Martin Luther, Rip Curl, and Me

When I was pregnant with our first kiddo, Michael and I were invited to a missions conference at my home church in NC.  In the kickoff event, we missionaries were invited up on stage under the glare of a dozen bright spotlights and introduced.  I remember standing there a little dazzled, feeling the hot lights beating down, dizzier by the minute.  “I don’t feel so good,” I whispered to Michael and then, boom.  Man down.  Fifteen hundred people got to see me carted off the stage by men in suits.

Missions conferences are thrilling (saying so kinda pegs me as a nerd, I admit) — stories from jungle tribes and secret gatherings in former Soviet states, inner city high schools and Indian reservations.  The missionaries, in all of our thrift store glory, are paraded around like heroes, and for me, growing up, they were.  But all of that attention began to feel a little awkward when I was on the receiving end, because I knew a secret.  I am no hero.

As Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said, “Madame, if you could see in my heart, you would spit in my face.”

We love to celebrate our heroes for the same reason we vilify our enemies, and for the same reason we mourn when one of the mighty is fallen: we believe deeply in the hype of great and terrible men.  It’s why we are so quick to categorize politicians (hero or villain?) and why a public fall from grace or even a small snub from one of our celebrities feels so devastating.

That guy was amazing, we think.  He was one of us.  How could this happen?

All of our flaws, under glare of spotlight, look pretty ugly.  One by one we take the pictures off the wall— another hero toppled.  What Nietzsche said with a sneer we know to be true:  “In truth there was only one Christian, and he died upon the cross.”

This week, we remember with awe and fondness a guy who, for better or worse, had a lion-sized personality and no small amount of cheek.  It’s been exactly 500 years since a passionate, conflicted, and daring intellectual nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, disrupting forever the Catholic status quo and kicking off the Protestant Reformation with flair.

But let’s be clear — when we celebrate Martin Luther this week, it is not because he was a perfect man.  Luther, like you and me, was a living bundle of contradictions.  He was gifted.  He was called.  He produced a lot of Christ-like qualities under immense pressure.

He was also a terrible sinner.  He was deeply broken.  And he lived under the curse of a fallen world.  No, what we are really celebrating on “Reformation Day” is the great and terrible foreknowledge of God.

Was Luther extraordinary?  Sure.  Was it because of Luther the world was never the same?  Sort of.

There are at least two competing theories of how history works.  The “Great Man Theory” was the brain child of a Scottish philosopher named Thomas Carlyle, who said, “No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”  One reason this view so enchants us is simple: if we work very hard, we, too, might become great.  We, too, might change history, and so change the world.  Carlyle himself said, “Have a purpose in life, and having it, throw into your work such strength of mind and muscle as God has given you.”

On the other hand, social scientists are more calmly pragmatic, and posit less romantic cause and effect.  David Bell, a historian from Princeton, explains, “Fernand Braudel… taught his followers to pay attention to the deep, slow, geological, and climactic forces that, in determining the shape of the continents and patterns of global warming and cooling, ultimately shape human societies as well. After that, Braudel directed us to study centuries-long patterns of economic and social change. He compared all these subjects to the deep currents moving through oceans. Mere ‘event history,’ by contrast, including decisions taken by powerful individuals, he likened to the insignificant foam tossed up on the ocean’s surface.”

The truth, I think, is somewhere in between.  Let’s play with that ocean analogy, and spice it up, Keanu Reeves style.

Take surfing.  Did you know that the energy required to build one perfect wave escalates slowly from winds sweeping halfway around Earth?  These winds coalesce and converge to create that one wave only after traveling a thousand miles.

What is a surfer without a wave?  The greatest and most daring would be nothing but a wader standing aimless in a still pond, albeit with a colorful vocabulary and a nice tan.  It’s only because of tropical storms brewing on the other side of the planet, the invisible pull of sun and moon upon the ocean, the constant spinning of Earth around the solar system, and the mighty force of gravity that a surfer can exist at all.  Furthermore, twenty seconds too slow or twenty feet too far out, and even the best surfer might miss a perfect wave.  The seconds cost by a red light or a clumsy spill on the beach might make the difference.  Interference by a passing boat might ruin a good wave.  Shark fins could definitely drive a sane person to shore for the afternoon.  As surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku quipped, “Out of water, I am nothing.”  Adds daredevil Laird Hamilton, “The biggest sin in the world would be if I lost my love for the ocean.”

On the other hand, what’s a wave without a surfer?  You could give me the world’s most advanced surf board, tow me out on a jet ski, position me perfectly to catch the most pristine, curling arc of glassy blue water ever seen, and minutes later you would be picking up the pieces of me that washed ashore.  It isn’t dumb luck that makes a surfer, but endless hours of carefully honed skill.

Martin Luther, sinner and saint, was in a sense a world-class surfer.  Along came that perfect wave of Renaissance thinkers, papal corruption, and printing press, forces all beyond the salty monk’s control, and Luther, Biblical knowledge in hand, took his carefully honed skills and hopped on a surf board.  Like Paul, or Jacob, or Moses, here was a man chosen by God, in the right place at the exact right time, who despite his personal failures, saw God work wonders.

There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, and the higher we fly, the further to fall.  The fact that an expert carpenter can build such a cathedral of crooked nails and warped wood is in itself a miracle.

Francis Schaeffer said, “Among religious writings the Bible is unique in its attitude to its great men. Even many Christian biographies puff up the men they describe. But the Bible exhibits the whole man, so much so that it is almost embarrassing at times. If we would teach our children to read the Bible truly, it would be a good vaccination against cynical realism from the non-Christian side, because the Bible portrays its characters as honestly as any debunker or modern cynic ever could.”

This week when you hear the names of Reformers bandied about, it should come as no surprise to hear of their cantankerous ways, their blindness to sin, their astonishing, ugly failures.  You might make a case that they are great and terrible men, but a glance in the mirror should drive home the truth: we are all more than a little crooked.

Who can work wonders?  “He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen.” (Deut. 10:21)

Fool’s Talk and my DIY Seminary

“As the early church boasted rightly, the message of Jesus is both simple enough for a child to paddle in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in.”  — Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk

So I am a few months in to my DIY seminary project, and delighted to report that I have found several books on my list available for download from the library.  I’ve listened to The Great Divorce while driving, Fool’s Talk while doing dishes, A Reason For God while folding clothes, and Hillbilly Elegy while chopping vegetables.  Having a collection of brilliant men to listen to while scrubbing pots can turn Cinderella into a sorta-scholar faster than you can say “can somebody please send me a maid for Christmas.”

Now, it’s a little bit impossible for a visual learner like myself to fully absorb a complex book like Os Guinness’s while multi-tasking, and I’ll freely admit it’s not the same as sitting in on a philosophy class, but I gotta think it’s better than binge-watching reruns on Netflix.  It has stoked in me a greater desire to really delve in — to take the class, argue with the professor, write the essays.  But if, like me, you are a) strapped for cash, b) short on time, and c) already overcommitted, I offer this encouragement: all the great thoughts that have ever been thunk have probably been written down somewhere in a book that you can find, free, at a library.  In fact, such notably brilliant people as Abraham Lincoln, Jack London, and Ray Bradbury were mostly self-educated folks who wore out their library cards.  I’m with Paul:  “Bring the books!” II Timothy 4:13, KMV (Kate Morgan Version)

I couldn’t do justice to a full book review of Fool’s Talk without getting an actual paper copy and skimming it over again, but I’ll say enough to whet your appetite if you’re into apologetics.  First, this is not a book about winning arguments, improving your evangelistic technique, or how Charles Darwin ruined American schools.  This is, instead, a brilliant challenge to think well, to think comprehensively, and to consider the myriad ways a Christian worldview shapes how we interact with the world.  It is much more important to love than to win.

I find Guinness to be warm, winsome, and deep, his logic masterful, and his unpacking of competing worldviews incisive.  Guinness is 76 years old, and avoided writing a book about apologetics until 2015 because he promised God he’d do apologetics before he ever dared write about it.  He’s written a long list of other books, which I can’t wait to dive into.  But buyer beware; he’s wicked smart.  I listened to Fool’s Talk at a slightly reduced speed to give my little brain time to process his train of thought.  That helped, but there were times I had to rewind and pay better attention.

My big takeaway from Fool’s Talk is similar to the point of my whole DIY seminary project:  if Christianity is true, it is absolutely comprehensive.  It must impact every decision I make, every habit I acquire, and every action I perform.  It must be big enough to contain every smaller truth and to answer every possible objection.  Therefore, it is grand enough to encompass every great thought of every philosopher, historian, poet, scientist, and theologian of all time, and it would take countless lifetimes to begin to scratch the surface.  I simply don’t have “world enough and time” to fritter if it’s a goal to love the Lord with all my mind.

Thank God for the library.

A couple interesting resources you might like to listen to if you enjoy apologetics:

Book Nook: High School Edition

So my oldest two kids are enrolled in a dual-credit high school/ community college English class.  Imagine my surprise when they weren’t assigned any books the first quarter!  Well, turns out it’s more of a rhetoric and analysis class, ergo, no books.  Wanting them to please, for the love of Pete, PUT DOWN THE DEVICE AND READ, I made them a list for the sole ugly purpose of bribery.

Read one of mine, and I’ll buy you one of your choice.  Read ten of mine, and I’ll give you Big Bucks.

It occurs to me that many of you might face the same dilemma and wonder where to start.  What are the great classics worth reading?  Which books are the right combination of challenging and “hooking,” as my kids like to say — which ones are entertaining enough to overcome reluctant readers?  Which ones are a pretty safe bet for a PG read?  And some of you might just want a new audio book from the library to pass the time while driving.  Here ya go.

I offer the following list with a disclaimer:  I have not read every single title on this list.  Out of 99, I have read 56 of these, many others by the same authors, and chunks of several listed.  Those I haven’t read made the cut either because I’ve heard glowing reviews or because they are on my own lifetime I-really-oughta-read-this list.  Use your own discretion.

Most of these are novels, ranging from old school classics to science fiction.  There are short stories, plays, nonfiction, and poems as well.  Some of them are more enlightening than entertaining, and a sprinkling are more entertaining than informative.  (I think it’s a crime to make reading something your kids will dread.)  I didn’t bother to list the books my kids gravitate toward on their own; the point of this list is to stretch them.  Some come from a very different world view than my own, and are important for digesting/ discussing/ interacting with.  The last part of the list are explicitly Christian books (you can see where the alphabetizing starts over).  These are just a sampling from my pastor husband’s shelf — a few of the most accessible ones.  There would be another whole list for a slightly older or younger group — these were my best guesses for kids 14-18.

I didn’t bother to alphabetize the titles, just the authors, so don’t hate.  If you catch a mistake, let me know.  And please, from one reader to another, leave more must-reads for high schoolers in the comment box below!

99 Books for A Rainy Day

  1. Alcott, Louisa May:  Little Women
  2. Austen, Jane:  Pride and Prejudice
  3. Austen, Jane:  Sense and Sensibility
  4. Austen, Jane:  Emma
  5. Babbitt, Natalie:  Tuck Everlasting
  6. Barrie, JM:  Peter Pan
  7. Berry, Wendell:  Fidelity
  8. Brontë, Charlotte:  Jane Eyre
  9. Brontë, Emily:  Wuthering Heights
  10. Card, Orson Scott:  Ender’s Game
  11. Cather, Willa:  My Antonia
  12. Chesterton, GK:  The Best of Father Brown
  13. Christie, Agatha:  Murder on the Orient Express
  14. Conrad, Joseph:  Heart of Darkness
  15. Crane, Stephen:  The Red Badge of Courage
  16. Defoe, Daniel:  Robinson Crusoe
  17. Dickens, Charles:  Oliver Twist
  18. Dickens, Charles:  A Christmas Carol
  19. Dickinson, Emily:   Poetry
  20. Dillard, Annie:  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  21. Dillard, Annie:  An American Childhood
  22. Doig, Ivan:  Sweet Thunder
  23. Du Bois, WEB:  The Souls of Black Folk
  24. Enger, Leif:  Peace Like a River
  25. Equiano, Olaudah:  The Life of Olaudah Equiano
  26. Frank, Anne:  Diary of Anne Frank
  27. Frost, Robert:  Poetry
  28. Gladwell, Malcolm:  Outliers
  29. Golding, William:  Lord of the Flies
  30. Griffin, John Howard:  Black Like Me
  31. Grisham, John:  A Time to Kill
  32. Hawthorne, Nathaniel:  The Scarlet Letter
  33. Hemingway, Ernest:  A Farewell to Arms
  34. Hemingway, Ernest:  The Old Man and the Sea
  35. Henry, O:  Short Stories of O. Henry
  36. Herriot, James:  All Creatures Great and Small
  37. Homer:  The Iliad
  38. Homer:  The Odyssey
  39. Hurston, Zora Neale:  Their Eyes Were Watching God
  40. Huxley, Aldous:  Brave New World
  41. Keyes, Daniel:  Flowers for Algernon
  42. King, Jr., Martin Luther:  Letter from a Birmingham Jail
  43. Lee, Harper:  To Kill a Mockingbird
  44. L’Engle, Madeleine:  A Ring of Endless Light
  45. Lowry, Lois:  The Giver
  46. McCullough, David:  1776
  47. McCullough, David:  The Wright Brothers
  48. Miller, Arthur:  Death of a Salesman
  49. Mortenson, Greg:  Three Cups of Tea
  50. Orwell, George:  Animal Farm
  51. Paterson, Katherine:  Jacob Have I Loved
  52. Paton, Alan:  Cry, The Beloved Country
  53. Potok, Chaim:  The Chosen
  54. Ransome, Arthur:  Swallows and Amazons
  55. Rawls, Wilson:  Where the Red Fern Grows
  56. Remarque, Erich Maria:  All Quiet On The Western Front
  57. Sayers, Dorothy:  Lord Peter
  58. Shaara, Michael:  The Killer Angels
  59. Shelley, Mary:  Frankenstein
  60. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr:  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
  61. Steinbeck, John:  Of Mice and Men
  62. Stevenson, Robert Lewis:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  63. Stevenson, Robert Lewis:  Treasure Island
  64. Stowe, Harriet Beecher:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  65. Swift, Jonathan:  Gulliver’s Travels
  66. Twain, Mark:  Huckleberry Finn
  67. Washington, Booker T:  Up From Slavery
  68. Weisel, Elie:  Night
  69. Wilde, Oscar:  The Importance of Being Earnest
  70. Wilder, Thornton:  Our Town
  1. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  Cost of Discipleship
  2. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich:  Life Together
  3. Bunyan, John:  Pilgrim’s Progress
  4. Chan, Francis:  Crazy Love
  5. Cymbala, Jim:  Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire
  6. Elliott, Elisabeth:  Shadow of the Almighty
  7. Graham, Billy:  Just As I Am
  8. Hayes, Dan:  Fireseeds of Spiritual Awakening
  9. Keller, Timothy:  Generous Justice
  10. Keller, Timothy:  A Reason for God
  11. Lewis, CS:  The Screwtape Letters
  12. Lewis, CS:  The Space Trilogy
  13. Lewis, CS:  Till We Have Faces
  14. Little, Paul:  Know What You Believe
  15. Little, Paul:  Know Why You Believe
  16. McDowell, Josh:  More Than a Carpenter
  17. Mextaxas, Eric:  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
  18. Packer, JI:  Knowing God
  19. Piper, John:  Don’t Waste Your Life
  20. Perkins, John:  With Justice for All
  21. Platt, David:  Radical
  22. Reeves, Michael:  Rejoicing in Christ
  23. Reeves, Michael:  Delighting in the Trinity
  24. Richardson, Don:  Eternity in their Hearts
  25. Tolkien, JRR:  Lord of the Rings
  26. Tozer, AW:  The Pursuit of God
  27. Tozer, AW:  Knowledge of the Holy
  28. Ten Boom, Corrie:  The Hiding Place
  29. Yancey, Philip:  The Jesus I Never Knew