Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sixteen Cities

Sunny optimism takes the chill out of winter

Sixteen Cities
Artist: Sixteen Cities (http://www.sixteencities.com/)
Label: Centricity
Length: 11 tracks/39:17 minutes

The opening “Just Wanna Dance” to Sixteen Cities self-titled debut has a wistfulness that reminds me of Owl City, best known for the song “Fireflies.” Even though the two artists are different, I see some likeable parallels: simplicity of thought, an earnest voice, electronic enhancement (though here it just adds a little style rather than being predominant), and a sunny optimism that some might dismiss for its sweetness, but which I welcome in a world that has no shortage of heaviness.

One example of the bright outlook is “Sing Along,” where vocalist Josiah Warneking declares, “I love the way the stars shine for you, and every single mountain bows down. I love the way the universe is singing your song, so I try to sing along.” This chorus is carried by soaring pop/rock led by Dustin Erhardt’s shimmering guitar.

In a time when many are discouraged, I applaud songs like “Someone’s Work of Art” and “Bleeding for You” that emphasize the worth of a person. Teens and twenty-somethings, which have been the band’s primary audience, will find this affirming, as will all who are in need of encouragement. Like Owl City, Sixteen Cities, who get their name from a passage in Joshua 19 that deals with dividing the land, conveys hope.

They share it in places that might seem the least welcoming, but where it is truly needed, the public schools. It seems fitting since these songs are radio-friendly and God-pointing, without being preachy or too heavy. They have the subtle persuasion that is appropriate for this environment. The lyrics are not always explicit in speaking of God; and the name of Jesus is not used, but it’s not hard to figure out what they are referencing. They have the potential to reach a broad audience with the message of God’s love and grace.

The songs are not all sunny and light. Some plead for being saved from oneself. One standout ballad, “Pray You Through,” is about being there for someone when words are inadequate. The CD ends on a plaintive note with a piano ballad called “Winter.” It’s about a prodigal who wonders if he can find his way home.

This debut takes the chill out of winter and points us home.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide - Gerald R. McDermott

Wisdom in a multitude of counselors

The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide
Author: Gerald R. McDermott
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 214

In The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide, Gerald R. McDermott provides “a short and accessible introduction to some of the greatest theologians – so that any thinking Christian” can “get a ballpark idea of what is distinctive to each.”

Do we need to read and study what the great minds of the church have said? McDermott answers, “Ignoring the great and godly minds of the church – who have been ruminating on God for thousands of years – when we have them at our fingertips through books and even the Internet seems to be a kind of arrogance and presumption.” He likens comparing our thoughts with theirs as iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17 KJV). By studying their works we can learn what theology is best.

The author chose eleven individuals who, in his opinion, had the greatest influence on the development of Christian thought. This does not mean that all of them had good theology. Friedrich Schleiermacher gave rise to liberal theology, but understanding his thought is important to comprehending the strange turns taken by modern theology.

Each chapter covers a different individual and begins with a story about the person’s life, highlighting important events. This leads to a review of the main themes in their thinking. The author then zeroes in on one theme that is distinctive to that individual and examines it in detail. He concludes each section with lessons we can learn, a brief selection from the person’s writings, questions for reflection and discussion, and a list of resources for further reading.

The author’s knowledge of the subject matter, his eye for important details, his skill as a writer and his wisdom in providing practical application make this a delight to read. Even though I had read about most of these individuals before, I gained new insights. I marvel at the wealth of useful information to ponder.

As I read about Calvin I was struck by the comfort that can come through knowing God’s sovereignty. The author writes, “If I know that a tragic event in my life was permitted by God, I can be assured that God meant it for good. I might not understand why this thing was permitted, but at least I will have the comfort knowing that in the long run things will be better because of it.”

What a surprise to learn that Jonathan Edwards, best known for the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was obsessed by God’s beauty more than his wrath. McDermott summarizes Edwards’ thought on the subject: “The essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections and to sense his irresistible love.”

Years of experience have taught me the truth of John Henry Newman’s disciplina arcani, or “method of keeping sacred things secret.” McDermott summarizes what Evangelicals and Lutherans can learn from it: “Too often we have thrown pearls before swine in our evangelism and Christian education.… We Christians generally have been too willing to blabber the mysteries of the faith to anyone we can get to listen, forgetting that ‘the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God … and he is not able to understand them’ (1 Cor. 2:4). We have both said too much (when we explain the intricacies of atonement and justification to unbelievers) and too little (reducing the gospel and all the Bible to justification by faith).”

In describing how Athanasius defeated the Arians, the author makes a useful observation, “Sometimes it is necessary to use an unbiblical word such as Trinity to teach properly and clearly a biblical concept.” He follows with a revealing thought indicative of his personal leaning, “This is also why theology is necessary and the Bible alone is not enough – it needs an orthodox community and tradition to interpret it.” Some Evangelicals may take issue with that last thought, but this book makes a strong case for it.

McDermott’s background as a professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and a teaching pastor at St. John Lutheran Church have shaped his perspective. His appeal is to the collective wisdom of the church rather than to one segment. “The Great Tradition,” led by the orthodox thinkers in this book, provides a means to rightly assess the many competing ideologies that we face today.

Though all great theologians fall short in some ways, McDermott persuades readers that they have something to teach us. We see through the development of doctrine how theologians develop, supplement and correct one another. McDermott advocates learning from this heritage with humility and attentiveness that we might see our own shortcomings. This is an excellent introductory guide that is highly readable.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years DVD

A candid friend tells the story of the Church

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years DVD
Presenter: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Distributor: Ambrose Video (http://www.ambrosevideo.com/)
Running Time: Approximately 6 hours

Among other things, A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years shows that seeds planted in youth flower in adulthood. This six-part series, co-produced by the BBC, the Open University and Jerusalem Productions, is hosted and narrated by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St. John Cross College in Oxford.

When MacCulloch’s father, an Anglican minister, and his mother took their young son Diarmaid on their explorations of historic churches, they probably never realized they were sowing the seeds of his future. Diarmaid became fascinated with church history and so began his life work, of which this series is a part.

Now, instead of his parents leading the way, it is MacCulloch taking viewers through ancient structures and landmarks around the world. Ever the explorer, he searches for meaning in places that hold clues to the past, interviewing local experts and people who provide a diversity of thought.

MacCulloch is not only a well-respected historian, but an excellent narrator and a likeable guide. He unashamedly professes his fondness for the Anglican faith, he being the last of three generations of Anglican clergy. If he has a bias, it may be against the western form of Christianity as practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. He seems more charitable toward the eastern wing, exhibited in the Orthodox Church. The good news is that over the course of the six episodes shown below, he gives equal coverage to each of the major branches of the church.

1. The First Christianity
2. Catholicism: The Unpredictable Rise of Rome
3. Orthodoxy: From Empire to Empire
4. Reformation: The Individual Before God
5. Protestantism: The Evangelical Explosion
6. God in the Dock

One of the highlights is that MacCulloch tells more than just the same old story. He is not afraid to correct conventional wisdom and to bring out what might be overlooked. For example, he believes that Christianity stayed closer to its Middle-Eastern roots than many people realize. To illustrate that point, rather than initially tracing the spread of the faith to Rome, he takes the eastern road, which goes from Jerusalem to Asia, including parts of China.

In another segment, he takes us to Skellig Michael, a place that might be overlooked by many historians, but significant because this remote island was a center for the monastic life of Irish Christian monks for 600 years. Equally interesting is his account of Russian history and orthodoxy.

Filmed in HD, everything about the production is first-rate. This is no surprise given that the series is licensed by the BBC.

For all its merits, it falters somewhat in the last episode. Calling himself a “candid friend” rather than a Christian, MacCulloch asserts that the church failed to resist the Nazis. He reasons that since the Jews were considered killers of Christ and enemies of the church, the church is “implicated in the murder of Jews.”

It gets even more controversial in his interview with Rev. Nicholas Holtam of St. Martin Church-in-the-Fields, London. MacCulloch believes that questions about gender and sexuality present significant challenges to the church. He identifies himself as a gay man, and in response to an inquiry from MacCulloch, Rev. Holtam states, “The Scriptures don’t say anything about faithful, same-sex relationships and therefore, what’s condemned in Scripture isn’t what we are dealing with now.… I think the Bible’s answer is that what matters between human beings is loving, faithful, honest relationships.”

It should be noted that MacCulloch does not accept the authority of the Scriptures. He alludes to being unconvinced that the Bible is different from all other books.

Throughout the series, MacCulloch continually emphasizes that the Church has survived by its ability to adapt. He may wonder if the Church will successfully adjust to changing gender and sexual norms. Conservative Christians must be prepared to discuss these concluding ideas if they want to use this in a group setting. Unfortunately, this last segment detracts from the overall excellence of the series. Even so, this production provides a thought-provoking overview of Church history, and I give MacCulloch credit for telling it like he sees it.

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