Review of ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues,’ edited by Jonathan V. Last

The-Seven-Deadly-Virtues Jonathan V. Last, ed., The Seven Deadly Virtues: 18 Conservative Writers on Why the Virtuous Life Is Funny as Hell (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

It is a vice to judge a book by its cover, but one that I’ll indulge in this instance. The book’s title and subtitle mislead. Its authors essay sixteen virtues, not seven (and none deadly), and while they do so hilariously, the funniness of the virtuous life is not the point of their essays. That said, The Seven Deadly Virtues is an insightful book, humorously written, and well worth reading.

The book divides into two sections. The first examines the traditional virtues, seven in number and divisible by two: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance are the cardinal virtues; faith, hope, and charity are the Christian virtues. The second looks into everyday virtues: chastity, simplicity, thrift, honesty, fellowship, forbearance, integrity, curiosity, and perseverance.

In the Introduction, Jonathan V. Last defines virtues as “the internal qualities that allow us to be our best selves and enable us to lead complete and fulfilling lives.” He warns against “extremism in the pursuit of virtue,” saying instead that virtue is “additive.” “No single virtue is sufficient in and of itself, and each one, taken on its own is corruptible. Yet each virtue becomes more valuable with the addition of others. And for any single virtue to be brought to its full bloom, it must be surrounded by its sisters.”

Picking favorites among the individual essays is difficult. How do you choose between P. J. O’Rourke and Christopher Buckley? Rob Long and Matt Labash? Andrew Ferguson and Jonah Goldberg? You don’t. You read, laugh, and learn.

Instead of picking a favorite, let me highlight Sonny Bunch, a younger, not-as-well-known author whose chapter, “Forbearance: Opting Out of the Politicized Life,” seems particularly apt for the politicized times in which we live.

The politicized life is “the growing, pernicious trend in American society where politics are injected into every moment of one’s existence.” For example, if you eat (or don’t) at Chick-Fil-A because you love (or hate) Truett Cathy’s support of traditional marriage rather than because of its delicious chicken sandwiches (not to mention peach shakes!), then you’re leading a politicized life.

Unfortunately, the Internet exacerbates the viciousness—in both senses—of politicization. “In real life,” Bunch points out, “you forbear those around you because you never know who thinks what, and forbearance makes it easier for the whole neighborhood to get along. There is diversity of thought, in part because no one really cares what the guy who lives next door thinks about marginal tax rates. But in virtual life, everyone in the self-selected group pretty much thinks the same way thing, about everything. And the occasional deviations become opportunities to enforce the communal norms, to show how super [serious] we all are about the righteousness of whichever cause binds the community together.” This politicized viciousness makes appearances on the social media of both the left and the right of the political spectrum, as both my Right and Left friends will quickly attest. (It’s easier to spot the lack of forbearance in those who differ from you online than in those who agree with you.)

Forbearance doesn’t mean avoiding politics, of course. (Avoidance isn’t possible, even apart from the ubiquity of social media, for the simple reason that politics is how we organize our common life, and you cannot avoid your neighbors.) Bunch writes: “there’s nothing wrong with standing up for your beliefs and attempting to persuade those with whom you disagree. But,” he goes on, “there’s a difference between having polite, rational discussions and declaring those with opposing views to be the enemy and, therefore, worthy of destruction, infamy, and impoverishment.” So, “the next time a Two Minutes Hate ramps up,” Bunch advises, “step away from your computer and get a cup of coffee. You’ll be a better person. And you’ll feel better too.” Yes, and amen!

If what Bunch has written resonates with the better angels of your nature, my guess is that you’ll both profit from and enjoy reading The Seven Deadly Virtues. Though written by conservatives (but not only for conservatives), the book contains insights that are widely applicable because appropriately wise.

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The 151st Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

20130527-075212.jpgOn this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Union cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Lincoln’s brief remarks followed the hours-long oration of Edward Everett, which has largely been forgotten. The Chicago Times editorialized embarrassment at Lincoln’s speech, but Everett himself felt that Lincoln had said more in two minutes than he had said in two hours. In less than 300 words, Lincoln surveyed America’s past founding and its then-present civil war, ending with the hope that its future would be characterized by a “new birth of freedom.”

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Here’s an excerpt from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary that focuses on the address:

Review of ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls Today’ by James C. VanderKam

The-Dead-Sea-Scrolls-Today James C. VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Paperback / Kindle

One of the greatest—if not the greatest—archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century was the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These scrolls opened new windows onto the world of Second Temple Judaism, especially the theology and practices of the Essene community. Unfortunately, they also spawned an entire industry of conspiracy thinking and pseudo-scholarship that distorts popular understanding of the scrolls even to the present day.

The great merit of James C. VanderKam’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Today is that it lays out an intellectually responsible view of the scrolls in lucid prose for an informed, popular audience. Successive chapters describe the finding of the scrolls, the variety of manuscripts discovered, why the Qumran community was Essene, the theology and practice of the Qumran community, and the relationship of the scrolls to the Old Testament and the New Testament. A final chapter outlines the major controversies about the publication of the scrolls, providing a non-conspiratorial explanation for the delay in publication of some of them. Throughout, VanderKam’s presentation of the material is fair-minded and its organization logical and easy to follow.

If you know nothing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, I highly recommend starting with this book. It is an indispensable introduction to a topic that has great significance, not only for Jews and Christians, but also for anyone fascinated by the history of the ancient world.

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Review of ‘Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry’ by Amy Simpson

Unknown Amy Simpson, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Tune in to the evening news, and you are likely to hear stories that cause fear and anxiety to well up within you. America’s struggling economy, the Ebola pandemic, radical Islamic terrorism. Or perhaps you don’t watch the evening news but still find yourself anxious about your spouse, your children, your job, your life.

Then you read Amy Simpson’s new book. It says: “a lifestyle of worry is incompatible with a life of faith.” And you think to yourself, Is this woman for real? Does she not understand the hard things I’m going through?

Yes, and yes. Amy Simpson is for real. She understands. She’s a wife, a mother, a worker. Her mother is schizophrenic. Her brother-in-law survived stage-3 liver cancer. Her husband is a licensed counselor. She wrote a book on mental illness. When she says that worry and faith are incompatible, she’s not saying it from some airy-fairy height untouched by trouble.

Rather, she says that faith and worry are incompatible because that is what Jesus himself says. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.” Doing so shows that we have “little faith” (Matt. 6:25, 30). The key question, then, is not whether world events and personal troubles make us anxious or afraid, but whether we turn to God in faith in the midst of such things.

At the outset of Anxious, Simpson makes some common-sense distinctions between fear, anxiety, and worry that are very helpful. “Unlike fear,” she writes, “worry is not an immediate response to real or perceived danger; it’s anticipatory, rooted in concern about something that may or may not happen. Unlike normal anxiety, it’s not an involuntary physical response but a pattern we choose to indulge. It rises not from outside us but from within.” Fear and anxiety happen; worry is a choice.

And because we choose it in the first place, we can unchoose it on second thought. Simpson offers two good reasons to do so:

First, worry hurts us and by extension, those we love. The longest chapter in Anxious is chapter 3, “Worry’s Many Destructive Powers.” It outlines the many mental, physical, and relational problems that worry causes. If you want to avoid those problems, avoid worry.

But second, worry is based on bad theology. You might be wondering what theology has to do with good mental health. Simpson’s husband is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. What this means is that he helps his clients understand how their beliefs shape the emotional problems they experience. Long before cognitive-behavioral therapy was a gleam in a psychologist’s eye, Jesus showed the connection between wrong beliefs and negative emotions. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus said, just after telling his disciples not to worry; “they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt. 6:26). Good theology contributes to good mental health.

Of course, good theology can’t stay in our minds. It must translate into action. Many of us affirm Jesus’ words with our heads, but they don’t trickle down into how our hearts feel or how our hands act. So, in chapters 6, 7, and 8, Simpson addresses “three things that keep us clinging to worry: a faulty perspective, a desire to possess and control the future, and a possessive attachment to the people and things of this world.” For me, these were the most challenging chapters of the book, revealing the subtle ways that my pride, control, and consumerism lie at the base of my worries.

Replacing worry with faith is not an easy thing, and Simpson doesn’t claim that it is. Throughout, she uses the language of process to describe the changes that need to take place, but also the language of repentance. Getting rid of worry is good mental health, but it is also a necessary spiritual practice. Our worry, driven by a desire to possess and control, comes between us and a God who alone is sovereign, and whose mercies alone can heal.

The book ends with a lovely statement about God that is worth sharing:

Why Trust God?

He never fails

He never leaves us

He never disappoints us

He loves us unconditionally

He’s the creator of all things

He transforms us from the inside

He forgives our sins

He knows everything

He rules the future

He is all-powerful

He is everywhere

He is good

He is great

He is


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Review of ‘Know the Creeds and Councils’ by Justin L. Holcomb

Know-the-Creeds-and-Councils Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

Know the Creeds and Councils by Justin L. Holcomb “aims to provide an accessible overview of the main creeds, confessions, catechisms, and councils of Christian history.” In this, he mainly succeeds, giving chapter length-treatments of the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds; the councils of Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople, Carthage, and Orange; and the Council of Trent and Second Vatican Council (for Catholicism) and the Heidelberg Catechism, Thirty-nine Articles, and Westminster Confession of Faith (for Protestantism).

His choices regarding what to include and exclude will not please all readers, however. Specifically, he excludes major Lutheran documents (such as the Augsburg Confession) but includes the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Lausanne Covenant. These choices make sense in terms of the author’s personal commitments as an evangelical Episcopalian priest with Reformed theological sensibilities as well as his probable readers’ theological sensibilities. Nonetheless, they leave readers with a hole in their understanding of historic Protestantism.

Regardless, I think this volume is a worthwhile read. American evangelicals, as religious populists, often have historically thing understandings of Christian doctrine. Holcomb’s book usefully introduces such readers to the richness of the Christian tradition, reminding them that they have inherited “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 5). He explains the development of key Christian doctrines and shows how doctrinal considerations are relevant to life. This book is perfect for use in Sunday school classes, small groups, book clubs, and individual self-study.

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Review of ‘A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible’ by Leland Ryken

 Literary-FormsLeland Ryken, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014). Paperback / Kindle

In the introduction to this marvelous little book, Leland Ryken makes a distinction that helps explain why his book is necessary. Some people, he notes, argue that “the literary forms of the Bible are only the forms in which the content comes to us.” By contrast, he argues that the Bible’s literary forms are “the only form in which the content is expressed.” He concludes: “Without form, no content exists. Form is meaning. Meaning is embodied in form.”

If Ryken is correct—and I think he is—then we must pay attention to genres, literary techniques, motifs, archetypes and type scenes, figures of speech, rhetorical devices, stylistic traits, and formulas, for these literary forms are the vehicles by means of which biblical authors, inspired by God, expressed theological, historical, and moral content. Failure to understand the literary form correctly may result in a failure to understand the Bible correctly. We should not interpret a parable as a historical narrative, to cite an obvious example. If we do, we misunderstand both.

The handbook presents literary forms in alphabetical order, beginning with “ABUNDANCE, STORY OF” and ending with “WORSHIP PSALM.” For each form, Ryken provides both definition and example. Most of his entries are noncontroversial, though I think “PARABLE” might ruffle a few pastoral feathers, since it argues that parables are “usually allegorical,” in the sense that “numerous details in most of [Jesus’] parables stand for something else.” My guess is that readers will agree the substance of Ryken’s remarks, even if they chafe at his use of the words allegory and allegorical.

Ryken’s entries, “COMEDY” and “TRAGEDY,” point to architectonic truths about the literary form of the Bible considered as a whole. “It is a commonplace of literary criticism,” Ryken writes in the former entry, “that comedy rather than tragedy is the dominant form of the Bible and the Christian gospel.” Why? “The story begins with the creation of a perfect world. It descends into the tragedy of fallen human history. It ends with a new world of total happiness and victory over evil.” By contrast, as Ryken writes in the latter entry, “The materials for tragedy are everywhere present in the Bible, but the Bible is largely a collection of averted tragedies—potential tragedies that are avoided through human repentance and divine forgiveness.” The biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption encodes a comic worldview, a hopeful story with a happy ending. No wonder joy is the predominant response to the gospel whenever it is preached!

Those wishing to study the literary forms of the Bible in greater depth can turn to several other works by the same author, including: How to Read the Bible as Literature, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible, Ryken’s Bible Handbook, and Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, which he co-edited with James C. Wilhoit and Tremper Longman III.

Finally, on a personal note, I was a student of Ryken’s in his classes on British Literature and Milton at Wheaton College (Class of ’91). I enjoyed those classes thoroughly, despite the bullwhip. (Don’t ask!) And I continue to profit from his many writings on the literary qualities of the Bible.

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