Top Ten Posts in 2014

This will likely be my last post of the year (with the holidays and all), so I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

In the meantime, I give you the mandatory ‘top posts’ post. If there’s anything on the list you haven’t read before, why not give it a look? Here are the most read posts from the blog for the year:

1. Myths About the Bible: Noah Was Mocked? The Fight Against Apathy
This marks the second year in a row that this post is number one. It had about 1,800 views for the year.

2. A List of Benedictions
In the top 3 for the third straight year. Everybody needs a good list of benedictions.

3. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton: Reading, Fairy Tales, and Mental Health
The same top 3 as last year. I still think that reading fairy tales is a balm for the soul.

4. God Is Love, But Love Is Not God
This one’s the first newcomer to the list. Here I take on not only modern culture, but no less a giant than St. Augustine.

5. Recent Reading: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers: Part 1 – Summary of the Argument for a Trinity in Creative Art
This marks the second year in the top 5. I go back to this post fairly regularly to brush up on Sayers’ points.

6. The Misused Passages: 1 Corinthians 2:9, Eye Hath Not Seen, Nor Ear Heard
This is my take on how people misuse the famous words, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man, what God hath prepared for them that love Him.’

7. Charlotte’s Web: Dr. Dorian, Miraculous Webs, Animals Talking
I share a favorite quote from Charlotte’s Web.

8. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Method of Pastoral Counseling and Diagnosis
I am glad this one cracked the top 10. I worked very hard on this post in an attempt to distill the basics of the pastoral counseling method of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I work harder to actually try to put his wisdom into practice. I still highly recommend the book on which this post is based: Healing and the Scriptures.

9. Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Here’s a taste: “Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die…”

10. Him that is Unjust, Let Him be Unjust Still: What does it mean? (Revelation 22:11)
It’s a line from the Book of Revelation that has entered into the modern consciousness via Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. I remember early in the season there was an SEC football commercial that used this song. I thought there was an ironically fitting display of southern culture as I saw images of Les Miles and Nick Saban as this song played in the background.

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On Funny Bits

‘Tell me one [book] that you like.’

‘I liked The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Matilda said. ‘I think Mr C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.’

‘You are right there,’ Miss Honey said.

‘There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.

‘Do you think all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.

‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh.’

Miss Honey was astounded by the wisdom of this tiny girl…

– Roald Dahl, Matilda (Puffin), pp. 80-81

This is one of the parts I’m glad they left out of the movie. Here comes some rambling.

I read Matilda with my daughters some time ago. They had already seen the movie, and loved it. My soon-to-be kindergartener informed me today that she is wearing a red ribbon in her hair on the first day of school in honor of Matilda. She also informed me that she would be brave, like Matilda, if she found herself wanting to cry. This conversation led my mind back to that one dreaded passage in Matilda that ruined the whole book for me (really, it ruined all of Dahl’s work for me, as if the work itself wasn’t enough).

I did not read much as a child. I can only remember reading, or being read, a few books (a small enough number that you could count them on one hand). The two that stood out the most were Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry, and James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. I had very fond memories of those books, and I always planned to read those books to my children one day. I read Number the Stars twice with my oldest daughter, and both she and I loved it. James and the Giant Peach, not so much. But, since my kids loved the movie, I thought we’d give Matilda a try.

I found, in that book, as well as the James book, what every other critic of Dahl found before me. His books tend to be based on children who are mistreated by adults and ultimately find vengeance, justification, and liberation. Of course, there are ‘funny bits’ along the way: most of those ‘funny bits’ involve the kids pulling pranks as a means of revenge against adults (this is much more the case in Matilda than in James). Perhaps it is the ‘serious’ adult in me, but I didn’t really find great humor in the so-called funny bits. In Matilda, I saw a miraculously gifted child using those gifts to do the same things to mean adults that they did to her. There is no meekness in Matilda, though she garners much sympathy as a character in other ways.

But now let me get to my point. I would have given Matilda a meh regardless, but the little dig that Dahl takes at Lewis and Tolkien just makes it worse in my mind. I am amazed that a Welshman took the time to call anyone too serious. I don’t know a lot of Welshman, but the ones I know are fairly serious. That is actually a strength in my mind. Lewis and Tolkien were no Welshman, but seriousness was a strength of theirs as well.

As for Tolkien, his seriousness is a joyful seriousness. He never plays with magic flippantly (in contrast to Matilda or Harry Potter). Wizardry and witchcraft are serious business for him (as well as for Lewis). He painted dark pictures so that the sun could shine brighter. So did Lewis. Lewis may not have had funny bits (though if you do not find Puddleglum or the Monopods funny…), but his work is filled with joviality, which is better than the flippant sort of ‘funny’: joviality, not jocularity.

I experiment with comedy. I watch the effects it has on people, including myself. I grew up watching stand up comedy. I didn’t read books, but my parents let me watch HBO and Showtime (don’t even ask). I saw Eddie Murphy’s stand up routine by the time I was 10, and Andrew Dice Clay (yep), and Gallagher, and Howie Mandel, and Sam Kinison, and Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Cosby, and others. I always loved sketch comedy, like Saturday Night Live. Seinfeld is my favorite TV show…ever. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t quote something from Seinfeld…not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I digress.

I used to be a big practical joker. I repented of it when Jesus Christ called me out of darkness and into light. I have come to take Proverbs 26:18-19 seriously: “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, “I was only joking!'” I am still an amateur comedian. I love puns; I love jokes; I love to laugh and make people laugh. But I don’t want to spread the creeping death of mockery and revenge humor (even though it is in my nature to do so, and to want to do so). I don’t want to speak ‘corrupting speech’ (Eph. 4:29), including corrupting humor, that causes rot and decay, that ruins souls by making them flippant and bitter (read a bit about that HERE). I’m a work in progress, because I’m sarcastic by nature (my dad’s a New Yorker, what can I say?). So I share these thoughts to encourage myself (and others). Even for comedy, there is a more excellent way.

I have found that there is quite a difference between the frivolous laughter that comes from a smart alek remark (and I make too many of those) and the deep laughter that comes from something that provokes true joy or insight. Dahl provides the first kind. Lewis and Tolkien provide the second kind. Lewis and Tolkien provide darkness so that the light may shine brighter; Dahl is just light (like a feather). I vote for Lewis and Tokien, and pray that this is the kind of laughter I will give to my children: not the stand up comedy kind, not the practical joke kind, not the potty humor kind, but the rejoicing in the midst of sorrow kind – serious joy. God help me.

May you be funnier than the flippant without being flippant; more merry than the one who’s had one too many without having one too many yourself; more perceptive and insightful than the stand up comedian; more humorous than the funny pages without turning into a  walking funny page yourself; more laugh-out-loud hysterical than those who resort to body-part-humor without feeling the need to demean the things that God has created. May you be light-hearted and still have a weight and substance and fullness in your soul. That is all.

Fireworks

The fireworks were by Gandalf: they were not only brought by him, but designed and made by him; and the special effects, set pieces, and flights of rockets were let off by him. But there was also a generous distribution of squibs, crackers, backarappers, sparklers, torches, dwarf-candles, elf-fountains, goblin-barkers and thunder-claps. They were all superb. The art of Gandalf improved with age.

There were rockets like a flight of scintillating birds singing with sweet voices. There were green trees with trunks of dark smoke: their leaves opened like a whole spring unfolding in a moment, and their shining branches dropped glowing flowers down upon the astonished hobbits, disappearing with a sweet scent just before they touched their upturned faces. There were fountains of butterflies that flew glittering into the trees; there were pillars of coloured fires that rose and turned into eagles, or sailing ships, or a phalanx of flying swans; there was a red thunderstorm and a shower of yellow rain; there was a forest of silver spears that sprang suddenly into the air with a yell like an embattled army, and came down again into the Water with a hiss like a hundred hot snakes. And there was also one last surprise, in honour of Bilbo, and it startled the hobbits exceedingly, as Gandalf intended. The lights went out. A great smoke went up. It shaped itself like a mountain seen in the distance, and began to glow at the summit. It spouted green and scarlet flames. Out flew a red-golden dragon – not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from its jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion.

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I can already hear the amateur wizards out doing their work.

A myth…is a master key; use it on what door you like (C.S. Lewis)

A myth points, for each reader, to the realm he lives in most. It is a master key; use it on what door you like.

– C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, p. 85 (commenting on The Lord of the Rings as myth rather than allegory)

Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I give you my disclaimer up front – this is not even close to a review or analysis. It is purely devotional. If you can handle that, then, by all means, proceed.
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I read this story a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. I didn’t take the time to reflect on it at that point. Recently, my 7-year-old daughter has been boldly stating that she wants to be an artist, and so, I thought this might be a good story to read together. And so we did.

I understood after my first reading that this story was somewhat autobiographical. Tolkien admitted as much. In some sense it is a fictional, imaginative account of his own insecurities and hopes. But, as it happened, the very night I began reading the little book with my daughter, I listened to a talk given by Tim Keller at a recent Gospel Coalition event. The talk (HERE) is entitled Redefining Work.

During the talk, Keller uses Leaf by Niggle as an illustration of a point he is making about work. He essentially says (I’m paraphrasing), that Leaf by Niggle captures a very important principle that Christians need to understand about vocation and work: What are Christians working for? We are working for God’s glory, for the good of God’s creation, for human flourishing, and for distinct elements of existence that lead to those ends. And, here’s the kicker, we will not see any of those things fully realized in our lifetimes.

Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die. Christian business people work to provide products and services that will promote human flourishing, and ultimately those products and services become a byword along with the humans they serve. Ditch-diggers dig ditches that don’t last. Mail Carriers deliver letters that wind up in the trash. Supermarket cashiers serve in order allow hungry people to walk out of the store with food. But, nevertheless, the fact remains that said food will end up in the toilet.

If you’re just there to collect a paycheck, then who cares anyway? It doesn’t matter. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity,’ says the pundit.

Tolkien cared about his work. He had passion to run the race that was his life’s writing. But, before it was completed, he saw this: he spent most of his life writing a series of books that he wasn’t sure would ever be completed. He spent so much time working on the leaves, he feared he would never see the tree to maturity. Hence Leaf by Niggle. It is the story of an artist who never sees his great landscape to completion because of endless distractions and obsession over details.

And then, something happens, and in a new life, he finds his portrait to be a living reality. And he finds himself to be no longer a painter, but a gardener. Along with the aid of his gardening neighbor, whom he failed to appreciate in his first life, he sees his life work to completion, not on canvas, but in the real stuff of nature.

I am restating Keller here, but from all this we glean an insight into reality. You spend your life working on the painting, only to find it complete in the next. Yes, from this story we can glean the lesson that even small, seemingly insignificant contributions we make to this world can have a lasting impact. But Tolkien goes beyond this. Niggle’s tree is forgotten in the end. His tree is forgotten, but trees are not forgotten. His tree is forgotten, but his tree exists nonetheless.

Tolkien spent his life envisioning a world of beauty and magic. He imagined a world in which good prevailed despite great loss. All of those things will prove true in the end – in this world – because Christ is returning, and he is bringing heaven with him.

So, let’s say you are a lawyer and/or a judge. You spend your life working for justice while injustice remains all around you. The Scriptures declare to you that there will be justice in the end. Or you are a lover of mercy-ministry and you desire to see the end of world hunger. You spend your life feeding the underfed, knowing full well that hunger will continue. But food is coming, the true Bread, which comes down from heaven, who gives his flesh as food for the world, is coming – and he comes to feast us. Or, let’s say, you are a preacher, like me, and you desire with all your heart to see the earth covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters fill the sea. You desire to see every knee bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father. You desire to present every saint under your care to the Father in the full maturity of the image and likeness of Christ. It’s going to happen, despite your failures.

In the midst of the fight that we call work, it always appears to be a losing battle for those who seriously desire justice, mercy, peace, love, and human prosperity. Remember that in the end Jesus wins. And his victory is our victory. You are not fighting a losing battle. There are no lost causes, so long as the cause of Christ stands first and foremost.

Go paint your tree, even if you only finish a leaf. Fight the insecurity and cling to the hope.

 

Crickets and Tolkien

The crickets have been chirping on the blog for a couple of weeks. The reason being: I had finals, two sermons, and a Sunday school lesson to work on. But alas, all of the above are in the books, and I actually have a week off from any particular study obligations. This means I will try to do a bit of catching up on the blog this week. I’ll mainly be posting quotes but I have been working on a couple of other things to post.

As for my practice of recording quotes on the blog, today illustrates my primary reason for doing so. In my sermon and Sunday school preparation I pulled four or five quotes directly from the blog that I wanted to use in my sermon and lesson. It comes in very handy. It’s nice to have helpful quotes cataloged and readily available. But I digress.

If you’ve been around the blog for the full two years of its existence I usually declare summers to be ‘the summer of biography.’ I may read a biography this year, but my plans are different. I’m planning on rereading the second volume of Calvin’s Institutes and reading The Silmarillion for the first time (I started it and failed to finish a while back).

Speaking of which, HERE is a link to the lecture that motivated me to get back into The Silmarillion. Click lecture 3. It’s worth a listen if you enjoy Tolkien’s work. As a matter of fact, all of the talks are worthwhile, and the interview at the bottom of the list is very, very good.

Speaking of which again, I had a massive project to work on for my technology in education class and I decided that I would put together a mock course for a 12th grade English class on the subject of 20th Century Imaginative Literature featuring Lewis and Tolkien. We had to come up with ten projects that integrate a technology into each. It was worth a third of our grade and I got a big fat 300 out of 300 on it, so needless to say, I’m proud of it. The ‘livebinder’ for my project, which outlines the course and its projects, is available online, and you can look at it, if you so desire, HERE. It’s obviously a mock lesson plan, but, nonetheless, my focus was on coming up with a strategy for fostering the development of the imagination through the examples left for us by Lewis and Tolkien.

The Light of the World (2): Always Winter and Never Christmas

I have been reading a good bit of Jonathan Edwards lately. At the same time my family and I have been reading the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (again). I am not aware of anywhere in his writings that C.S. Lewis interacts with the writings of Jonathan Edwards. But time and time again I have discovered significant overlap in their thought (I may post on this in the future). I came across one such overlap this week, and a helpful one at that.

Let me say few things to set the stage. When I began reading Lewis, as well as Tolkien, I was struck by an element of seriousness in their writing. Call it a certain ‘melancholy.’ Yet in their melancholy, a certain joy is still evident. They both, but Tolkien especially, had the ability in their writing to make the happiest events seem sad and the saddest events seem happy. It’s hard to describe. It’s a mood more than anything else. You pick it up if you read enough of them.

I am not a big fan of the recent Narnia movies, but there are a few things the movies do well. One relates to the mood I’m speaking of. In the closing scene of Prince Caspian, the image of the Pevensie children walking away from Aslan in Narnia into a crowded train station in the ‘real world’ is striking. I remember, after seeing the movie for the first time, telling my wife that that scene perfectly captured my weekly mood transitioning from Sunday to Monday. Sunday is my favorite day of the week. It’s like Narnia in its brightness and glory. But then on Monday morning I face the real world. Yet Sunday is the real world to me, not Monday. Aslan tells the children later in the Chronicles that they must get to know him in their own world by another name. Narnia is just a glimpse, just one manifestation. In the humdrum of the train station is where they will truly get to know him.

I digress, but this captures the mood I’m speaking of. It’s like a joyful sadness, a happy mourning. I wrote about it HERE and, using Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ expression, called it ‘serious happiness.’ (If you are a regular reader of mine and haven’t read that post, I’d encourage you to do so. That post is as clear an expression of my thinking as anything I’ve ever written).

In Narnia, in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the land is bewitched so that it is ‘always winter and never Christmas.’ That is, until Aslan returns and the thaw of spring begins. In Jonathan Edwards sermon on John 8:12, where Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world,’ he expresses he same idea about the return of Christ:

Is Christ Jesus the light of the world? What glorious times will those be when all nations shall submit themselves to him, when this glorious light shall shine into every dark corner of the earth, and shall shine much more brightly and gloriously than ever before. It will be like the rising of the sun after a long night of darkness, after the thick darkness had been ruling and reigning over all nations and poor mankind had been groping about in gross darkness for many ages. When this glorious morning comes, then those that never saw light before shall see it and be astonished at its glory. Then the world, which has been in a kind of dead sleep for this many ages, shall rouse up and begin [to] open their eyes and look forth to behold this glorious light of the world; then will the sweet music of God’s praises begin to be heard.

Then will Christ say unto his spouse, as in Isaiah 60, at the beginning:

“Arise, shine; for thy light is come, for the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For the Gentiles shall then come unto her light, and kings to the brightness of her rising.” Now, indeed, darkness covers the earth and gross darkness the people, but the Lord shall arise upon his church and his glory shall be seen upon her. Then shall “the light of the moon be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold” (Isaiah 30:26). The world has had a long winter of sin and ignorance; for many ages has the Sun of Righteousness been in the Tropic of Capricorn; but when this time comes the world will enjoy a glorious spring: then holiness and God’s kingdom shall revive as the fields and trees revive in spring. Then shall the time come when all creatures shall praise the Lord, and the mountains shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands…

The light that is Christ is already shining in this world. The thaw of spring has already begun. Dark, blind, cold, dead sinners are already having their eyes opened, are being warmed by the love of Christ, are coming alive by his Spirit. We see him, and we see that he is light. But we wait for a day when that light will shine so brightly as to swallow up all the darkness. And so we pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ Then the melancholy will disappear, but joy will be more serious than ever.

The Turn of the Tide

Here’s some of the inspiration for the name of my blog – a favorite poem and a favorite quote:

C.S. Lewis, The Turn of the Tide:

Breathless was the air over Bethlehem. Black and bare
Were the fields; hard as granite the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge in the vice
Of the pool, like pointed iron rods.
And the deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem. It was shed
Wider each moment on the land;
Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall
Stole the hush; all tongues were at a stand.
At the Procurator’s feast the jocular freedman ceased
His story, and gaped. All were glum
Travellers at their beer in a tavern turned to hear
The landlord; their oracle was dumb.
But the silence flowed forth to the islands and the North
And smoothed the unquiet river bars
And levelled out the waves from their revelling and paved
The sea with cold reflected stars.
Where the Caesar on Palatine sat at ease to sign,
Without anger, signatures of death,
There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom,
And his pen faltered, and his breath.
Then to Carthage and the Gauls, past Parthia and the Falls
Of Nile and Mount Amara it crept;
The romp and war of beast in swamp and jungle ceased,
The forest grew still as though it slept.
So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth
A signal, a warning, went out
And away behind the air. Her neighbours were aware
Of change. They were troubled with a doubt.

Salamanders in the Sun that brandish as they run
Tails like the Americas in size
Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed
Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes.
In Houses and Signs Ousiarchs divine
Grew pale and questioned what it meant;
Great Galactal lords stood back to back with swords
Half-drawn, awaiting the event,
And a whisper among them passed, ‘Is this perhaps the last
Of our story and the glories of our crown?
–The entropy worked out?–The central redoubt
Abandoned? The world-spring running down?
Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore
Even them. They were as flies in a web,
In their lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come;
The tide lay motionless at ebb.

Like a stab at that moment, over Crab and Bowman,
Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock
Of returning life, the start and burning pang at heart,
Setting Galaxies to tingle and rock;
And the Lords dared to breathe, and swords were sheathed
And a rustling, a relaxing began,
With a rumour and noise of the resuming of joys,
On the nerves of the universe it ran.
Then pulsing into space with delicate, dulcet pace
Came a music, infinitely small
And clear. But it swelled and drew nearer and held
All worlds in the sharpness of its call.
And now divinely deep, and louder, with the sweep
and quiver of inebriating sound,
The vibrant dithyramb shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round;
Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known
Since the Word first founded the abyss,
But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged,
A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.
Heaven danced to it and burned. Such answer was returned
To the hush, the Favete, the fear
That Earth had sent out; revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere.
Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost,
His beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
Monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes.
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance on the Earth
went gliding. Her bonds were released.
Into broken light a breeze rippled and woke the seas,
In the forest it startled every beast.
Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France,
Leprechauns from Down to Labrador,
In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell
Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.

So death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d
Nothing greater could be heard
Than a dry wind in the thorn, the cry of the One new-born,
And cattle in stall as they stirred.

From The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien:

‘Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.’
He stepped down from the rock, and picking up his grey cloak wrapped it about him: it seemed as if the sun had been shining, but now was hid in a cloud again. ‘Yes, you may still call me Gandalf,’ he said, and the voice was the voice of their old friend and guide. ‘Get up, my good Gimli! No blame to you, and no harm done to me. Indeed my friends, none of you have any weapon that could hurt me. Be merry! We meet again. At the turn of the tide. The great storm is coming, but the tide has turned.’

Sad Christians? No, Seriously Happy

Of all the cultural mandates I despise, fake smiles might be at the top of the list. I work with the public and I see it every day. I remember one time consciously pondering the fact that a lady I worked with, years ago, could go from being the grouchiest, snidest person I’ve ever been around to being the nicest person you’ve ever met, with the brightest smile, at the drop of a hat – as soon as a customer came around. Let’s call it glibness, or, perhaps, an external joviality.

I struggle with glibness. I see it often. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much, I think, what’s expected of most people on a day to day basis, at least in some settings. You may be having the most miserable day of your life, but you’re called upon, by others or by yourself, to do a 180 and put on the smile, fire up the small talk, and be happy. After all, you don’t want to be considered a grouch.

Have you ever faked a smile, a laugh, a good mood when your soul was really in the depths of despair? Have you ever seen a picture of someone on Facebook whose life is an absolute train wreck? I bet they looked perfectly happy in the pictures. Whoda thunk it?

The implicit problem with acting such a way is hypocrisy. Christians are called to be truthful, not hypocritical. I was always of the opinion that it would be better to keep a straight face in truth than to smile as a hypocrite. But not all agree with this.

Of course this raises problems for me. I am a self-professing Christian Hedonist. I agree with John Piper that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism that man’s chief end is not only to glorify God, but to enjoy him. How can I reconcile the fact that it is my joy that glorifies God with the fact that I am not always joyful?

The major touchstone of the issue is that Christian joy is not the same as what the world considers to be joy.

The Apostle Paul does not shy away at commanding Christian’s to rejoice (see Philippians 4:1). Yet it is clear that his idea of joy is not one of glibness or outward joviality. He never commands anyone to smile.

Twice he charges to Thessalonians to be ‘sober.’ For instance:

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

The word sober in Thessalonians means something to the effect of ‘even keeled’ or ‘even tempered’ (it can be translated ‘temperate’). To be sober is to be in the middle, not too far up, not too far down. Paul commands this multiple times elsewhere including his letters to Timothy and Titus. The Apostle Peter similarly charges us:

  • 1 Peter 1:13 ¶ Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Aside from this, Paul speaks of Christians as ‘groaning’ :

  • Romans 8:23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

He speaks of himself as having the appearance of being sad:

  • 2 Corinthians 6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

His point here is that outwardly the world looked upon him and counted him as one who was full of sorrow. But in truth, in the inner man, he was full of joy. I would not deny that inward emotion has any effect on outward appearance. But perhaps that effect is a bit overrated.

Jesus himself said,

  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4)

The Christian life is a life of mourning and a life of joy, and the two cannot be disconnected. We mourn because of our sin. We mourn because of death and loss and the sad state of the now. Yet underneath this mourning and alongside of it is an abiding joy in Christ and the salvation he has wrought. In, and because of, the gospel, we are constantly mourning, and constantly being comforted.

C.S. Lewis’ idea of ‘Joy’ is helpful here. There is an innate longing in all mankind – even in the Christian – for another world. There is a longing for a happy ending, a longing for peace, a longing for bliss. The gospel breaks into the now and gives us a glimpse of it, and an assurance of its ultimate accomplishment, yet we still do not see the happy ending in full view. Even the departed Christians, the martyrs, who have entered into the full joy of their Master in the presence of God, continue to long that, in the words of Sam Gamgee, all sad things will come untrue:

  • Revelation 6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

So the already and not yet rings true. We’re already rejoicing, but not yet fully, for the longing remains. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a crash course in the joyful longing of the Christian (in Middle Earth terms) – so much melancholy, so much loss, so much uncertainty, so much mourning, and yet such hope, bravery, boldness, fearlessness, friendship, joy, happiness.

Likewise, when you read C.S. Lewis you cannot escape the idea that committing yourself to Christ is to commit yourself, in some sense, to sadness. For it is to commit yourself to self-destruction (the mortifying of the old man) and self-denial. As C.H. Spurgeon put it,

When we took Christ’s cross to be our salvation we took it also to
be our heavenly burden.

Yet in the midst of this self-destruction, self-denial, and cross-bearing there is a true joy. And it is a joy that broods within, and cannot always find expression outwardly (or at least its expression is not the glibness and joviality the world expects).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well in his sermon on Matthew 5:4:

…Christians ought not to affect this appearance of such a wonderful joy that they always wear a bright smile on their face in order to show the world how happy they are (Sermon on the Mount, p. 47).

In other words, joy isn’t something you put on, it’s not a bright smile, it’s not glibness. Whatever it is, it’s not that.

He goes on,

[The Christian] is always serious; but he does not have to affect the seriousness. The true Christian is never a man who has to put on an appearance of either sadness or joviality…The Christian is not superficial in any sense, but is fundamentally serious and fundamentally happy. You see, the joy of the Christian is a holy joy, the happiness of the Christian is a serious happiness. None of that superficial appearance of happiness and joy! No, no; it is a solemn joy, it is a holy joy, it is a serious happiness; so that, though he is grave and sober-minded and serious, he is never cold and prohibitive (Ibid, p. 51).

That last quote is pure gold, and a balm to my soul. Our happiness is a serious happiness, a solemn joy. It is grave, but not cold. Why do moderns condemn ‘puritanism’ (which is really only a caricature of Puritanism)? It was cold, joyless, looking to keep people from having a good time. God forbid. They were just more serious about their joy than most of us are.

Does this mean that Christian’s can’t smile? Of course not. It means we don’t fake smiles – or frowns for that matter. It means we are who we are, by the grace of God, and can be nothing else without betraying the truth.

Consequently, if you see me and I don’t fake a smile, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I’m seriously happy and solemnly joyful – fundamentally serious, fundamentally happy. I am not under the tyranny of the smile police. I have been set free from such nonsense. The freedom of the gospel is a freedom to mourn, and yet have happiness in the midst – that’s one thing the world can never have apart from Christ and his gospel.

Recent Reading: Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, by Humphrey Carpenter

The Summer of Biographies has turned into the summer of Lewis and Tolkien biographies. It seems I often head in certain directions during my summer biography reading. Last year it was an exploration of men from the Great Awakening. This year it is Lewis and Tolkien. I’ve already shared my thoughts on The Narnian. I also just picked up two more books (one on Lewis, one on Tolkien) from the library. But today I want to write down some thoughts about Humphrey Carpenter’s book on Tolkien.

As always, I’m not trying to review this book. Rather, I simply want to record the areas I found most interesting or applicable to my current situation.As for the book, I found it to be extremely well written. I’m not a huge Tolkien buff so I cannot commend or condemn its accuracy. I can only give you my impressions.

One thing I found interesting was that Carpenter’s account of the rift that occurred between C.S. Lewis and Tolkien (after years of friendship) was quite different from that of Alan Jacobs in The Narnian. Strangely, at least to me, Tolkien’s biographer seems to put the blame for this rift mostly on him, while Lewis’ biographer places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Lewis. Even more strangely, I think I believe both of them. It seems that it all depends on which angle you approach the situation from.

Carpenter is very even handed in this book. He is not afraid to point out Tolkien’s flaws. You’re left with the impression that Tolkien was unorganized, a great procrastinator, unconcerned about deadlines, bull-headed (when it comes to taking criticism), dogmatic in his religion (whether this is good or bad is an open question), was unwise in how he languished many of the hours he could have been working, and that he was a sentimentalist to a great degree. You also get the impression that he and his wife almost lived separate lives for most of their long marriage (he points out several times that they kept different hours and slept in different bedrooms).

Yet at the same time you see that he is brilliant thinker and writer who accomplished a massive amount of brilliant work, that he was a devoted husband and father who loved his family greatly, that he was a true friend while friendship lasted, that he was steadfast in his religious practices, and that he was a valuable instrument in the conversion of C.S. Lewis.

He was also a staunch perfectionist in his writing (I don’t know whether that’s a positive or negative necessarily, so I put it by itself).

I for one appreciate a biography that weighs a man so evenly. This is no hagiography. But neither is it a smear job.

It is precisely because of the balance of the book that I found myself both attracted and repelled to Tolkien. I found myself relating to him and yet being aggravated by him. I related to him mostly in the hours he kept. He stayed up late. He worked late into the night. He piddled too much. The same can be said for me. With two small children and a full time job to go along with my preaching duties, most nights I find myself having to stay up to the wee hours of the morning to study and read and write. I feel Tolkien’s pain. So much work to do, so little daylight, so much unwinding that needs to be done while the work continues to pile up.

That’s about as far as my relating to him goes. He is a different creature. He was a brilliant philologist (that kind of goes without saying). I’m not a word-man myself. But he makes me want to be one. Very rarely do I think of words as beautiful things, things worth wrapping myself up in, immersing my thoughts in. Tolkien spurs me on. He shows me a world I don’t know or appreciate as well as I ought.

Of course his dogmatic Roman Catholicism annoys me. I’m a true blue Protestant, what do you expect? I won’t linger on this. I hate that he didn’t see the genius in much of what C.S. Lewis was doing and writing. His religious presuppositions (and some literary presuppositions) wouldn’t allow it. But I can’t necessarily blame him for this – his reasoning certainly justified this in his mind – and what a great mind it was.

All in all I appreciate Tolkien the man a little more after reading this book. I find myself encouraged to engage words and language more, and to work hard and repent of my procrastination. I also find myself both wanting to be more of a perfectionist and yet less staunch a perfectionist. There is a time to demand the best in precision and clarity, and a time to just let it fly and face the criticism afterward like a man. But you better pick your spots wisely.

I appreciated the book and recommend it.