The Unbiblical – and Common!! – Way to Handle Reports of Abuse in the Church

Sin is like fungus: it grows best in the dark. We need to keep exposing this wickedness to the light.

The Reformed Reader

(This is a repost from October, 2014)

In their helpful book on abuse in the church, Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood give an outline of what typically (and sadly!) happens when a victim goes to her pastor or church leadership for help.  In other words, the following is an outline of how abuse is sometimes swept under the rug in Christian churches.  Why am I posting this?  Basically, I want Christians (especially elders and pastors) to be aware that abuse can and does hide in churches.  I also want to point out this helpful resource for those needing some guidance on the topic of abuse in the church.  I’ve edited a bit for the purpose of this blog:

1) Victim reports abuse to her pastor.
2) Pastor does not believe her claims or thinks they are exaggerated. After all, he ‘knows’ her husband to be one of the finest Christians…

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Resurrecting Reading

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading: A Quest for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, Leland Ryken and Glenda Faye Mathes.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Softcover, 296 pages.

I grew up with the blessing of books everywhere.  For most of my youth I inhabited “the dungeon” — a basement bedroom with no windows, but a full wall of bookshelves.  No, my father wasn’t an academic; he was a police officer.  He’d completed high school, but didn’t go to university.  Nevertheless, his many books filled my room.  Even though we always had a TV in the house growing up, I was almost always reading a book.  Reading wasn’t only natural, it was delightful.  When I was a teenager, I spent hours and hours every week at the local library, about a 30 minute walk from our home. 

I wonder what would have happened to me if I’d grown up today rather than in the 1980s.  We had TV, but we didn’t have mobile phones.  We had cable and a VCR, but we didn’t have Netflix.  We had a Commodore 64 computer (with some pretty neat games), but we didn’t have the Internet.  So many less distractions back then!  It’s a wonder that any kids today still read.  Reading is on the rocks – and all ages are affected. 

This book seeks to bring reading back from the brink, particularly amongst Christians.  Leland Ryken is a retired professor of English and Glenda Mathes is a professional writer.  Together they have a passion for not merely helping people to read, but to read excellent literature artfully.

The first part of the book argues the case:  “Reading is a Lost Art.”  In the second part, Ryken and Mathes explain the different dimensions of literature, including the various genres: stories, poems, novels, fantasy (yes, Harry Potter is discussed), children’s books, and creative non-fiction.  This part also includes a chapter on learning to delight in the Bible as literature.  The last part of the book discusses what it means to read artfully, with appreciation for the truth, beauty and goodness of literature. 

Recovering the Lost Art of Reading will help avid readers become better readers.  As it did for me, it may also introduce you to some new authors.  This book may also be of interest to budding writers – it certainly gives some insight into how stories are put together.

Unfortunately, Ryken and Mathes did leave me with some unanswered questions, especially in the last part of the book.  The authors write, “No good reason exists for immersing ourselves in literature that portrays immoral behaviour and recommends immoral attitudes” (p.184).  However, there’s no discussion at all of the one most conspicuous forms of immorality in much literature:  blasphemy.  What should Christians do with books which take God’s Name in vain?  It would have been helpful to explore this elephant-in-the-room question.

There were many good and true things said about beauty in chapter 17.  I appreciated the way the authors want to link our understanding of beauty to who God is.  Admirably, they want to base their view on what the Bible says, trying to bring some objectivity to bear.  However, at the end, they appear to state that what’s beautiful is what gives us pleasure and what employs artistry.  Beautiful things do give us pleasure, certainly.  But what gives one person pleasure may be nails on a chalkboard to another.  I may find pleasure and artistry (and therefore beauty) in an Oscar Peterson jazz composition – but another Christian may listen to it and feel nothing, or worse.  I may find pleasure/artistry/beauty in a Marilynne Robinson novel – but another Christian may read it and fail to experience what I did.  The authors quote artist Makoto Fujimura on pages 198-99.  I decided to look up this artist to see his work.  Honestly, I don’t get how his work is beautiful – I get no pleasure from it. Others do.  Is it beautiful or not?  You see, even though God is objectively beautiful, we struggle to translate what we see in him to how we evaluate literature, art, and music.  I can’t escape the conclusion that there may always be something subjective about our notions of beauty and artistry.

A couple of years ago, a colleague wrote an article dealing with the problem of people not reading in the church.  The irony is that the people who don’t read probably won’t read it and therefore won’t be challenged or helped.  Sadly, something similar could happen with Recovering the Lost Art of Reading.  That’s why I’m going to say it’s especially two groups who ought to read this, two groups who can really make a difference.  One is English teachers.  English teachers can make a difference in encouraging kids to get into a lifetime of reading.  The second group is parents who themselves are avid readers.  Reading this book will motivate you more to pass on your love for reading to your children.  Now, if you’re not in either of those groups, and you just love books, get this one too.  It’ll assuredly enhance your appreciation for God’s gift of literature.

Here’s an interview with Leland Ryken about the book:

Rod Dreher – Orthodox and Not

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, Rod Dreher.  New York: Sentinel, 2020.  Hardcover, 240 pages.

Rod Dreher’s latest book has gained as much interest as his previous work, The Benedict Option.  This new offering explains the new world we’re in, the “brave new world” looming on the horizon, and how it all connects to the recent past of Eastern Europe.  Live Not By Lies also wants to provide guidance for Christians as we descend into the darkness of “soft totalitarianism.”   It looked like a promising read.  However, it turned out to be less than what I was hoping for.

The strength of this volume is in its first part:  Understanding Soft Totalitarianism.  This part is more descriptive, historical, and analytical.  Dreher explains that totalitarianism is about complete state control over actions, thought, emotions, and even what is and isn’t true.  Soft totalitarianism “is therapeutic.  It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing” (p.7).  Soft totalitarianism “masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavoured demographic groups to protect the feelings of ‘victims’ in order to bring about ‘social justice’ (p.9). 

Dreher helpfully draws historical lessons from the Eastern European experience of totalitarianism during the Cold War era.  He interviews people who lived through that horror and who see disturbing parallels developing in western democracies today.  Chapter 3, “Progressivism as Religion” is the best chapter.  It explains how the Christian faith and totalitarianism, particularly manifested with today’s woke leftists, are “best understood as competing religions” (p.56).  So far, so good.

The subtitle is “A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”  Dreher desires to help Christians dissent from the deepening soft totalitarianism.  This is the focus of the second part of Live Not By Lies, How to Live in Truth.  In this section too, there are valuable insights to be gleaned from the experiences of others who’ve endured communism in Eastern Europe.  Nevertheless, this is the weaker section of the book. 

I say that for two main reasons.  One is because I’d expect “A Manual for “Christian Dissidents” to offer authoritative guidance based on what the Bible teaches.  The Bible is mentioned here and there.  There are paraphrases from a couple of Bible passages and one direct quote.  But the Bible doesn’t appear to be foundational to Dreher’s manual.  The lived experience of people who were dissidents during the Cold War seems to be more so.

The second reason I found this section of the book weak is because of what it does, and doesn’t do, with the gospel.  In some places Dreher mentions the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.  However, there’s no mention of salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone.  In fact, there are places where that biblical teaching is denied by some of those interviewed by Dreher (e.g. Alexander Ogorodnikov on p.196).  Moreover, the book doesn’t emphasize how it’s the true gospel of Jesus Christ which can actually transform not only individual lives, but also entire nations.

These points won’t be surprising to those who know something of Dreher’s background.  He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1993 and then to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2006.  Sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church led to his departure.  However, Dreher continues to have a mostly positive view of Roman Catholicism. 

That leads me to one of the other major issues in Live Not By Lies:  its false ecumenism.  When Dreher says “Christian,” his definition includes Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.  It’s a definition that can’t be swallowed by a confessionally Reformed Christian.  I can grant that many of the people interviewed in this book are religious, as is Dreher.  I can grant that, in sociological terms, they and their churches are often described as “Christian” in the broad sense of being distinct from other religions.  I can grant that totalitarian persecutors don’t care about our theological differences — they will persecute the devout Roman Catholic as a “Christian” just as readily as they will the Bible-believing Protestant.  What I cannot grant is that any person who holds to the gospel-denying tenets of Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy is truly a Christian in the biblical sense of the word.  As an Orthodox believer, Dreher holds otherwise.  This is a dangerous lie which we ought not to live by.    

His Orthodoxy surfaces at certain points in the book.  Dreher describes “mystical awakenings” by which God is supposed to have revealed himself (p.197).  He speaks of a prisoner who “was able to be an icon” to others (p.204) and an Orthodox father-son duo canonized as saints whose icon hangs in Dreher’s home (p.178).  Dreher quotes a Romanian Orthodox priest who says, “You, my friend, are the unique bearer of your deification in Jesus Christ…” (p.160), referring to the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis.

Finally, Dreher’s focus is on more recent totalitarian movements.  However, a Reformed reader can’t help but think of other historic forms of totalitarianism, especially those connected with Roman Catholicism.  I think of what the Huguenots endured in France during the two centuries following the Reformation.  What Reformed believers need today is a “manual for Christian dissidents” primarily based on Scripture, but also explaining how our Huguenot brethren dissented in their day.

Live Not By Lies is worth reading, but with discernment.  It requires a cautious eye and a thoughtful mind.  To be sure, Dreher has helpful insights to offer.  But it has to be recognized that he’s not coming from a Reformed perspective, not even a Protestant or Evangelical perspective.  He has an understanding of what it means to live not by lies that’s not entirely acceptable to a Reformed Christian.  For us, living not by lies means we need to live by the truth of God’s Word as our ultimate standard.  Living not by lies means we need to uphold the truth of the biblical gospel – that there’s salvation through Jesus Christ alone.  Living not by lies means we need to experience unity with other believers only on the basis of a biblical faith.

Don’t Waste Your Time Reading Leviticus

If you’re like me and you follow some kind of Bible reading plan, inevitably you arrive at Leviticus.  The plan I’ve been using this year had me in this book for about 2 chapters a day over 2 weeks.  Chapters about clean and unclean, different sacrifices, ceremonial laws regarding priests – in the past I’ve read through it all, but, to be honest, not without much pleasure or profit.  This year I thought to myself:  “How can I make the best use of my time in this part of God’s revelation?  How can I avoid wasting my time as I read this book?” 

There are different ways.  One would be to find a readable and reliable commentary which both explains Leviticus in its original context and also shows how it points to Christ and applies to Christians (if anyone knows of such a commentary, I will allow comments for this post – please do share!).  Another way would be to use the notes in a sound study Bible.  Sometimes those notes can steer you in the right direction.

Another way, which I used this time around, is to find reliable sermons on Leviticus.  If you go to SermonAudio, there are some 3,260 sermons on Leviticus.  I can’t vouch for how reliable all of them are, but I’m sure some of them would be, especially those preached in confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  However, listening to a sermon on even one chapter of Leviticus could involve a significant time investment.  Some might have that time, but many others won’t. 

For many others, reading a sermon on a chapter or two might be more feasible.  If you go to a website called The Seed, you’ll find 17 sermons on Leviticus.  These sermons are suitable for reading and personal study.  There aren’t sermons on every chapter, but on enough to at least generally read one per day.

The last resource I’ll mention is the Family Worship Bible Guide.  As the title indicates, it was originally written for family devotions, but it can be equally useful for personal Bible study.  Each chapter of the Bible has notes to help Christians understand and reflect on what God is saying to us.  Let me give a couple of examples from Leviticus.  One of the notes on Leviticus 3 reads:

There are significant parallels between the peace offering and the communal meal that believers can experience at the Lord’s Table.  The table is not a sacrifice but it declares the fact of the sacrifice Christ offered that removed every barrier, obstacle, and impediment to our fellowship with God as believers; it declares that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Rejoice in the One who accomplished this on your behalf!

And this is one of the notes on Leviticus 9:

After Aaron offered the sacrifice to the Lord, he lifted up his hand toward the people and blessed them (v.22).  We are reminded of when our Lord “came out” from death and the grave having finished His work.  As He ascended to heaven, “he lifted up his hands and blessed them” (Luke 24:50).  How is the blessing of Christ better than that of Aaron?

The Family Worship Bible Guide is written from a Reformed perspective – it’s both reliable and helpful.  I can’t recommend it enough.

We believe the Bible is clear.  God’s written revelation is not an impenetrable mystery.  However, even Scripture itself says that not all parts of the Bible are equally clear.  Peter famously says that some passages of Paul are “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).  With Leviticus the passages are not always hard to understand in their original context.  The challenge really comes in understanding their relevance for us as Christians.  We can be thankful that help is available and we ought to avail ourselves of it.    

A Hidden Life: Tragic, Beautiful, Inspiring

It’s the Second World War.  You’re living in Nazi-occupied Europe.  You’re required to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler.  If you refuse, you’ll be charged with treason, imprisoned, and likely executed.  Standing your ground means leaving behind a wife and three young daughters.  You’ll be ostracized by your community and even your religious leaders won’t support you. 

That’s the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer.  Jägerstätter became convinced the Nazi regime was wicked and that he could do nothing to support it.  When he was conscripted into the German army in 1940, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Jägerstätter’s tragic story is powerfully told in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life.

It’s a beautifully made film.  The stark mountains of Austria feature in long, lingering shots which allow for contemplation.  Shots of the rapid rivers and creeks underscore the momentum of the storyline.  Even the weather accentuates the mood as viewers are drawn deeper into Jägerstätter’s crisis of conscience.

The soundtrack is likewise thoughtful.  For example, there’s a pivotal point in the story where we hear the familiar notes of J.S. Bach’s Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen from the St. Matthew’s Passion – “Come, you daughters, help me lament.”  There could hardly be a more appropriate piece of music for this moment in the film.  

Although it’s a story with no happy ending, A Hidden Life is profoundly inspiring.  Franz Jägerstätter was a Roman Catholic and his religion was important to him and his wife.  The film intimates that his religion was fundamental to his convictions about Nazism.  However, that doesn’t mean the alienation of Reformed viewers.  There’s one scene in which Jägerstätter pauses a moment before a Madonna and another in which he glances at a crucifix as he walks by on the road.  There are some scenes in which he interacts with Roman Catholic clergy.  Aside from that, there’s nothing specifically Roman Catholic brought to the fore.  Instead, the focus is on Jägerstätter’s steady conviction that Nazism is an evil ideology – certainly a sentiment with which Reformed believers would agree.

A repeated theme in the film is the pressure placed on Jägerstätter to compromise.  He’s told repeatedly that his resistance is going to accomplish nothing.  He’ll never be remembered.  Widowing his wife and leaving his children fatherless was going to be futile.  Even his local parish priest and bishop urged Jägerstätter to stop dissenting.  The only real support he received came from his wife Fani.  Despite all that, Franz Jägerstätter never wavered, not even when faced with the guillotine.

A Hidden Life is a family-friendly film.  There’s no sexual immorality or blasphemy.  There’s one scene in which a fellow prisoner is mocking Jägerstätter’s belief in God, questioning how he can still believe in God in the face of Nazi brutality.  And there are some vivid depictions of that Nazi brutality which may be upsetting to sensitive younger children.  It’s a long film (174 minutes, nearly 3 hours), but the length and the cinematography make the patient viewer reflect.  Christian families will definitely find fodder for discussion.  I enjoyed A Hidden Life tremendously – an unhesitating five stars out of five.