's so grounded and comfortable with who she is in Christ, and that gives a real freedom in the way she communicates and lives out the gospel...all ways in which I've felt constrained of late. But in the interview she reminded me so much of the intelligent, articulate women who've taught and mentored me over the years. That didn't lessen the intimidation factor a great deal, but it did remind me of the loves and struggles (and nerdiness!) we have in common, even where our personalities likely differ. Christ knows exactly how to use all these things in the most beautiful way and in His time.

Anyway, if you can set aside the time, watch it; you'll probably enjoy the additional glimpse of the personality that went into the book.