Virgil’s Marital Advice

Christians often decry the sexual values of the postmodern world. The idea of cohabitation, homosexual activity, and even polyamorous situations are discussed as though they are vices which will weaken a culture. What is not surprising is that simultaneously divorce rates continue to rise and abuse within marriages manifests in unions at every level of society. Do these signs serve as a reminder that our culture has much in common with Ancient Rome? The charge has been leveled, and it has become a bit of a sport to compare national leaders with famous Roman men of the State. But perhaps the most significant parallel between this present age and the Roman classical era is not a comparison of vices, but rather the idea that there were always those present who rejected such practices. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a reader will find just such commentary on the Roman idea of marriage.

It should be noted that Virgil was not the only one during his day to make positive contributions to the Roman concept of marriage. Horace, a contemporary poet most often known for his satirical writings,  even went as far as to say, “Happy, happy, happy those, / Bound by fast and equal ties— / Love that no division knows, / Love that never faints or dies.” Even the historian Livy dedicates substantial amounts of his history of Rome to the early marriages that should serve as the proper models for later Romans to follow. While the politicians around them seemed content to turn a blind eye to, or even participate in, all of the ways in which Rome had lost any view of the sanctity of marriage, there were some who had not yet moved on from that foundational institution. Virgil used a few key moments in his epic, The Aeneid, to add his voice to the chorus calling out for a better understanding of Roman marriage.

In his flight from Rome, Aeneas abandons Creusa during the escape (II.959-966). Perhaps this is the first evidence of a horrid husband? But instead, Virgil tells us, that despite the pleas of his people and the low probability of success, Aeneas “turned back alone / Into the city, cinching my bright harness. / Nothing for it but to run the risks / Again, go back again, comb all of Troy, / And put my life in danger as before” (II.975-979). These are not the actions of a man who thinks only of himself, or even of his legacy to future generations. In this moment, Aeneas can think of nothing except his great love for his wife. If any Trojan were going to “enjoy life with the wife whom [they] love . . . because that is [their] portion in life and in [their] toil at which [they] toil under the sun,” it would be Aeneas (Ecc. 9:9, ESV). Aeneas’ love is so great, that the very ghost of Creusa returned to tell him that his mission was in vain, and that he had to move for the sake of their son, if nothing else (II.1000-1046). Virgil could have had a hero as cold and calculating as Homer’s Achilleus. Or, he could have provided Aeneas with a mistress to rescue as well. But instead, Virgil gives him one wife, a pious wife, whom Aeneas loved greatly.

The story of Aeneas and Dido is a bit trickier to navigate. While it would be easy to treat Dido and Aeneas’ love story as though it were no marriage, but rather simply two consenting adults, Virgil says otherwise: “Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno / Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed, / High Heaven became witness to the marriage, / And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top” (IV.229-232). Though Aeneas would go on to deny that their relationship is any such thing, his denial will in fact condemn Dido to the flames (IV.467-468; 233-234). This is not merely political posturing or narrative tool; Dido’s actions would have had dire consequences for his kingdom if Aeneas denied being her husband. For every neighboring kingdom knew that they had been acting as though wed, and without the formal vows to seal it, claims of immorality or unfitness could easily have been hurled her way. But Aeneas is denying what Juno had affirmed. If the right thing is to live by the code: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Aeneas falls woefully short of the mark (Mark 10:9, ESV). But perhaps that is Virgil’s point? Aeneas’ choice here is a bad one, and it sets the stage for his third marriage once he lands in Italy.

As Aeneas initially plans to unite the Latins and Trojans through his marriage to Lavinia, snatching her away from her fiance Turnus in the process, Juno intercedes. She sends Allecto to stir up trouble, and out of the mouth of Queen Amata comes the condemnation of treating marriage so lightly: “Mothers of Latium, listen, / Wherever you may be: if your good hearts / Feel any kindness still for poor Amata, / Any concern for justice to a mother, / Shake your headbands loose, take up the revel / Along with me” (VII.552-557). Amata is protecting her child, at Juno’s behest, from marrying a man who is not committed to keeping his vows. It is not until Aeneas goes through much pain and trial that Juno relents and agrees to the union with Lavinia. Virgil highlights the consequences of treating marriage lightly, and cautions against straying from first principles as Aeneas did; once willing to die for his first wife, he brings about the death of his second in the name of his country, and is denied a peaceful establishment as a result. In some ways, Virgil’s view of marriage might even supersede many enlightened folks today.

 

Bibliography

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

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Sparing the Rod and Ruining the Parishioner

9780825444456There are few people who enjoy talking about church discipline. Sure, there is the occasional pastor or elder, who probably talks quite a bit about how things used to be, that will speak up when a church member should be brought under the guidance of 1 Corinthians 5. And most will likely shake their head, and move on in the conversation as though nothing had been said. But as Jeremy M. Kimble is quick to point out, that would be a mistake.

Dr. Kimble is a professor of Cedarville University, and he is the author of 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline from Kregel Academic. And he takes both issues of Christian living seriously (he even wrote his dissertation on church discipline). This passion for an historically droll topic translates into a fairly engaging book that sets a practicable and faithful standard for understanding membership in the local church, and the discipline which is a part of that. With that said, go ahead a get the book. It is worth your time.

As for the details, the book is part of a series from Kregel called 40 Questions About (I reviewed their entry on the Historical Jesus topic as well as the volume looking at the creation debate a while back). Series like this are written for generalists, not specialists, and they aim to present information in a simple, digestible format that is as thorough as it can be. I think this is important to understand up front, because otherwise a review of such a work can easily fall into nitpicking at details which most likely belong in a systematic or extended treatment. If you are a pastor researching the legality of church discipline, this is only a starting point. Such a project will require a different resource. Likewise, if a church member is looking for an exposition on baptism as a requirement for membership, you would do best to look elsewhere. But remember, this book is not meant to be those things.

Consider Kimble’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 5, which only occupies 5 pages of the book. Someone expecting a detailed exegetical study will be sorely disappointed with the simple approach that Kimble takes. But that is why they should begin with the Pillar Commentary or the Baker Exegetical Commentary to get such a linguistic breakdown. Kimble’s take is not flawed, but it is narrow. “What does 1 Corinthians 5 say about church discipline?” In a nutshell, “that this is a non-negotiable matter” and that it is an act of love to “root out unrepentant sin” so that the individual  “will awaken . . . from their sinful propensities” and renew their call to holiness (159).

Such issues are not explored ad infinitum in this work, nor should they be. 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline does exactly what it should: it hits the high points of debate, and offers a snapshot answer which ought to provoke the inquisitive to further reading on the matter. As such, Kimble’s work is a welcome entry on a topic that receives far too little attention in the modern church, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to pastors and laymen alike.

Going Back to the Beginning

I reviewed volume 3 of Allen Ross’s commentary on the Psalms some time ago. It seems a bit backwards, starting at the end and only then going to the beginning, but I was so thoroughly impressed with volume 3 that I thought it would be worth my time to work through volume 1 and 2 as well. Volume 2 is waiting for me to crack open its spine, and as each volume comes in at around 930 pages, it might be waiting for a while yet.

41RK4MMfRgLThe style, layout, and approach in this volume is the same as in volume 3, so I don’t feel the need to revisit it is great detail. In my previous review, I highlighted the ease of interacting with the structure of Ross’s work, and the treasure trove of information that he provides for each Psalm. What sets this volume apart is the lengthy introductory essay in the front.

Composing almost 200 pages of the first volume, it covers the necessary explanations of Ross’ approach, and how to make the most of these commentaries. While the essay was not necessary for my reading of volume 3, having now spent some time with it, I dearly wished I had read, at the very least, “Literary Forms and Functions in the Psalms” (p. 111-145). Ross handles the minutiae of this section throughout his exegesis, but I found his summary and his presentation of the big picture to be a great help as I worked through volume 1. For instance, while I had read about royal and lament and wisdom psalms previously, enthronement psalms were new to me. The general concept, and its conceptual history, fascinated me, and gave me refreshed perspective when looking at Psalm 41 or 99. And there were additional categories in this section to consider, such as the Songs of Zion, which greatly added to how I interact with the Psalms as I read them now.

Of course, saying that a commentary changed one’s perspective is not new, nor is it limited to Biblical studies. But the nature of Ross’s writing is different from the commentary one picks up on Hemingway or on the Iliad. The point of understanding the Psalms better is to approach God’s revelation and purposes with eyes open wide. Here, though the poetic form of each psalm provides challenges, exegesis is so helpful in grappling with texts that can be difficult or even opaque at times.

As Ross nicely summarizes the issue: “the exegetical exposition . . . is the one method that guarantees the entire psalm will be explained, correlated and applied in a clear, interesting, and meaningful way” (179). Ross certainly approaches this goal in his commentary, and his observations and study will benefit any Christian wishing to better understand these worship “essentials”, both of the past and for today (147).

 

 

Craziness & Romance in the Bible

9780825425561I have read three previous entires in the Kregel Exegetical Library, and have come away edified by any of them. Each is written by a scholar of the highest integrity, and deals openly with problematic passages. A Commentary on Judges and Ruth does not disappoint. Dr. Robert Chisholm, a regular Biblical commentator for most folks who have taken a Hebrew class, handles some of the strangest passages in the Old Testament narrative in a clear, effective manner. If you are looking for a book that will help unravel some of the violence and bizarre events of Israel’s early days, then this is a good place to start.

A prime example comes from the section on Jephthah’s foolish vow (Judges 11:29-40). A number of explanations for understanding this passage have been explored over the years (Wikipedia even has a section dedicated to it), but consensus is rare. Chisholm dedicates 17 pages to the issue, and alternates being exposition in the main body of the text, and extensive footnotes about various views. Though Chisholm does not convince me of his own view, that Jephthah does in fact offer a human sacrifice to Yahweh, he is cautious in dismissing opposing perspectives and provides ample space for those views to be considered by the reader.  This kind of writing is typical of the entire work, and made reading it an exercise in humility and conversation.

Of course, the extensive footnoting method used by Chisholm might be daunting to some, particularly the laity. But it is most definitely worth it to sift through those lengthy academic ramblings in order to find a beautiful gem of wisdom that adds to one’s understanding of the Biblical story.

It is also worth noting that Chisholm treats the book of Ruth as part of the story told in Judges, rather than a one shot episode of the coming kingdom through David. Chisholm is careful not to throw arbitrary labels at Ruth, chastising the myriad of scholars who has sought to impose their own perspective on the book, rather than letting it speak for itself. Though his treatment of the book is brief, Chisholm offers a balanced, reverent account of one of the most overlooked books in the Bible.

This has been my favorite of the Kregel Exegetical commentaries thus far, and has definitely whetted my appetite for more.

Studying the Greek Gods

This post originally appeared on the Trinitas Christian School blog.

olympian

In his book, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, Leland Ryken asks a simple but provocative question: “Why do people hang paintings on walls?” There is of course the straightforward response: “because they enjoy said paintings.” But there is another level to the response worth considering, and its implications ripple out beyond the singular notion of picture hanging. Creative expressions have been how humanity thought and considered the reality around it for all recorded history. We don’t write or tell stories or sing just because we enjoy it; we also do these things because we must.

How does this fit into the Christian life? For starters, the Bible is chock full of stories, and not all them seem pristine on the surface. The Christian Scriptures affirm the idea that we are a people in need of creative expression, with complex heroes like Samson and theologically rich poetry like the Psalms. The Christian, then, engages with the artistic world every time he or she opens their Bible, and this exercise helps the believer interact with opposing worldviews as well. We read the literature of other cultures and eras, mining for gold or dropping lead lines into the water, always expecting to find something of value.

Though the Christian has much to reject in the worldview of the Ancient Greeks, there are also things worth a closer examination. Is there significance to Pandora’s perseveration of Hope that the Christian can understand? Do we weep with Helios when Phaethon is struck down due to his impudence and inexperience? Are we sometimes rattled by the idea that life is out of our control, like Achilles or Oedipus? The Greek myths are not only good stories (though they are that), for they contain in them a way of understanding the world that should and can be reckoned with by any thoughtful Christian.

As we head into Zeus’ Family Reunion at Trinitas this week, we consider the truth and beauty found in the archives of the Greek imagination. Join us as we try to explore these stories together. Perhaps there are still depths to be mined, still deep waters to be sounded. And when it is all said and done, you’ll have a new mosaic to hang on your wall.

The Right Questions for “The Force Awakens”

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-still-10Every quarter, our students are invited to participate in our Classic Film Society. We gather, eat popcorn, watch movies, and then spend time discussing the ways these films wrestle with the Gospel, even if they do it inadvertently. This is more than just an excuse to watch good movies, because movies are one of the primary way our culture searches for the Gospel. Directors aren’t necessarily looking to imbed the content of Christianity in their film, but they cannot escape the shape of Christianity.[1] Films made in the past demonstrate this, as do those that continue to come to a theater near you.

And this is one of the beauties of our Classic Film Society: what we do connects with current movies as well. In fact, it’s probably most helpful to understand the word classic like this: “Here is the body of work which sets the standard for all subsequent achievement.”[2] If the box office numbers are any indication, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will set the standard for years to come. So does Episode VII wrestle with the Gospel? I think it does, by dealing with specific elements of the Gospel shape found in so much of our world’s media.

For instance, the universe Star Wars inhabits is a moral one, dealing with good and evil.[3] There is a clear villain (Kylo Ren) and a clear hero (Rey). There is transformation, as Finn becomes less of a selfish character, and even risks his life to save someone else (not once, but twice). And all of this surfaces in the midst of a story that often advocates “balance.” But make no mistake, there is good and there is evil; there is light and there is dark. Even the cinematography embodies this concept, with the light being extinguished at the pivotal moment of choosing the light or the darkness.

These ideas provide excellent conversation starters. For instance, if this morality is driven by feelings, how are viewers to understand the problems that so often arise from characters pursing their feelings? A Jedi must feel the force, but must also avoid attachment. Is it because our feelings are so often wrong (Jer. 17:9)? And if feelings are to be the guide to the Force, as Obi-wan instructs Luke in Episode IV, what happens when a character feels the draw of the dark side? The questions abound, and the answers aren’t always airtight, but these are the kinds of things that Christians should think about when engaging with contemporary film. The Force Awakens should be a segue to a bigger conversation about Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Just like those we have at Classic Film Society.

[1] If you’re interested in reading more about this idea, Gavin Ortlund has a nice introduction here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-ways-movies-are-searching-for-the-gospel.

[2] This definition comes from J. Budziszewski, a professor of law at UT Austin (http://undergroundthomist.org/classical).

[3] I have explored this before, particularly in relation to the Lord of the Rings movies (http://humanepursuits.com/a-world-where-feelings-are-king/).

History, Exegesis, & Hebrew

When I think about books of 9780825425592the Bible that automatically engage my imagination and senses, I & II Chronicles does not immediately jump to mind. Eugene H. Merrill’s commentary does not change that, but it does offer a thorough perspective with loads to appreciate. Another addition to the Kregel Exegetical Library, a series I have explored previously, Merrill’s work is expansive.

Merrill reminded me that these books are more than mere history, serving as “a theological or ‘sacred’ history, recounting not only Israel’s past, but in a truncated sense a history of the world since Adam,” (pg. 22). And this is the lens that Merrill proposes to understand the book and its place in the Christian tradition. Merrill deals honestly and forthrightly with issues of chronology and source material, but offers a traditional, orthodox perspective that is edifying.

A highlight of the commentary, for me, was the “Theology” sections at the end of each chapter. After a thorough analysis of the Hebrew for a given portion, Merrill sets aside space to wrestle with the implications of such linguistics. It is these sections that helped the book to be more than a bland exegetical book on a standard historical work. Merrill ties everything together in these sections, making the exegesis practical and pertinent.

Still, the book is not as cumbersome as other commentaries. It’s 640 pages do justice to the topic at hand, and would serve and pastor or student of the Bible well when digging deep into the historical part of the Old Testament. Kregel has produced excellent commentaries in this Exegetical series, and Merrill’s contribution is no exception.

When Religion Looks Like Tires

the-ancient-path-talbotThe postmodern world is a confusing one. What are all these narratives people keep blathering on about? What does “power is knowledge” mean? For most folks, this flabbergasting effect creates a strain that results in doubt; doubt of all shapes and sizes and creeds. And for some, this leads to the past. How did people get on way back when? Its not a new question, although there may be a renewed interest in it of late. Enter John Michael Talbot’s The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.

Talbot’s book is a biographical account of his journey towards Catholicism, primarily through is own study of the earliest Church Fathers like Cyprian and Tertullian. It is a winsome story, that treads many of the paths familiar to modern evangelicals. References to characters like Francis Schaffer and Talbot’s time at L’Abri brim with all the ecumenical flavor one should expect from such a book. After all its in the title: we need old lessons. This postmodern world needs an old faith. The aimless 60s and 70s gave us revolution…but unto what? Talbot asserts that it was in Church Fathers (and subsequently older Christian manifestations like Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) that the solution to his angst was solved.

There are commendable aspects of Talbot’s book, but they are outweighed by the hackneyed concept. A story of how someone swam the Tiber? Been done (and then some). How many times can the same path be retread? In this regard, I’d even say the title is misleading. It is not a theological discourse on the Church Fathers, but rather a personal testimony about why you should get familiar with them. If one is looking a for a devotional book, or a study guide, you’d have to look elsewhere.

And all of this seems like so much white noise after the recent Pew Research study that demonstrated far fewer evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox branches than previously believed. Talbot’s efforts to point Christians back to ancient sources in Church history is a good goal, but I don’t think necessitates the kind of conversion-esque approach that his story lays out.

In the end, The Ancient Path is an interesting biographical journey told in a friendly prose. But that is about as far as it goes.

The Grade School Years (A Guest Post)

(Another guest post from my beautiful bride. Enjoy!)

Every stage of life comes with pros and cons, and it is always nice to have people in your life who have been there. Erin MacPherson shares her stories and advice in such a way that her work brings glory to God while edifying her sisters in Christ. She also uses the personal experiences of others to shed light on areas of parenting that can be difficult or troublesome.

I was very apprehensive about reading The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years. The cover itself led me to believe I would not get anything out of the book because it is written to “send your kid off into the Big Wide World,” and we plan on homeschooling. Opening the book, skimming the chapter titles and reading the first chapter really had me thinking my assumption was correct, but I continued reading and before I knew it, the book was done.

The easy read gave insight on all types of schooling. It gave ideas and guidance on dealing with almost everything kid-related, and while almost all of it applies to sending your child to a physical school, it can be applied to co-op groups, play dates and any interaction your child may have. MacPherson also addresses the ever-growing educational pressure for our children to succeed according to society’s standards and offers advice for how to deal with that stress.

My favorite part of the book was how the Bible is referenced. MacPherson uses scripture throughout her work to reiterate her ideas and advice. She addresses children’s faith and kindness, discipline and (perhaps most importantly) creating a vision for your family. If your destination is determined by what path you are on, the developing a family vision is one of the most fundamental things that you can ever do.

Overall, MacPherson is very real in her writing. She attempts to connect with her readers in a genuine way, and I think she typically succeeds. With two of her Christian Mama entries now completed, I can say that this book will quickly be shared and recommended to friends.

Radical in the Truest Sense

Much has been said of David Platt over the last few years. Pastors have preached his message from Radical, and his follow up book Radical Together has generated a bit of a stir in the professional pastor world. As if that wasn’t enough for a mild-mannered expositor from Alabama, he recently launched the Multiply Movement which combines the efforts of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love with Platt’s message.

Since both Platt and Chan have received quite a bit of attention I don’t care to linger too long on the story of how Platt came to discover the radical idea, and how it has affected his church community (my favorite is when Christian bloggers accuse them of promoting a “works based” faith despite James admonition “Without actions, faith is useless. By itself, it’s as good as dead.”). Instead, I just want to say a few words about Multnomah’s The Radical Question and A Radical Idea.

Not a new book of any sense, this “two-books-in-one” item is roughly 100 pages of simple yet challenging stuff. The main themes of both of Platt’s larger works have been boiled down into a concise message. “Is Jesus worth your radical devotion?” Platt’s question lingers throughout the first 50 pages as he recounts stories that both embarrass and glorify the Christian Church, all the while consulting the Word of God in his analysis of the average American Christian. The second section of the book ponders that mystical concept of “a priesthood of believers.” He stakes his claim that all Christians should make disciples, and challenges the professionals (like pastors and church administrators) to equip the average person sitting in the stadium seating (or the pew, you get the idea) to be a part of God’s purposes in the places where they work and live and play.

Let me tell you a little about the word radical. It comes from the late 14th century and typically meant “of or having roots,” which was derived from the Latin word radix or “root.” By the 1650’s the meaning had shifted to incorporate the idea of “going to the origin, or essentials.” It was not until the 1920s that the meaning of “unconventional” arose, and this eventually transformed into the 1970s surfer slang meaning “at the limits of control,” (you can double check me here). In particular, I like how Noah Webster defined the word: “Pertaining to the root or origin; original; fundamental; as a radical truth or error; a radical evil; a radical difference of opinions or systems.”

I think it is in this Websterian sense (and that of the oldest uses of the word) that Platt is using the word. If his ideas are “unconventional” to Christians, it is only because they have bought into the wrong conventions (which is of course the occasion of the work).

Platt’s works are a necessary thing right now for American Christianity. While I would typically advocate for reading his longer, more comprehensive works, this little gem is a wonderful introduction. Maybe you’re not sure you buy into all this “leaving everything for Jesus” thing? This is a good place to start. Perhaps you think Christianity is archaic and too stuck in the culture? Platt has an answer for that in his tiny tome. In truth, this is an ideal primer for anyone who thinks their faith is lacking, or knows someone who may need that extra push to get off the bench of God’s purposes and into the game.

Give it a look, or give it to a friend. It will be money well spent.