Review & Reflection: “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”


Review & Reflection: “The Westminster Assembly”


Review & Reflection: “Call the Sabbath a Delight”


Review & Reflection: “The Five Points of Calvinism”


Reflection & Review: Is it Abuse?

I recently read through Darby Strickland’s new book, Is it Abuse?: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. Strickland is a graduate of Westminster Seminary and a counselor with CCEF. She has produced a truly exceptional book. The book came out last year and has been very helpfully summarized and reviewed already. If you want to get a taste for what is covered and why it is so helpful, check out these twin reviews by OPC Pastor, Daniel Patterson (https://opc.org/review.html?review_id=806), and OPC Ruling Elder, Joseph W. Smith (https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=865) If pastors, counselors, and church members could only read one book on the subject this is the one I would recommend.

Since the book has been so helpfully summarized in the reviews I link to above, I won’t bog down this reflection by rehearsing all the details of what Strickland covers. In a nutshell, she tries to accomplish three things. 1) She wants to help those who haven’t experienced or witnessed abuse to gain a better understanding of what abuse is and why it happens. 2) She wants to equip us to identify when abuse has taken place (whether that abuse be physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, and/or financial). 3) She wants to offer wisdom and resources for how to help those who are suffering under abuse.

Contributions:

As she works towards these three goals she does three things that I found particularly useful.

1) She roots her understanding of both the problems and solutions to abuse in the Scriptures. So much of the literature on abuse either replaces the Word of God with the wisdom of the world or it reflects a one-dimensional and superficial interaction with the Bible which offers victims easy answers and black-and-white conclusions. Strickland, however, shows a deep understanding and intimate familiarity with the way in which biblical passages, categories, and stories fit within the broader redemptive-historical story of Scripture. She brings this biblical emphasis and wisdom to bear in ways that help us understand abuse, identify abuse, and help those who are suffering abuse.

2) She draws on her years of experience in counseling to fill her chapters with examples and stories of conversations with abused women. This helps to build empathy and understanding (as it helps those who haven’t experienced or witnessed abuse to get a better sense of the distorting and damaging impact of domestic abuse) and it helps to build confidence for the counselor as we get the chance to see how someone with more experience navigated these situations and conversations.

3) Strickland supplies very useful inventories of questions which the pastor or counselor can use when working with victims of abuse. These practical tools (together with the extensive practical helps offered in the appendices) make this book an invaluable resource for those who are actually called to work with victims personally.

For all of these reasons, this book is well worth reading. Overall, I think it is a resource that will bless the church. In light of the increased attention which has been given to abuse in our churches and in the broader culture, I think this book can be particularly useful for local pastors and church sessions who are grappling with how to respond to these issues. However, there are a few areas where I would want to balance out some of the book’s conclusions or emphases.

Cautions:

The primary caveat or caution I would offer is that Strickland (at least as I understood her) seems to assume that an abused wife will most likely need to leave her abusive husband. While it seems obvious to me that a woman who is in imminent physical danger should be encouraged to separate from her abusive husband to protect herself or her children while the church and the state step in to help, I think we need to be much less quick to encourage divorce in cases of abuse. My reservations about this grow out of at least two concerns.

The first is that there is not a clear consensus in our churches about whether or not abuse is an acceptable grounds for divorce. This uncertainty is particularly evident when dealing with more subtle forms of abuse (such as emotional or spiritual) where physical or sexual abuse are absent. For those of us in the Reformed tradition, The Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 24, Of Marriage and Divorce, paragraphs 5 & 6 summarize the biblical grounds for divorce:

5. Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract. In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce: and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.

6. Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage: wherein, a public and orderly course of proceeding is to be observed; and the persons concerned in it not left to their own wills, and discretion, in their own case. (Emphasis added)

Many pages have been filled unpacking and debating these paragraphs but the heart of the debate here is over what is included in the second grounds given: “willfull desertion.” I’m personally sympathetic to the argument that abuse (as carefully and exhaustively defined by Strickland) can be included here, but not everyone would agree with that. So this is simply an area where those who take a more narrow understanding of the grounds for divorce (or who are working with a Session who holds a more narrow view) would want to be aware of as they read the book.

My second concern or reservation requires a bit more unpacking. Strickland helps us to see that one of the ways that abusers oppress their victims is by systematically dismantling their agency. Therefore, one of the ways to help an abused woman heal is to help restore that agency through reminding her of her true worth and identity in Christ. However, I worry that Strickland might at times allow the biblical priority of restoring agency to turn into an unbiblical priority of encouraging autonomy. Specifically, I’m concerned that some might read Strickland’s book and wrongly conclude that the church can only step into a situation when and how the wife dictates (see pages 294-295 for one example of a passage which might lean in this direction).

My concern is that a woman who is suffering abuse (a reality which is already deeply disorienting and isolating) would forgo the biblical protection and wisdom of her God-appointed Elders as she grapples with how to respond to abuse. I understand that victims of abuse will need great patience and sensitivity. These are not easy struggles to bring into the light and that struggle can be amplified when a woman has to bring such intimate and shame-filled concerns to a room full of men who are leaders in the church. But there must come a point where the shepherds step in to shepherd. This becomes particularly important both when there are children in the home and if the future of the marriage is in question.

This is where my two concerns come together. Even if you understand “willfull desertion” as a phrase which can encompass abuse, the Confession very wisely qualifies that “willfull desertion” as being such “as can no way be remedied by the church, or civil magistrate[.]” In other words, a woman (even if she is being abused) should not simply decide when she thinks the marriage has run its course. To do so would be to forfeit the wisdom of the church and the support offered by brothers and sisters in the faith. It would also short-circuit the work of the elders who are called to shepherd both her and her husband. If an abusive husband proves himself to be an unbeliever who has broken the marriage covenant, I can certainly envision scenarios where a Session might support a wife’s decision to divorce her husband. Nevertheless, that is a decision which should never be made apart from God’s ordained leaders in the church. As the Confession also notes: “the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God hath joined together in marriage[.]”

Overall, the book helpfully highlights the complexity and subtlety of the issue of abuse. What I want to avoid is a simplistic reading of Strickland’s book which assumes that our task is simply to label a relationship as abuse and then to pursue divorce as the common “solution” to the problem of abuse. While there will be situations where abuse in a relationship ends that relationship and where divorce may be the right way forward, we should be slow to give the impression that this is always the right way forward.

Conclusion:

There are many qualifications and nuances which could be given to what I’ve written above. No doubt some will read this review and conclude that I’m naively narrowing the grounds for divorce while others will conclude that I’m wrongly broadening them beyond what Scripture teaches. I am open to being instructed from God’s Word, but at this point in my understanding I want to guard against simplistic or “one-size-fits-all” answers to such complex issues. I don’t believe that Scripture removes divorce as a possibility in every instance nor do I believe that Scripture allows us to rush to divorce without seeking careful guidance from the church in which God has placed us.

Nevertheless, I think Strickland’s book is a resource which will greatly aid churches (and church leaders specifically) as they seek to encourage and shepherd victims of abuse. So much of the pain which has come from hearing stories of abuse has been amplified by the ways in which the response of the church has added to or ignored the pain which victims have already suffered. Sometimes this has been done selfishly and maliciously. But I suspect it has most often happened because pastors and elders don’t always know how best to respond to these difficult and delicate situations. So I’m grateful that Strickland has given us a resource that we can read through and discuss to help us be prepared to shepherd Christ’s sheep well. May the church reflect the tenderness and justice of our God who stands against oppressors and comes to the aid of the oppressed!


April-May: Reading Round-up Pt. 1

I’m back to batching my reviews for the moment (I’ll blame it on having a newborn in the house). Here’s part one of this “Reading Round-up” where I offer quick reviews of some of what I’ve read over the last few months:

Dialogues of Plato by Plato (216 pages)

This edition of Plato’s Socratic dialogues contains the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, and the Republic (my own reading only took me through the first four as a friend recommend I read the Republic in Allan Bloom’s translation). The first three dialogues are weighty in tone as they walk us through three key moments in the final days of Socrates’ life. The Apology recounts the defense he offered before the citizens of Athens. The Crito tells us of his frame of mind in the night before his death, and the Phaedo recounts his final hours as he discusses philosophy with his students before taking the hemlock. The Symposium is markedly different in both tone and setting. The context for this dialogue is a dinner party in which Socrates sits at table with the best and brightest of Athens. The attendees decide that each member of the party should give a speech in honor of love and at the end they will decide which speech was the best.

As each of these works has long since established themselves as central to the Western Canon, my thoughts on them are largely immaterial. I will only say that it is easy to see why Plato has been required reading for so many centuries and across so many cultures. Even where one parts ways with Plato’s conclusions (typically voiced through the person of Socrates), there is much to learn about how to argue and how to think. The comments in the Phaedo about philosophy being the art of learn how to die well are thought-provoking and helpful. The translation and introductions offered in this edition were lucid and useful. I would highly recommend.

The Expulsive Power of a New Affection by Thomas Chalmers (72 pages)

The 19th century Scottish Presbyterian and polymath, Thomas Chalmers, is one of those fascinating characters who accomplished much in his life and achieved wide-spread recognition in his time but who has nevertheless been largely overlooked and forgotten in our own day. The loss is all ours. Those who have heard of (or read) Chalmers have almost certainly had this little book to thank for it. The book is, in actual fact, really the text of a famous sermon which Chalmers preached while he served as a minister in the Scottish church.

It’s a wonderful sermon, and his main insight is that we’re more motivated by a positive desire for something than a (merely) negative desire. This connects with our temptation to sin in that we’re more likely to avoid and reject sin when we see how much more attractive and wonderful Christ is than if we’re acting on the basis of bare command alone. Chalmers argues that the best way to be godly is to have a heart that is so gripped by the gospel that the desire for God pushes out all lesser desires. This edition, put out by Crossway, is beautifully designed and has a helpful forward by John Piper. A good edition of a classic sermon which everyone should read (and ideally read regularly)!

Watership Down by Richard Adams (478 pages)

Friends have told me for years that I have to read Watership Down. I finally was able to soak it in when I had a long car trip and was able to download an excellent audio version (narrated by the talented Peter Capaldi no less). The book is truly a masterpiece, although it turned out to be a very different tale than what I thought it would be. It is not the fantasy-style “rabbit story” that I assumed it would be (something like The Green Ember Series or Redwall). Instead, it was something that was simultaneously more ordinary and more ambitions. Adams’ rabbits do indeed talk and have adventures, but he set himself a limit early on: his rabbits would not do anything (physically and temperamentally speaking) that an ordinary rabbit could not actually do. The result is a book which almost stands in a genre of its own.

Despite its unique elements, the book also self-consciously draws on the common threads of Western literature throughout. Watership Down is the Aeneid with rabbits instead of Romans. The Cassandra-like rabbit Fiver warns the inhabitants of a seemingly prosperous Warren that their home will shortly be destroyed. Most of the rabbits ignore Fivers fevered visions, but a small group set out from the Warren to find a new home and establish a new Warren for them and their descendants. Fiver’s brother, Hazel, takes the role of Aeneas as he leads his men through perils and problems until they eventually found, fortify, and defend their new Warren. The story is masterfully told and raises themes and questions of perennial significance (the balance of freedom and security, the responsibilities which creatures bear for creation, and the nature and development of true leadership and courage). It truly is a modern classic.

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder (384 pages)

I’ve been reading through the Little House on the Prairie series with my daughters (aged 4 and 2) for the past year or more. They have absolutely loved it, and I have as well. Wilder has a tremendously evocative writing style with luscious descriptions perfectly married to subtle humor and gripping challenges. This book is unusual in that it doesn’t focus on the Ingalls family, but instead tells us about the boyhood of Laura Ingalls future husband: Almanzo Wilder. The Wilder home was a far more prosperous place than the Ingalls’ various homesteads and cabins. The setting is different as well as the Wilder farm was located in the peace of settled country in upstate New York instead of on the rough and rugged plains of the Great Western frontier.

But the same virtues and values which shaped the Ingalls family appear in the Wilder home as well. The book is one of the longer of the series, but stories are interesting and well told and having a change of characters brings a new dimension to the world of Little House. As always with these books, there is much here for parents and children to both enjoy together and discuss together. Well worth a family read!


Reflection & Review: The American Puritans

There’s been a welcome revival of interest in the legacy of Puritanism over the last few decades. However, the American Puritans have often been overlooked in comparison with their English counterparts. At the same time, most Americans’ received understanding of their Puritan forebearers has been deeply marred and mangled by the revisionist accounts of 19th century detractors. This combination of neglect on the one hand and misinformation on the other means that very few people today have an accurate understanding of, or appreciation for, the character and contributions of American Puritanism.

This little book is a great first-step towards addressing that problem. Written at an accessible and popular level, “The American Puritans” offers nine brief bios of various Puritan politicians, poets, and preachers. Some chapters (such as those on Anne Bradstreet and Cotton Mather) particularly shine, but all are solid summaries of key figures in Colonial Puritanism. The cumulative effect of the book (often as we see the interrelationships and connections which existed between this cast of characters) is to helpfully expand our understanding of this era and its key leaders. While this is just a starting point, it’s a good starting point to getting to know the American Puritans as they really were.


(Another) Reading Round-up

Well, I’ve found myself in the same old spot. I’ve read more books than I’ve written reviews for, which means that I now have a backlog of books to reflect on. So in place of my standard stand-alone book review posts, I’m going to do another reading round-up where I give a quick take on some of the books I’ve finished recently. (Hopefully this will get me back on track enough to review as I read going forward.)

The Automatic Millionaire by David Bach (288 pages)

This is a quick overview book which tackles foundational principles for managing your money well. It has a particular emphasis on retirement (and gives a good overview of the most common retirement options out there) but also delves into some nuts and bolts for how to manage money day-to-day and how to think about finances long-term. It’s a quick read with lots of stories, chatty prose, and repetition. His key take away is to automate as much as possible about your finances (hence, the “automatic” millionaire). He gives some tangible steps to get there and directs the reader to useful websites and tools to set everything set up. Nothing groundbreaking for finance gurus, but a good wake-up call to those who haven’t taken the time to think through their financial future. Because of its accessibility, practicality, and simplicity I would rate this highly. Society would be much better off if every college freshman had to work through this kind of material!

Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 by Iain Murray (342 pages)

This book took me by surprise. It was an assigned text for my modern church history class in my final semester of seminary. I like Murray’s work, so I didn’t think it would be bad, but I wasn’t prepared for how formative of a book it would be. With historical deftness and lucid prose, Murray does more than just survey the big names, moments, and movements of 20th century evangelicalism – he gives us a window into the key decisions and debates which shaped evangelicalism up to the present. We learn not just what happened, but why it happened as well. He traces the crisis of evangelicalism as it went from a derided sub-group in its earliest iteration to a powerful and growing movement in the latter half of the 20th century. The division which followed centered on this question: to what extent should evangelicalism fight for acceptance and unity with both mainstream churches and the mainstream culture? Murray helps us to understand the arguments on both sides and provides us with helpful warnings along the way. An absolutely paradigm-shaping book.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (184 pages)

This book needs no review or recommendation from me. It’s a time-tested classic. I re-read it to my three year old daughter who was enraptured by the characters, the dialogue, and Garth Williams’ fantastic illustrations (we’re big Little House on the Prairie fans too, so Garth Williams’ work is always a hit around here). E.B. White knew how to craft imaginative worlds out of ordinary settings and presents characters who stick in the moral and mental imagination. This children’s story probes core questions such as: what gives life meaning? What does it look like to leave a legacy? What characterizes true friendship? And how do we grapple with the loss of those friends in death?

Cheer up!: The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller by Michael Graham (256 pages)

This is the first serious biography of the late Jack Miller. Michael Graham has lovingly crafted a critical (in the best sense of the word) account of the man who stood behind some of the biggest names and most influential aspects of the contemporary Reformed resurgence over the last few decades. Jack Miller was a pastor, professor, missionary/church-planter, and faithful churchman in both the OPC and later the PCA. His ministry of writing and teaching influenced and intersected with many names that are better known than his own: from R.J. Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, to Bill Edgar, Jerry Bridges, and Tim Keller.

The value of this work is multifaceted. First, it introduces us to a man worthy of imitation. Jack was a faithful (though flawed) shepherd, father, and servant leader. He was a man of prayer and repentance who thought much of the grace of Christ and poured himself out to make that grace known around the world. Second, Jack had a profound influence on people spanning different denominations, subcultures, and even continents. Understanding his life and ministry gives a helpful window into much of the inner working of the contemporary evangelical Reformed world. Third, the book is just good. It’s extraordinarily well written, brilliantly paced, and carefully balanced. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read and gave me a renewed respect and appreciation for the life and ministry of Jack Miller.

The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-reliance by Senator Ben Sasse (320 pages)

When a contemporary politician writes a book (most often with ample assistance from some ghost-writer) the product is usually deliberately generic. Often the goal is to share a few stories, make a few bucks, and build some likability and relatability for the next election cycle. This book, however, is completely different.

For one thing, it is decidedly not a political book. Sasse writes not as a Senator but as a Harvard and Yale trained historian and (even more importantly) as a faithful Christian father. It’s this background and perspective that shapes his analysis of what’s wrong and worrying about the current state of American adolescence and which drives the prescriptions he offers for getting us back on track. I was genuinely impressed with Sasse’s familiarity with the sources of Western thought. Augustine, Calvin, Aristotle, and Rousseau emerge again and again as genuine conversation partners and foundational thinkers. Sasse isn’t afraid to dig beneath the surface and put on his historical scholarship hat when needed, but this is not an academic book. Thinking Americans of all intellectual abilities and political parties would do well to grapple with Sasse’s take on how we’re raising our young people. The book is equal parts historical and cultural analysis, political and social reflection, and practical and parenting help. In fact, each chapter ends with a practically oriented list of takeaways which illustrate how we can rebuild the culture of self-reliance which has been lost. I wouldn’t agree with every jot and tittle, but I would urge every American to listen carefully (and reflect seriously) on the issues Sasse raises.


Review & Reflection: The Storm Before the Storm

I grabbed this book on Kindle because I loved listening to Mike Duncan’s “History of Rome” podcast back in the day; I wasn’t disappointed. Duncan brings the same accessible, yet inspiring, voice which shines through in his podcast. With tremendous skill, he walks us through the details of Roman political intrigue in the late Roman Republic. The picture he paints looks surprisingly contemporary. Often, contemporary discussion fixates on how the Roman Empire fell, but Duncan reminds us that (at least for America today) the fall of the Republic is a far more pressing event to understand.

Duncan gives us that understanding by walking through the slow decline of the Republic in its final centuries. He shows how the attempted reforms of the Gracchi brothers, the challenges of managing the ever-expanding empire, and the inequality and tension between Roman citizens and their non-enfranchised counterparts outside the city walls fractured the foundations of the aging Republic. Viewed through this long perspective, it becomes clear that Sulla’s crossing of the Rubicon to march on Rome was not the only “line” that was crossed in the fall of the Republic. Instead, there were a series of shifts which took place over many decades which slowly undermined the key institutions and traditions which had preserved Rome for centuries.

At first, the lines that were crossed were not legal per se, but rather were transgressions of the mos maiorum – the ways of the fathers – whose precedent was held in high regard as a guide for Roman life. As political tensions heightened, each “side” became more willing to ignore aspects of this mos maiorum – breaking the unwritten rules which had put boundaries on political conflict for centuries. Once these lines had been crossed, Roman leaders began to openly flout the law itself and once the law was being openly ignored mob violence entered into ordinary Roman life. It was, in that sense then, that the open war and civil division of Sulla et al was inevitable. Even radical attempts to reset the clock were too little too late because the foundation on which Roman political life and trust were to be based had been broken in the political fervor which gripped all sides in Rome.

It’s hardly necessary to draw out the parallels to our own day. While there are key differences between the situation of Rome and that of America today, there are enough points of contact to be sobering. We are not, fortunately, as far down the path of division as the ancient Republic was – but we have traveled far enough to recognize the road. Let us pray that we can learn from the lessons of the fall of the Roman Republic and avoid the storms before the storm in our own day.


Review & Reflection: Dune

Dune has come highly recommended to me for years so it’s been on my list of books to read for quite some time. When my friends started sharing the trailer for the upcoming movie version, I decided it was time to move it up to the top of the stack and dive in. Providentially, I had a 20 hour car trip right around this time so I grabbed the audio version from Audible and started working my way through this 21 hour masterpiece.

This truly is a masterpiece. Frank Herbert was one of the pivotal voices in science fiction and Dune has had a big impact on much sci-fi and fantasy offerings over the last half-century. It’s become almost cliche, but there’s truth in the comment that Herbert’s world-building is reminiscent of the great J.R.R. Tolkien. Unlike Tolkien, however, Herbert was writing from a mystical/secular worldview which comes through strongly at times. However, he’s constructed a cosmos that is stunning in its complexity. I loved the intricacy of Herbert’s world and characters. The political intrigue, the running inner monologues, the relentless attention to subtle shifts in character interactions show Dune to be a labor of love. The work that Herbert poured into its construction is clear, and it pays off.

The audio book version is a bit odd as it flips back and forth from being a typical audio book (expertly narrated by Simon Vance – one of my favorite voice actors) and a lightly dramatized version with a cast of actors. This happens without warning and is at times jarring as the smooth English accent of Vance can transform into the flat American intonation of the alternate cast. Still, once one figures out what’s going on, it’s not hard to track with the flow of things. I didn’t find it to be as distracting and detracting as some.

Science fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who enjoy the genre, Dune truly is a must-read. It can take some effort to slip into the story, but it’s well worth the effort.


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