Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 15)

Symbol or Substance

Kreeft, Peter. 2019. Symbol or substance? A dialogue on the Eucharist with C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham and J.R.R. Tolkien. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Kreeft, who is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, has written many books that attempt to bridge some of the disagreements between Roman Catholics (which he always refers to simply as Catholics) and Protestants. From his one-time membership as a Reformed Church of America Protestant (p. 13), Kreeft believes he is objectively qualified to examine differences between Catholics and Protestants, in particular the Eucharist, which also allows him to touch on baptism, grace, faith and other key denominational issues.

Kreeft has four disclaimers at the start of the book: 1) it is not a scholarly treatise; 2) he allows himself considerable poetic license and therefore does not always “speak” like his participants might; 3) he tries to be fair to the non-Catholic position, but writes as a Catholic; 4) he does not claim to have settled anything—although he does claim, at the end of the book, to have shared the “ecumenical passion” of Christians (p. 232).

In addition to Lewis, Graham and Tolkien, Guy, a Baptist “friend and admirer of Billy’s,” ( p. 17) and the vehicle driver for Lewis and Graham, occasionally contributes to the dialogue. The meeting takes place in Tolkien’s home.

The title of the books reveals the essence of the dialogue: Graham believes the Eucharist is primarily a memory feast, Tolkien believes the “Real Presence” of the Lord is in the physical bread and wine, and Lewis is somewhere between the two in his comments. In practice and personality, Tolkien can be characterized as the theologian, Lewis as the philosopher and Graham as the literalist (sola Scriptura and sola fide).

Tolkien is assured of his historical position: that the Catholic Church represents the direct apostolic succession from Peter and the Apostles, and that Luther fractured the Church. Quite simply for Tolkien, everything would have been OK if Luther had not started the reformation. Until then, in Tolkien’s view, everyone understood the Eucharist as the “real” body and blood of Christ. In other words, the early Church “always” thought Christ to be present both in body and soul—and not simply in a spiritual sense. According to Tolkien, Catholics are saved by the Eucharist and fed again and again by his presence and grace. This, of course, is not the view of Graham, who sees the Catholic view as bordering on magic. The Anglo-Catholic view, represented strongly by Lewis, believes that it is not just a symbol but “it really is His blood” (p.67).

The argument goes back and forth along these lines: take the words of Christ literally, i.e., “This is my blood,” or take them symbolically, “this wine represents my blood.”

For Tolkien, and hence for Catholics, “baptism saves you,” just as the Eucharist does. For most Protestants, this is a reliance upon the counter-reformation position of the Church, which was resolved at the Council of Trent and upon other occasions. It does not have the authority of the Bible alone but, for Catholics, it is just as authoritative.

Tolkien outlines how important tradition is to the Catholic position: it is part of the Church dogma and was articulated and represented by the church fathers (not mothers). It therefore has equal weight with the written word of God.

Tolkien returns repeatedly to the sacrament of the Eucharist (and Baptism) to declare that “He instituted the sacraments as normal ways by which He saves you and puts His own eternal life into you” (p. 77). Graham compares that to a dependency on good works and not faith alone. There follows a long debate on faith and works.

At one point (p.85) Lewis deciares “I do not agree that Christ is present in the sacraments only if we have faith. I believe He is really present, objectively present, independent of us.” Graham takes this to mean that the sacraments are independent of faith because Lewis says that “our faith can’t cause the Real Presence.”

An argument and explanation of efficient cause and final cause follows, where efficient cause does not make the sacraments happen, but the final cause is “to test our faith and to elicit our faith and to strength our faith.” (86). There follows a discussion on feelings and faith with Lewis claiming that “the thing that looks like a wafer of bread really is the Body of Christ.” (91). In this view and expressed by both Lewis and Tolkien, Christ is “hiding” in the wafer. This physical manifestation of Christ in the Eucharist is the bone of contention that separates Protestants from Catholics. It follows that “if the communion wafer is not eaten, or if the wine is not drunk” we do not get grace (110).

Although Lewis claims to believe in the “Real Presence” of Christ, he has points “where I do not go as far as the Catholics go: the necessity of the formula of Transubstantiation and the authority of the Church that supports it.” (124)

Is there a possibility of compromise on the issue? Tolkien claims not: you either believe in the Catholic position as truth or you are in error, although Protestants (and others) might come in the “back doors into Heaven.” (193) He insists that the body and blood of the Eucharist is described by the Church as “the extension of the Incarnation.” (156) The authority of the Church also rests on the claim of the “chain of succession, by the sacrament of ordination.” (162)

he (Catholic) Church, according to Tolkien, gave us the Bible, but it gave us its authority (tradition) even before we had the Bible. Tolkien makes some other outlandish (to Protestants) claims, such as the validity of prayers to saints, the veneration of Mary, the use of relics by the Church and its view of Purgatory, which according to him,  go back to the history of the Church and “were never denied.” (181).

However, Tolkien does not deny that the Church needed reformation, although he claims it was all taken care of at the Council of Trent, (although that was a counter-reformation movement after Luther).

There is no real compromise or conclusion to the book that completely satisfies the participants. Although they remain friends and have understood the positions of each other better, that is about all. Perhaps it was enough for Kreeft, the author, and it will have to do for me as well.

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Brooks on the Second Mt

Brooks, David. 2019. The second mountain: The quest for a moral life. New York: Random House.

Part I: The Two Mountains.

The first mountain is the normal one: the person performs in order to be successful and, when this happens, he or she begins to wonder, “Is this all there is to life? The second mountain involves a rebellion, however slight, against mainstream culture and considering others who are in need. It involves a vocation, a spouse and family, a philosophy or faith and a community. Brooks takes up each of these in the book. He notes the joy and satisfaction on starting on his quest for a moral life.

1) Moral ecologies: These are a “collective response to the big problem of a specific moment” (4). They are built on a series of assumptions: the people’s right to live as they please; the God within; privatization; total freedom; the centrality of accomplishment. A tension between the self and society.

2) The Instagram life: “the big swim to nowhere”; the aesthetic life; and the notion that complete personal freedom “sucks”.

3) The insecure overachiever: leading to personal identity and your job title alone, constantly comparing yourself to others.

4) The valley: The “social” valley has led to loneliness, a crisis of meaning, distrust, tribalism and suffering. “suffering shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency” (17).

5) The wilderness: leading to confusion of purpose and a need to shed the old self and let the new self emerge—discovering your heart and soul (43).

6) Heart and soul: “The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility” (46). We come to see the shallowness of life, when we are not fulfilled, leading to hardship, which is necessary to begin the “second journey” (51).

7) The committed life: commitment begins with the love of something, a contract with it. It gives us our identity, a sense of purpose and builds our moral character.

8) The second mountain. There becomes a motivational shift (67) that involves our desires being transformed. States include: material pleasure, ego pleasure, intellectual pleasure, generativity, fulfilled love and transcendence (“The feeling we get when living in accordance with some ideal” (67).

The four commitments. Part II: Vocation.

9) What vocation looks like: “The think everybody knows about finding a vocation is that it’s quite different from finding a career” (89). Brooks notes that “The summons to vocation is a very holy thing. It feels mystical, like a call from deep to deep” (93).

10) The annunciation moment: realizing the moment or time when you have the awareness of a vocation and finding your purpose in life.

11) What mentors do: learning how to deal with success and error. [See my article on “Mentoring a mother tongue speaker.”]

12) Vampire problems: Choices that determine the kind of person you are and become. Shoiuld the decision be rational, which Brooks sees as a “fable” (109) or should the “daemons” (unresolvable tensions) take over and determine the journey? No one can consciously “anesthetize the daemon” but people can be strangers to their own desires and settle for a false life (115). It is not about a career path but about what “gives me my deepest satisfaction” (121) and is therefore the right “fit” for me.

13) Mastery: “A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you” (123). A vocation makes the man.

Part III: Marriage.

14) The Maximum Marriage: “Passion peaks among the young, but marriage is the thing that peaks in old age” (139). Brooks notes that “marriage is the ultimate moral education” (144)—it demands nearly everything and gives nearly everything (146).

15) The stages of intimacy I: the glance, curiosity and the dialogue precede opening the gates to each other.

16) The stages of intimacy II: the leap, crisis and forgiveness precede fusion.

17) The marriage decision: Are you ready? Do you really like the person? Does the person fill your need? How high is the bar? Quoting Lewis Torman, there are things to look for in a relationship: happiness of parents; childhood happiness; lack of conflict with mother; home discipline (firm, not harsh); strong attachment to both mother and father; lack of conflict with father; frankness from parents about sex; degree of childhood punishment; neither disgust or aversion of premarital attitude about sex (168).

18) Marriage: The school you build together: building intimacy with autonomy; the crises of life; a rich sexual life; keep alive the idealized images of each other; empathetic wisdom; communication the art of recommitment. The first love is champagne (183), the second love is the second mountain. It is love that endures until death.

Part IV: Philosophy and Faith.

19) Intellectual commitments: The evolution of American education, including the humanistic ideal (192) and the intellectual virtues. Brooks notes that “The educated life is a journey toward higher and higher love” (201).

20) Religious commitment: stories about how some people, including a nod to himself (Brooks) have found faith.

21) A most unexpected turn of events: further examples of faith in the author’s life. His was a “pilgrimage” from the Jewish tradition into an understanding of grace. The Jews of NY put “peoplehood before faith” (210) but “the Jesus story was not about worldly accomplishment” (219). He reviews his interaction and subsequent attachment to Anne Snyder, researcher and colleague. Brooks describes his “own moment of decision (245ff) and it involved reading many authors and experiencing faith as change.

22) Ramps and walls: Brooks describes several walls: 1) the siege mentality, dividing those “who are unimpeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad” (256); 2) the wall of bad listening where people “unfurl the maxims regardless of circumstances” (256); 3) the wall of invasive care; 4) the wall of intellectual mediocracy—those who are brutal in the “march for excellence” (257). He also found ramps: 1) ritual—moral order and sacred story; 2) unabashed faith; 3) prayer; 4) spiritual consciousness; 5) the language of good and evil, now “largely abandoned in the public world,” (259), especially the word “sin.” “I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes” (262).

Part V: Community.

23) The stages of community building I: unveiling yourself and confronting our weaknesses in conjunction with others.

24) The stages of community building II: village over self; initiating connections; radical hospitality; community as expert; the least are the most (286). “Thick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet fact to face on a regular basis, such as a dinner table or a packed gym or an assembly hall” (294).

25) Conclusion: The rationalist manifesto: an examination of hyper-individualism vs. relationalism in the process of becoming a person. Brooks is interested in “the good life,” not in terms of things, but rather in terms of commitments and relationships. This, he notes, will lead to “the good society” (308). He concludes with a declaration of interdependence in which joy is recognized as a moral outlook.

Acknowledgments: there are many, but he concludes with Anne: “This book has been, and the rest of my life will be, warmed and guided by Anne’s light” (315).

Notes 11 pages that are cross-referenced to each chapter of the book.

Index: key terms are agency, beauty, Christianity, commitment, community, culture, ego/self, emotion, faith, first mountain, God, happiness, heart/desiring heart, individualism, Jewish people and Judaism, joy, loneliness, love, marriage, moral ecology, morality, purpose, relationships, second mountain, society, spirituality, suffering, the valley, vocation and wilderness.

Brooks is extremely well read and quotes many authors. Those who seem most quoted are: William F. Buckley Jr., Frederick Buechner, Edmund Burke, Dorothy Day, Alai de Botton, Fyodor Dostoyefsky, Victor Fankl, Sarah Hemminger, Abraham Joshua Heschel, James Hollis, William James, Jesus, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther King Jr., C.S. Lewis, Abraham Lincoln, Friedrich Nietszche, Henri Nouwen, Anne Snyder, Joseph Soloveitchik, Davy and Sheldon Vanauken, David Foster Wallace, Judith Wallerstein and William Wordsworth.

The book is easy reading, aside from looking into the notes and index for the many quotes and references. I found the chapters on vocation and marriage especially well written, with practical ideas and comments.

Karl Franklin
October 2019

On Parade

The Baylor Homecoming Parade was last Saturday, and it reminded me of some parades I have seen. One vivid one was when we were living in Canberra, Australia and watched the ANZAC parade, in which Australian and New Zealand military veterans marched, as best they could, in groups representing various wars and conflicts. The Aussies didn’t care if the occasionally tipsy soldier got out of line.

Of course, it was nothing like Chairman Kim and his mighty men and missiles on parade, but it was impressive. The North Koreans march in what seems to be almost goose-stepping monotony—thousands upon thousands of them—past their beloved leader and dictator, who salutes them smartly. It was Hitler all over again.

In Texas, generally, the parades are small and patriotic—lots of American flags, the Shriner’s racing about on their scooters, fire trucks, local High School bands tooting and drumming, convertibles carrying notable and not so notable politicians, jeeps, a few floats and of course Texans riding their horses. The horses are always last in the parade and you can imagine why—who would want to march after the horses deposit their food remains down the street?

But I have a gripe about parades, and it came to light at the Baylor Parade. There were scores of people on floats and on the street as well, who were throwing candy to the children (and some big adults). The children were expecting candy—lots of it—they were holding sacks like it was Halloween only it was not “trick or treat.” It was “fill er up—throw some here.”

The problem I see is that lawsuits and parade candy may become mixed. Some of those kids are going to get awfully fat from eating so much candy and they will decide, as a result, that the Parade is responsible for their being a fat boy or a fat girl. They will blame Baylor for their obesity, and it will go to court and cost the college millions of dollars. They will be fat-shamed, and it will be Baylor’s fault.

There is no good reason to throw candy. Instead, why not have Kentucky Fried throw out wings and Chic-fil-a can toss the kids chicken nuggets; The Chinese restaurants can chuck rice balls and I Hop can spin their pancakes to help the kids have fun with frisbee-cakes, whirling them up and down the street and over and in the floats. Parade helpers, dressed like bears—the Baylor mascot—could give cups of Dr Pepper to the very young, preparing them in life for the Baylor beverage of choice.

Of course, I know that won’t happen. There are too many sororities and fraternities represented in the Parade, all performing deeds of kindness around the campus and city. I tried to keep track of each Greek alphabet letter signified in the Parade and found that Chi, Pi, and Psi were underreported and Zeta, Xsi and Omicron barely got a mention. This is surely something that the Baylor president and the Greek department should be made aware of. There was also an over-abundance of Parade queens, but no Parade kings. I have referred this discrepancy to the Future Baylor Nurses Association, The Baylor Dive Club and the Noble Nose Brotherhood.

Where they will take it remains a secret, but rumors are that the Virtual Reality Club and the Ronald McDonald House have also shown an interest.

I was somewhat shocked—as any good Baptist should be—by how many dance groups were in the Parade: the Golden Wave Band, with 300 members (or was it 3000?), the Baylor Dance Company, swing dancers, country dancers, and even the Phi Gama’s Honky Tonky Boot Stomping group.

I have mentioned the matter to the Dean of Social Services, the Baylor Pre-Vet Medical Association, The Salvation Army and Truett Seminary. In the future expect more waltzes, calypso and flamenco, perhaps even a fire dance, where the performer spins poi, consisting of wire wool in chicken wire cages first dipped in paraffin.

However, I must not close in a negative mode. The enthusiasm of the kids getting candy, the beauty of the convertibles with their shivering queens, the 300 sorority queens (or was it 3000?), and the cowboys and cowgirls with their horses—it made my eyes water and my heart pump wildly.

I awoke suddenly in this condition and realized I was now watching the Baylor football game—it had been a long sleep, dream and parade. I was bleeding green and gold.

In case I may have made up some of this, I’ll check with the Baylor Adult Day Care Center for help and see if they will loan me a service dog.

October 2019
Waco, Texas

Samples on Classic Christian Thinkers

Samples, Kenneth Richard. 2019. Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction. Covina, CA: RTB.

Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe and an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University. He is the author of several books, including Without a Doubt and 7 Truths That Changed the World.

Samples introduces us to nine scholars: 1) Irenaeus (Architect of Christian Thought); 2) Athanasius (Defender of Christian Orthodoxy); 3) Augustine (Theologian of Grace); 4) Anselm (Patriarch of Perfect Being Theology); 5) Thomas Aquinas (The Quintessential Catholic Philosopher); 6) Martin Luther (Father of Protestantism); 7) John Calvin ( The Reformation’s Systematic Theologian; 8) Blaise Pascal (Historic Christianity’s Renaissance Man); and 9) C.S. Lewis (Mere Christian Apologist and Writer).  His conclusion is for us to “Take Up and Read.” There are two appendices: A) Church History and Historical Theology Timeline and B) Promoting Truth, Unity, and Charity within Christendom.

Here we summarize only the chapter on Lewis: Samples notes his life and events, influential writings and the key positions Lewis held. He outlines seven key arguments that Lewis used as inferences to prove Jesus’s identity. One of them is the longing for meaning, suggesting that “A person’s profound longing for meaning and transcendence in life is best explained as a pointer to God” (171).

Lewis also argued from reason, as in The Case for Christianity and Miracles, as well as from morality, as in both Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man. Lewis’s underlying idea in Mere Christianity is that “individual believers cannot live as ‘mere Christians’ but rather must embrace a fuller version (a denomination or branch) of the faith” (174). But, regardless of denominational affiliations, genuine Christians must stand together.

Samples evaluates Lewis by looking at his books. In The Screwtape Letters “Lewis describes human moral virtue and shows how that integrity can be corrupted” (177). Lewis values apologetics and uses it as a basic kind of reasoning that emanates from God’s grace and demonstrate a faith that perseveres.

Samples closes his account of Lewis by observing his influence on today’s apologetics, by giving a timeline of his life, noting resources on C.S. Lewis and asking five questions about how Lewis has influenced anyone reading the chapter.

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Buechner on The Remarkable Ordinary

Buechner, Frederick. 2017. The remarkable ordinary: How to stop, look, and listen to life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Buechner has been writing books for a long time: He is 92 years old and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. His 30+ books include novels, memoirs and theological works.  According to Wikipedia, an Institute was inaugurated  in his name in 2008 at King University, the former King College. The Institute is dedicated to the work and example of Buechner, exploring the intersections of faith and culture that define our times.

The Remarkable Ordinary, a slim book of 120 pages, is divided into three parts: I) Stop, look, and listen for God; II) Listening for God in the Stories we Tell; and III) Telling the truth.

The first chapter of part I is about “the remarkable ordinary” that we encounter in life without thinking much about the small things we see about us, as well as in art and music. Buechner encourages us to stop, look and listen to the creation and nature around us, which reflects “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” and to look “with X-ray eyes” (31).

The second chapter is called “To See is to Love, to Love is to See,” in which we are encouraged to pay attention not just to what gets into the headlines, but also to the mighty works in our own lives. If you want to love your neighbor, you must see your neighbor—someone to love, but we must “look with the imagination as well as with the eyes,” with compassion and empathy (41).

Chapter 3 is the first part of part II and is called “The Laughing Room of Maya Angelou.” Buechner met Maya through lectures, conferences and conversations. Maya, although different than him, had stories about racism (she is black) and prejudice, but told with humility and laughter.

Chapter 4, “The Subterranean Grace of God, or Why Stories Matter,” includes wisdom and insight on the use of our life stories. (I could have used this chapter and book at the course I taught on “storytelling” some years ago.) Bible stories need to be retold because they “are like coins that have been handled so long that the images rub off” (57). Stories are basic to our faith and in telling them we “discover cracks in the ground” of our lives and are “able to glimpse the subterranean, life-giving grace of God” (66).

“A Long Way to Go” is the title of chapter 5 and is a brief but compelling autobiographical account of Buechner’s early life, including the influence of his grandmother and education.

Chapter 6, “Holy Moments,” demonstrates the influence one person can have in a life. In Buechner’s case it was George Arthur Buttrick, a pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Buechner wanted advice on going to seminary and, after some hesitation, Buttrick drove him to Union Seminary. It was the right fit for Buechner and, while there, he met the faith healer Agnes Sanford, who “was the real deal, there was no question about it” (91). She was not only a physical healer but later in her life a “healer of memories” as well. Through her, Buechner “found myself for the first time really daring to pray for people who came to me for help, as she always did and as Jesus did before her, with her hands on the head of the person and praying for healing” (92).

“Better Than I Used to Be, But Far From Well,” is the creative title of chapter 7. Buechner recalls that he was certain that the good life around him was not going to last—it was just too good. Bad things did happen and Buechner needed therapy to help him through them and, as the title indicates, “The journey continues; I do what I can. The great problem is to try to live in the present, not the past, not the future, but in the now” (105).

The book concludes with chapter 8, “The Presence of Peace.” It is mainly about prayer and problems, such as his daughter’s decision to move to Florida. But the theme is also about joy and getting rid of the superstitious feeling that if you talk about something good it will bring it “to an end when the demons come and gobble it up” (114). God gives us glimpses of joy through the ordinary “even through you see only through a glass darkly, even though lots of things happen—wars and peacemaking, hunger and homelessness—joy in knowing, even for a movement that underneath everything are the everlasting arms” (120).

This is a great little book of Buechner’s stories, told with a style that only he can use so effectively. You cannot read the book without identifying closely with the events and responding with emotions of your own.

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