Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Variegated Life

Book Review

Title: John Donne, The Reformed Soul
Author: John Stubbs.

So far I've read several biographies. Of those, the two people whose lives have engrossed me the most were Aimee Semple McPherson and John Donne. I guess it's because they both were xtians and both had convoluted edges about their lives. By different routes, they both ended up being preachers.

Back in 2004, the Royal Society of Literature awarded John Stubbs the Jerwood Award for his biography of John Donne. I must say that Stubbs definitely earned every bit of it. His book was very well written and conveyed a vivid picture of John Donne's variegated life and the times in which he lived, during the transition from Elizabethan to Jacobean England.

The book is now out in an American edition from W.W. Norton. As I recall, there was an earlier edition printed in the U.K. under a somewhat different title.

But I would like to point out a quote, given at the start of chapter 17 in the book. There Stubbs is quoting Donne from his Sermons (vol.2, NÂș13, page 280, 19th December 1619):
The true Church, Donne insisted, "Loves the name Catholique". If one followed "Those universall, and fundamentall doctrines, which in all Christian ages, and in all Christian Churches, have been agreed by all to be necessary to salvation…then thou art a true Catholique."
The emphasis was mine. Of course, being a Protestant, Donne had a larger and more universal idea in mind when here he used the word "Catholique", certainly not in the more limited sense that nowadays we mean by the term "Roman Catholic". But what is especially interesting to me is Donne's use of the word "fundamentall", by which he was referring to something that exists at the very core of things—those doctrines that simply cannot be let go of. Because if someone lets go and departs from them, he essentially has ceased being part of the Church and has become something altogether different.

For if there is nothing that is genuinely fundamental, and everything can be subtracted out, with absolutely everything being negotiable, then surrender is really all that is left over. Nevertheless, it does seem that the word "fundamental" does go back a long ways and is not merely something that got started back in the 1920s.

I highly recommend John Stubb's book.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

We're Cannibals Here

I am currently reading Jeffery L. Sheler's book "Believers—A Journey Into Evangelical America". Mr. Sheler is a billed as a "Contributing Editor for Religion" for the U.S. News & World Report.

He's written a very interesting book, but he tries to pass himself off as someone who is an "insider" in the culture and therefore possesses special insight that his colleagues in the news business lack. However, after reading his book, it is hard for me to buy into his claim of being "one of us". He might have started out that way years ago, but what he is now is something different. Although his writing is fluid, his journalism competent, and the book is one I would recommend—it reads much like a typical news magazine article—yet I propose that it also could be considered excellent example of Crimsonism. For, taking his notebook and tape recorder with him, and strapping on his pith helmet, Sheler basically went on an extended anthropological expedition to explore that strange and alien culture that inhabits the vast hinterlands of America—at least it's strange and alien to his colleagues back home in the mainstream news media.

Now I could have a hilarious good time explicating the multitude of places in his book where the subtext betrays his underlying attitudes. But I'm not going to do that here because it would require plenty of work, there's lots of text to cover, and nobody reads Lunar Skeletons anyway. However, I don't think that Sheler set out to be consciously and deliberately biased, especially not in any malicious sort of way; it's just that everything he saw was refracted through the accommodating, secularist prism he has acquired. After all, he didn't get to be an editor of U.S. News & World Report by going around preaching the Gospel.

That might have made his colleagues a little too uncomfortable. There could have been Curled Lips and Furrowed Brows Of Disapproval. But it is understandable, because, to get ahead, one has to be accommodating with the Educated and Enlightened who control the important organs of our society.

However, and I do give him credit for this, he did endeavor to accurately describe the natives, their peculiar manners and customs, their odd beliefs and folklore; but still, that ever present subtext in his book is there; I guess it reassures his Educated and Enlightened colleagues back home that their feelings of intellectual and moral superiority are entirely justified. Beyond all doubt, they will be not be too uncomfortable reading his book about his journey.

"Yes", they might tell themselves, "while Sheler has provided us a fascinating account of his excursion among the primitives, it turns out by all accounts that we really are superior and progressive after all. And, though certainly sincere—and maybe dangerously so—those quaint evangelical xtians are inherently inferior, obviously. Maybe it's something in their genetics. Who knows? Maybe someday the condition will be treatable. Nonetheless, our public schools should do everything possible to extirpate their retrograde ideas from the minds of their impressionable children. They certainly don't operate at our level of learned sophistication, for nobody as Enlightened as we are would hold such ridiculous ideas and silly notions as they do. Belief in a Creation? Pish-posh! Sin? A backwards concept! The Bible? What rubbish! And, perhaps, they shouldn't be allowed to vote, as some have suggested. But certainly it's questionable whether any of their ilk should be allowed to hold an important office in our government."

Somehow I don't think Sheler's book will change his colleagues basic attitudes, at least not dramatically. But they should find his book amusing, and maybe even entertaining—in a way similar to how a pubescent teenage boy might enjoy thumbing through the National Geographic magazine gawking at the pictures of exotic, semi-nude people in humid, sweltering New Guinea.

Brethren, the next time a smarmy reporter from some big name news magazine wants to interview you because you're "evangelical xtians" and he's doing a story, try having a little fun with him: Tell him you're cannibals and ask if he'd like to come over for dinner.

Furthermore, as far as the natives are concerned, nothing in the book indicates that Sheler himself takes any of their beliefs seriously, as far as I can tell. So when they read his book, his collegues will experience no alarm on that account. Sheler didn't "go native" on them, during his long journey into the Heart Of….

Oh, The Horror… Oops, I'm waxing too allusive here. But, after all, had Sheler come back from his expedition telling his colleagues that these really are The End Times, and that they really do need to repent and believe, how long do you suppose he would have kept his job? Would his book even have been published?

Finally, I did notice, beginning on page 205, that Sheler mentions Greg Laurie, the pastor of my church back when I lived down in California. While Sheler watched Greg preach onstage, he apparently never interviewed Greg in person. It's too bad he didn't, because he missed a delightful opportunity. It would have been a very lively interview.

Addendum: One thing I noticed while reading the book was that Sheler relied very heavily on Mark Noll and George Marsden for his take on the history of Xnty in this country. Noll and Marsden must have something like a monopoly on the subject, because whenever somebody in the news media needs to consult an "expert" on Xtian history in America, Noll and Marsden appear to be the only names in his rolodex. But I vaguely recall seeing where they, more or less, belittled the late Francis Schaeffer's ministry in some of their writings—one book in particular I recall, read years ago, whose title escapes me right now—consequently, I have been a little wary of them. It always seemed to me that they had an axe to grind, mainly to prove just how much smarter they are than anyone else.

Addendum: The book I was trying to recall was entitled "Reflections on Francis Schaeffer," published back in 1984, which was a collection of essays by various authors, and which was edited by Ronald W. Ruegsegger. I remember it as mostly containing a lot of silly nitpicking by some worldly-wise stuffed-shirts from Academe. And, as I recall, it was either Marsden or Noll, or both, who seemed rather petty to me. Maybe Schaeffer wasn't fussy enough for them about larding his writings with copious footnotes or including reams of scholarly bibliography in his books. But after spending years ministering to people whose souls have been destroyed by Modernism, at least he grasped better than anyone else what the big picture is; he understood what's really at stake. I'll take Francis Schaeffer any day over the niggling Lilliputians who criticized him.