A Primer on Reformation

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Primer on Reformation: Recovering the High Church Puritan, by Douglas Wilson

Here's another book by Douglas Wilson, kindly sent by the nice folks at Canon Press. Doug Wilson can always be counted on to give his reader plenty to think about, and I'm still thinking. Pondering. Musing. Here's a description of the book, which will hopefully prompt you to read it and think about these things with me.

He starts by establishing the need for reformation in the American church, something his audience surely can't disagree with. Full steam ahead, he launches into an indictment of the shallow and commercial nature of our church, as can be seen by the title of chapter one: They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Schlock. We gladly rip off pop culture in our desire to relevant, but in the process make light of God's holy name, and make lots of money doing it. It reminds me of a quote from the sitcom King of the Hill. "You're not making Christianity better, you're making rock music worse!"

Wilson makes the case that we ended up with such a trivial faith because we focus on ourselves, not on God. The sin of individualism is seen as a virtue. He argues that individuals have pitted correct doctrine and unity of the body of Christ against each other. This false dichotomy leaves no room for submission to each other (i.e., Ephesian 4) and genuine humility.

So what's the answer? Becoming a "high church Puritan." The word "Puritan" couldn't be more misunderstood today. I aspire to be like the Puritans, but I'm afraid I'm not intelligent enough, not educated enough, and not passionate enough. (Doesn't fit with the modern definition of Puritan, does it?)

And so I want to use the word in its original sense -- one who has a deep desire to purify the Church, but who has no intention of voluntarily separating from that Church if he doesn't get his way immediately. ... He has a high view of the covenant, and of our corporate identity with one another. Because he is a Puritan, he intends to be a theological cavalier, and he fights for the integrity of obedience. He does not do this as some gloomy caricature, sitting in the back pews lamenting the regrettable apostasies up front...
This cannot be done without affirming, sola Scriptura, the primacy of Scripture, and the centrality of the gospel within those Scriptures. (page 22)
The rest of the book describes how proper worship will necessarily promote respect for God's Word and a fierce love for His people. The following chapters are brief but thorough, addressing transforming cultural evangelicalism, corporate worship, Biblical preaching, correct understanding and practice of communion, psalm-singing, Sabbath-keeping, and our children's place in the covenant.

Wilson starts this book with both barrels blazing, but the topical chapters change their tone and are crammed full of Scriptural proofs and really good points. I could nit-pick the chapter on psalm-singing, but the chapter on why so many Christian parents are failing to evangelize their own children was excellent.
Christian parents are commanded to teach their children to believe, and instead, in the name of high conversion standards, we teach them to doubt. Then, when they grow up and mature in the doubting that we have taught them, we point to that doubt as clear evidence that we did the right thing in keeping them away in the first place. (page 64) (emphasis his)
I'm still chewing on this book, and I'd like to hear your input, dear reader. It seems like there are two audiences to Mr. Wilson's book: the typical American Christian, and the theologically conservative pastor. I can't help but feel like I missed a crucial point or something, but at first read I don't fit either of those two categories. However, I don't want to read something convicting and just agree how it applies to other people. What can I learn from this? Where is my sin?

I'm certainly not going to pastor my own church, so the chapters on liturgy, communion, and preaching were a little frustrating (although still edifying). I suppose it would be nice if my own church did things differently, but I'm so grateful for the church I have and I have no intention of leaving it, even if the "perfect" one popped up in my neighborhood.

As for the first part of the book, it didn't step on my toes so it was easy for me to cheer from the sidelines, so to speak. I make it a point to avoid most "Christian" pop culture stuff, because usually it's not very good and a little embarrassing. I prefer Stufjan Steven's music over most Christian acts, never wear messaged tee shirts in general, and don't even own any VeggieTales DVDs (no offense, VeggieTale fans.) I think I'm struggling most with this question: in regards to to the root cause of our shallow faith, how can I, as an individual, repent of of the corporate sin of individualism?

The easy answer is for me not to cause a church split (so far, so good). I'm sure the "right" answer is for me to have proper submission for the authorities God has put in my life (I still have a long ways to go). But I still have a nagging feeling like I'm missing something. If you've read the book, what are your thoughts?

Perhaps if I were a true Puritan, I would have figured it out by now.

Cordelia Underwood, or the Marvelous Beginnings of the Moosepath League, by Van Reid

I stumbled across this book from someone's Amazon list--the author of which liked PD Wodehouse, so I figured I could trust his recommendations. I read this in December, and it was a nice break from the cough lozenges, tissues, and stress of my Christmas this year.

It's a modern book written in the style of a Dickensian serial novel. The many characters speak in English appropriate for the times, and I found myself using a larger vocabulary while reading it. (See? There I go again.) It is set in coastal Maine around in 1896, and the author has a great sense of the time and place. Like Dickens, he keeps throwing new characters at you in the beginning of the book, but the story gradually focuses on a well-to-do young lady named Cordelia Underwood, who surprisingly inherits a mysterious chest from her deceased sea-dog uncle. The story meanders a bit so even more quirky characters can be introduced, but eventually becomes an adventure with pirates, kidnappings, bumbling fools, quick wits, and even a little romance hinted at--for the next installment, I'm sure.

It took me a while to get used the pacing but once I did, it was an entertaining read. The author's family has lived in Maine for generations, and he obviously has a great love for his home. I might pick up the next book in the series next time I have a gap in my reading list, but I definitely want to visit Maine now.

Heaven Misplaced: Christ's Kingdom on Earth

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Heaven Misplaced: Christ's Kingdom on Earth, by Doug Wilson

I'm back. I'm sorry I was away for so long. After months of the pregnancy fatigue, I was starting to (finally) feel like myself again. Then the holiday craziness took over my life, and I got a cold that just won't die. I did, however, read some terrific books during my leave of absence and I'm looking forward to sharing them with you. First: Heaven Misplaced.

I finished this a while ago, and I've been mulling over how best to review it. What do you say about a book written by someone smarter than you, who knows Scripture better, and is a better communicator? "Read this book." "Buy a copy for your friends." "I really liked it." See? Everything seems so trite. These underwhelming statements doesn't detract from the truth, though: I think you should read this book, get a copy for your friends, and I really liked it.

Doug Wilson tackles postmillennial eschatology in this book, although you'll have to read through to an appendix before you ever reach that description. He makes his argument using every day language, and footnotes define theological terms like "root of Jesse" and "the Incarnation". He makes his arguments in a particularly winsome way. He describes The Story, the best and greatest story ever told. In the introduction, he asks the reader to suspend skepticism and read his book with the same mindset as a work of fiction. But the best news of all, he says, is that it is all true. Instead of me poorly trying to paraphrase this, I recommend you read his introduction--it's an excellent summary of his book.

For you theological types, I grew up arguing for postmillennial eschatology, which is usually a pretty lonely road. I was challenged by this book though, because I've absorbed some of American Christianity's pessimism regarding the end times. For you non-theological types, eschatology is what Christians believe about how the world will end. Most Americans think that, to quote Wilson, "the world is God's Vietnam, and the return of Christ consists of the few lucky ones helicoptered off a roof during the fall of Saigon." To me, that just doesn't seem right (not to mention I have a pocket full of proof texts to back me up here). Christ conquered death and sin on the cross, bound Satan, and rose again from the dead and now reigns from heaven. Would this victorious God just slink off into history and let the world, literally and figuratively, go to hell?

This book is an introduction to historical optimism. This is the view that the gospel will continue to grow and flourish throughout the world, more and more individuals will be converted, the nations will stream to Christ, and the Great Commission will finally be successfully completed. The will will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. When that happens, generation after generation will love and serve the Lord faithfully. And then the end will come. (page 9)

This book would be a great companion piece to a book with another contrarian thesis, Heaven is not my Home, by Paul Marshall (see a review here). I marked up my copy of Heaven Misplaced and read it slowly because I wanted to really absorb it. I would have liked to have read it with other people--I'm sure the conversations would be great, and each chapter has discussion questions which I think are helpful for individuals or groups. Basically: I label myself with these theological terms, but I want to write this on my heart: Jesus Christ is victorious in history, and I am privileged to be tasked with the Great Commission and help accomplish "Thy Kingdom come, and Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."