Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Jeremiah Burroughs on contentment with life circumstances

In books, prayer requests, quotes, recommendations, reviews, theology on January 18, 2010 at 10:26 pm

Right now is just about the most exciting and the most nerve-wracking time of my entire life. I am graduating from college in May, getting married to the most beautiful woman on the planet in July, and I’ve been accepted to seminary. Evidences of God’s grace are found everywhere in my life. However, there are so many decisions that we have to make in the next few months that I often feel bogged down with stress and anxiety. It is far too easy for me to focus on what is uncertain instead of focus on what is. I think a lot of my friends are in the same boat.

I’ve been reading an incredible book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by an old Puritan named Jeremiah Burroughs. His purpose in the book is to help believers find peace and contentment during difficult times. Today I came across a quote that was a very helpful word of grace that I just wanted to share with you:

“You should labour to bring your heart to quiet and contentment by setting your soul to work in the duties of your present condition. And the truth is, I know nothing more effective for quieting a Christian soul and getting contentment than this, setting your heart to work in the duties of the immediate circumstances that you are now in, and taking heed of your thoughts about other conditions as mere temptations.

…So it is with those who think, If I were in such circumstances, then I should have contentment; and perhaps they get into those circumstances, and they are as far from contentment as before. But then they think that if they were in other circumstances, they would be contented, but when they have got into those circumstances, they are still as far from contentment as before. No, no, let me consider what is the duty of my present circumstances, and content my heart with this, and say, ‘Well, though I am in a low position, yet I am serving the counsels of God in those circumstances where I am; it is the counsel of God that has brought me into these circumstances that I am in, and I desire to serve the counsel of God in these circumstances.'”


Top 10 albums of 2009!

In music, recommendations, reviews on January 2, 2010 at 9:20 am

Here it is. With great jubilation, I present to you my ten favorite albums of 2009. I think we all can agree that this was a great year for music. For serious. At the end of 2008, I had a very rough time compiling my list (and looking back there are plenty of changes I would make). There were only about five albums that stood out. While there were other very good ones, none of them had the elusive “it”. This year, I have a list of about 20 albums that could very easily make the cut. Nevertheless, here are those lucky albums to earn a spot.

1. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You

2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

4. Wilco – Wilco (the album)

5. M. Ward – Hold Time

6. U2 – No Line on the Horizon

7. The Swell SeasonStrict Joy

8. Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome

9. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

10. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

Now I have to admit, I even had second thoughts while writing this. The number ten spot could have gone to a few other albums (Brandi CarlileJohn Mayer, and Volcano Choir among others), and I’ve been recently listening to several records that could take a spot upon further listening (Joe HenryDave Rawlings Machine, The Low Anthem), but here’s my list and I’m sticking to it.

Review of James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom

In books, recommendations, reviews, theology on November 29, 2009 at 12:27 am

Below is a recent review of James K.A. Smith’s new book Desiring the Kingdom that I wrote for my Faith and Learning in American Culture class this semester with the incredible George Marsden. I hope it’s helpful.

The question of Christian education has been hotly debated for many years. What are the primary factors that shape a distinctively Christian education and what kind of content is learned? Is “content” even at the heart of Christian education? In his recent book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K.A. Smith argues for a renewed vision for Christian education. While there are certainly many things to be admired in “worldview” models of Christian education, Smith claims that we should instead root our models in the actual practices of Christian worship. Too often, Smith notes, Christian education has started with an insufficient anthropology that sees human beings primarily as thinking things and not as fully embodied creatures. What Smith calls for is an Augustinian renewal of our understanding of the human person, primarily as “embodied agents of desire or love” (47).

The problem with worldview thinking, Smith argues, is that much of it “owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment than it does to the holistic, biblical vision of human persons” (31). While Christian education certainly involves the passing of information from a “Christian perspective” to some degree, Smith believes that this is not formative enough. The starting point for Smith’s model is worship rather than worldview. To demonstrate this point, Smith boldly claims that

“Before we articulate a worldview, we worship… That’s the kind of animals we are, first and foremost: loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don’t inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines… given the sorts of animals we are, we pray before we believe, we worship before we know—or rather, we worship in order to know.” (33-34).

This is at the heart of this Augustinian renewal: rightly ordered loves.

Smith divides his “Human Person as Lover” model into three primary categories: love’s aim, love’s end, and love’s fulcrum/formation. Smith argues persuasively that the fundamental mode of the human person is love. We engage the world as lovers and it is what we love that defines us. When espousing his views, Smith rightly notes that the issue of love is essentially an issue of worship and he states that “our ultimate love is what we worship” (51). While this ultimate love should be God, sin has distorted our affections and has pointed them toward things that are not God. Much of the time these things are not inherently bad. Rather, they are usually good things, but anything other than God that we hold as ultimate in our lives necessarily is an issue of idolatry. Indeed, Smith rightly shows that at our core is a kind of constant “love pump” (52) that sin has caused to be aimed at the wrong things. Smith then goes on to engage with love’s end, or telos. What is the end to which we love? What we love is ultimately rooted in some kind of picture of human flourishing. Whatever supreme picture of human flourishing we hold will then govern the way we act, think, decide, and love. It is here that Smith argues persuasively for his anthropology of the human person primarily as lover:

“Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster the willpower to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons” (54).

Because of the fact that our “love pump” is misdirected, there are many different pictures of human flourishing we end up holding. This picture amounts to nothing less than our view of the kingdom. The way we live and the habits that we hold flow from this picture largely as second nature. However, our habits also help to shape this picture, and, as Smith shows, this must be taken into account when thinking through the nature and shape of Christian education.

One of the most helpful aspects of Smith’s anthropology of the human person primarily as lover is that it opens up the factors that shape us past the realm of ideas and concepts. When love becomes the primary characteristic of the human person, cultural practices and institutions become kinds of liturgies and create what Smith calls “cultural pedagogies”. As Smith shows, even something as seemingly neutral as shopping at the mall becomes a powerful liturgical event that has a dramatic effect on our vision of the kingdom. While there are certainly different levels of this effect, for example, brushing one’s teeth does not likely have a significant impact on one’s ultimate love, things like going to church on Sundays and engaging in daily prayer have a significant impact on our vision of human flourishing. Smith outlines several “secular liturgies”, such as shopping at the mall and university education, deftly showing their formative nature and the subtle ways they direct our desires.

According to Smith, human beings are ultimately driven by desires and affections and these desires both help shape and are shaped by the activities that we participate in. In summarizing his goal, Smith writes,

“Fundamentally, the concern was to emphasize that Christianity is not only (or even primarily) a set of cognitive, heading believes; Christianity is not fundamentally a worldview… Rather, we sought to show that what Christians think and believe (and they do think and believe, and that’s a good thing!) grows out of what Christians do” (216).

Smith wants to root Christian education in the nature and practices of Christian worship. However, I am not entirely convinced that what we do takes on any more of a significant role in our development than what we think and believe. I don’t Smith intends to set up an either/or dichotomy between what we think and what we do, but he certainly places the weight of formation on the side of practices.

In my view, both practice and worldview have significant impact on our vision of the kingdom. Much of what the New Testament says about what Christians are to do and how they are supposed to act are rooted in both liturgical practices and doctrine. One clear example of this is Ephesians 4:17-24. Note how many times Paul references teachings:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles to, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (emphasis added).

In this passage, Paul references “deceitful desires”, but the answer is not only to “put on the new self” (changing what we do), but also the renewal in the “spirit of your minds” (changing what we think). Paul then goes on to address specific issues in the church of Ephesus, concluding, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). Paul is asking for changes in practice, but it is rooted in the fact (the idea or concept, if you will) that God has already forgiven them in Christ. While our visions of the kingdom are certainly shaped by the practices that we take part in, it cannot be denied that we are also incredibly influenced by ideas and concepts.

Overall, Smith’s anthropology of the human person fundamentally as lover is an incredibly helpful model for discussing how a proper model of Christian education should be constructed. We certainly are more than just “thinking things” and too often this has been forgotten or ignored. While I don’t think Smith intends to completely abandon a model of education that emphasizes facts and ideas in favor of one that only emphasizes practices, he certainly argues that cultural practices and liturgies are the primary factor that influences our kingdom-visions of human flourishing. It seems wise to adopt a more moderate view that sees practices and concepts as both significant influences that shape our vision of the kingdom. Nevertheless, James K.A. Smith successfully changes the conversation about Christian education. No longer can we simply teach classes from a “Christian perspective” and consider it to be sufficient; we must go deeper. If human beings are primarily creatures of desire, the goal of a Christian education must seek to influence these desires, helping students to gain a biblical picture of the kingdom, rightly ordering all loves around the worship of our great God.

Wilco (rocks)

In music, recommendations, reviews on July 7, 2009 at 10:17 pm

I realize that for a lot of people, my endorsement of Wilco’s cleverly titled new album, Wilco (the album) doesn’t hold a ton of water. There are very few bands/artists that I hold in as high esteem as Wilco. Jeff Tweedy is a consistently excellent songwriter and every incarnation of the band has put out some incredible music.

While throughout the years, they have had a constantly evolving cast (Jeff Tweedy and John Stirratt are the only original members), Wilco is currently running on it’s longest-lasting lineup and the results have been glorious. While Sky Blue Sky was a great album in it’s own right, it largely felt like Wilco hit the refresh button – it was basically a live album recorded in the studio. Wilco (the album) on the other hand, is a self-consciously studio-driven venture. One of the best parts of the album is that the band sounds like they had a blast making it.

Sonically, there are traces to be found from every stage of their history and this is one of the reasons why Wilco (the album)‘s title is so appropriate – it is the best statement of Wilco (the band)’s complex identity ever recorded on tape. It also reminds us that even throughout the sonic deconstruction of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, at his core Tweedy has always been a writer of great pop songs.

From the first chords of ‘Wilco (the song)’ to Nels Cline’s jazzy noodling on the close to ‘Everlasting Everything’, Wilco (the band) has once again proven to be one of the most exciting bands in the world and Wilco (the album) is the latest installment of their near-perfect catalogue. It is also some of the finest music you’ll hear this year. Or next.

My week in music.

In music, recommendations, reviews on May 15, 2009 at 6:23 pm

This week has been pretty action packed.  For those of you who didn’t know, my birthday was last Friday and my wonderful girlfriend’s birthday was on Monday.  As a gift, my parents got me tickets to see my musical hero, and on Tuesday night Katelyn and I rocked out at the United Center for almost three hours to the tunes of my good friend, Bruce Springsteen. It was my second time seeing him and he and the E Street Band never disappoint.

I have also been really enjoying Animal Collective’s 2007 masterpiece, Strawberry Jam and Steve Earle’s new album, Townes.  The latter is a tribute to Earle’s good friend Townes Van Zandt, who was one of the best songwriters in America’s history.

Francis Schaeffer, art, and Animal Collective.

In books, music, quotes, recommendations, reviews, theology on May 9, 2009 at 9:00 am

I am giving a presentation on Monday for my Christianity and Culture class on how Christian are to relate to popular music.  While reading Francis Schaeffer’s classic Art & The Bible, I came accross this killer quote:

“For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts.  A Christian should use these arts to the glory of God, not just as tracts, mind you, but as things of beauty to the praise of God.  An art work can be a doxology in itself.”

One album that I have really been enjoying lately is Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective.  I bought a few months ago during spring break because it was on sale for $7.99 on iTunes and I had wanted to listen to it for a while.  I was a little nervous because it is very different from the kinds of music that I usually listen to, but I really, really like it.  They are one of the most innovative, strange bands out there, but I would highly reccommend it.  If you give it time, this album gets better with every listen and every beat, layer, synth, and strange, oddball noise points me to our innovative, glorious Creator.

Here is the video for their song “My Girls”:

The album cover:

Bob Dylan – Together Through Life

In music, recommendations, reviews on April 30, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Hey folks.  I have had a really, really busy few weeks and haven’t had a ton of time to post updates.  If you want to hear from me more often, you can follow me on Twitter.  Don’t expect much on my blog over the next few weeks because I’ve got papers to write, presentations to give, and Greek to translate.

Bob Dylan – Together Through Life

This is great stuff.  While a lot of people considered his previous three albums (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times) to be a trilogy, after this release it makes much more sense to consider Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Together Through Life to be Dylan’s true modern trilogy.  While Time Out of Mind is an great album, his recent three have had continuity in their production/instrumentation and have dealt with similar subjects.  Together Through Life has the loosest feel of the three and, as the title and cover suggest, zooms in to explore snapshots of modern American life.

The new album by The Decemberists is worth the Hazards.

In music, recommendations, reviews on April 2, 2009 at 9:28 am

I would highly reccommend picking up The Hazards of Love from The Decemberists.  Featuring friends such as Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) on vocals, The Decemberists take us through a story from beginning to end, highlighting the (extreme) hazards of love.  It takes work to listen to, but the work pays off.

Two other things:

I have overlooked Animal Collective for years, but Merriweather Post Pavilion is incredible.


Check out The War on Drugs

In music, recommendations, reviews, videos on March 15, 2009 at 10:28 pm

No, not the government campaign or the Barenaked Ladies song.  They’re a really cool new band and I’ve been digging their album, Wagonwheel Blues.  Great stuff.  I’m excited to see them at the Festival of Faith and Music.  Here’s a video:

Bruce Ware rocks.

In loving jesus, recommendations, reviews, theology on February 20, 2009 at 6:49 pm

He is one of the most helpful theologians I’ve ever read.  His argument against open theism in God’s Lesser Glory is rock solid (in my opinion) and I’ve just started God’s Greater Glory, which focuses on the providence of God.  Go read him.