Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Great and Mighty Wonder

A Great and Mighty Wonder
by Alan Kornacki, Jr.
Recommended Ages: 14+

The Sunday after I told my regional bishop (while walking in disgust out of a parish meeting) that I was resigning from the clergy roster of our church body, I was supposed to serve as a substitute preacher for the author of this book. The first phone call I made was to give him the bad news that he would need to find a "substitute substitute" on really short notice. He is evidently a forgiving soul, because in spite of that bad turn, he was kind enough to send me free autographed copies of all three novels in his "Thy Strong Word" trilogy, of which this is Book 2. I want to return the favor and give it a nice review. So I'll start with this book's strengths.

First, its depiction of a doctrinally and liturgically conservative young Lutheran pastor in Small Town, USA, has a certain verisimilitude—particularly, in my experience, where conflict with grumbling parishioners, meddling brother pastors, and gangster-like district officials are involved. Yet at the same time it is a beautiful act of faith to depict the pastor's vocation as a thing of joy, changing hearts and making a difference in lives through the power of the truth.

Second, the novel makes a strong emotional impact with its themes of death and grieving, childbirth and childlessness, guilt and forgiveness, and families and couples finding each other in the midst of adversity. Many of the incidents Pastor Justin Corwin experiences in this year of his dual ministry to the Lutheran congregation and the Fire Department of Carousel, New York, were familiar to me—including baptizing a preemie in the minutes after his birth (which, in my case, was my very first "pastoral act"). We find Beth mentoring the troubled teen who stabbed her in Book 1; Justin helping a firefighter move beyond an accident he survived because another did not; both of them experiencing a sort of parenthood when a girl in their community suddenly loses both parents; and Christian role-play gamers having to defend themselves against accusations of witchcraft and satanism. Each of these episodes is bound to leave the reader shaking his head, or choked up, or at least challenged to think.

Third, the banter between Justin, his new wife Beth (a detective in the local Police Department), and pretty much everyone else, is full of fun and wordplay, references to pop music and movies, and comfortable friendliness that often provides just the right light touch to set off paragraphs quoted wholesale from the hymnal, the church agenda, the Bible, and Luther's Catechism. The book displays the pastor's work in a variety of forms and settings, and models perhaps how some of us ruefully wish we had done it, or could be doing it now.

But to do full justice to the book, and to be of service both to my fellow readers and to my author friend, I feel obliged to point out a few weaknesses too. Somewhat like the first book in the series (Love Divine), only perhaps more so, it comes across more as a series of loosely related episodes than as one intricately-plotted novel. While some of the narrative threads do run all the way through it, many of them tail off without any further follow-through, or come back much later when they have gone out of mind. What becomes of the preemie and his family? How do things work out for Kevin? What kind of trouble do the pastor's antagonists have brewing in their squat cauldron? If I were in a position to suggest improvements to a book like this, my main suggestion would be to swing the spotlight back onto such characters more often. Not only might it help the book seem to hold together better, but it might also bring more conflict and jeopardy into the scenario, and so make it a more powerful story.

As it is, the book is a warm, comfortable, amiable portrait of a faithful, happily married young pastor—sometimes almost sentimentally rosy, occasionally perky to a fault. Perhaps if it were more like I was suggesting, the verisimilitude would become too painfully exact—the story would become more about how things tragically, really are, and less about how they should and maybe could be. Perhaps the inevitable result would be a pistol-packing secret-agent pastor (who actually exists in another series of novels), or a Father Brown ripoff who solves murders between the men's breakfast Bible study and the women's afternoon quilting club. Or maybe Beth could solve the crimes (we don't seem to see her being a cop very much), while Justin does the reverending. Be my suggestions worthless or worthwhile, I guess what I'm saying is that the second book of this (so far) trilogy fell a little below the quality of the first book, in my judgment; but not so low that I lost interest in reading Book 3, One Thing's Needful.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Easter Hymn

ere Christ not arisen, how falsely they preach
Who saw the tomb's sealing, who witnessed its breach!
What boon that they promise, what precept they teach,
Could be but vain fancy and blasphemous speech?

Were Christ not arisen, our faith were in vain,
Lost they who now slumber; in sin we remain.
Then most to be pitied were we of all men,
Our hope but for this life—yet Christ rose again.

Indeed, Christ is risen, Firstfruits of the dead!
As sin came by one man, for all men One bled.
As one's death once fettered all under death's dread,
All come forth to life now with One at their head.

On Christ, who is risen, death has no more claim;
No more on the baptized who trust in His name.
Inhumed in its waters with sin's bond and shame,
We rise up with Jesus, set free from the same.

Now Christ, who is risen, has taken His seat
Above all the heavens, all foes at His feet.
When He comes with angels to garner His wheat,
His voice will awake us and make us complete.

Where, grave, is your triumph? Death, where is your sting?
Engulfed, yes, and shattered by Christ, the world's King!
To us the same triumph His messengers bring;
To Him, then, all praises we joyfully sing!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Love Divine

Love Divine
by Alan Kornacki, Jr.
recommended ages: 14+

My policy as a book reviewer has evolved over the past decade. Whereas at one time I was nearly always open, if not thrilled, when offered a free copy of a book to discuss on my column, I have grown increasingly picky. I have almost reached the point of drawing the line at self-published works. Even that rule, however, wouldn't have saved me from a recent fiasco in which I printed out a pre-publication PDF of an upcoming book from a seemingly reputable publisher. I won't name the title, author, or publisher of that book; I wish them all the best. But by page 18 I was so overwhelmed by the novel's dreadfulness that I binned it and asked my editor to send them my polite regrets. I mention all this so you'll appreciate the leap of faith it took when I decided to push this self-published novel by my friend, a former colleague in the pastoral ministry, up to the top of my reading list.

It would have been hypocrisy to do otherwise, for two reasons. In the first place, I had been taking writing and self-publishing tips from Alan. In the second place, I had already passed this book along to a friend at my church, who was looking for a nice, chaste romance novel written from a present-day Christian point of view. Narrowing the range of choices even more, she wanted a book that supported her conservative Lutheran faith: a liturgical, sacramental, creedal confession, well to the "catholic" side of most Protestant denominations; yet emphasizing the gift of forgiveness and salvation received only through faith in Jesus, alienating it from the Catholic tradition. The lady's request was a tall order, but luckily I already had this book and I knew it fit the bill. Once the book came back to me—and my church friend said it was just right—I reckoned it was time to stop making excuses and read it for myself.

Love Divine is the first book of a trilogy titled "Thy Strong Word." Its sequels are A Great and Mighty Wonder and One Thing's Needful. These hymn-based titles are your first clue that their warm, human, romantic storyline is adorned and interwoven with a loving portrait of the historic liturgy, hymns, and doctrine practiced, sung, and taught in the biblically faithful, "old-style" Lutheran church. If you feel your nose being pushed out of joint by what I have described so far, you might want to go read something else. If you are curious to read a love story between two flesh-and-blood people, one of whom happens to be a pastor in the church I just described, you can order the paperback or Kindle edition here.

If you're looking for a steamy novel, draped with soiled bedclothes and discarded lingerie—again, shop elsewhere. Nor is this a scandalizing account of lust and misconduct in the pastoral office. Justin Corwin, 34-year-old pastor at St. Michael Lutheran Church in the western New York town of Carousel, is a decent and upright man who cares for his parishioners, exudes joy and conviction as he preaches, and more or less accepts the likelihood that he will be single and celibate for life. Then at a charity softball game where, as chaplain and shortstop, he represents the fire department, he gets his legs knocked out from under him by an attractive police detective named Beth McCarthy. She is still adjusting to widowhood and starting to think about moving on with her life. From this inauspicious start, the unlikely couple come to find their future in each other.

This book makes a respectable showing, for a first novel by a small-town Illinois pastor. Yes, it's a work of fiction. And although some Lutheran "insiders" may recognize the names he chose for certain characters, they are fictional too. The romantic leads are appealing characters, but not too rosily perfect. Justin's social nervousness, his tension-lightening sense of humor, and his average looks make him an every-guy type of leading man, easy for most guys to relate to, while his admirable qualities as a pastor and as a person offer male readers a model to aspire to. Beth's out-of-his-league beauty belies a searching, hurting vulnerability that makes both Justin and the church he serves the right medicine for her. And though the author does not shrink from sharing details of the doctrine, rite, and hymnody that he so plainly loves—and his opinion about the alternatives—the tone of the book falls on the right side of the line between a love letter to Lutheranism and an apologetic tract.

The romance is romantic; the emotions of the hero couple are deeply felt; the beauty of their setting, unusual though it may be for this type of story, is well described; serious matters such as danger, death, clergy abuse, intra-parish conflict, and infertility find room for gentle but honest discussion; and, amazingly, the pastor and the policewoman fall passionately in love while setting a good moral example for the church youth group. ("Wait for marriage" seems, after all, to be back on the agenda.) Since the author also kindly sent me copies of books 2 and 3 in the series, I will not have to wait long to find out how things work out for the young pastor and his new wife. And this time, I think, the books won't have to wait so long for me.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

House of Secrets

House of Secrets
by Chris Columbus & Ned Vizzini
Recommended Ages: 12+

Without screenwriter, director, and movie producer Chris Columbus, where would your childhood be? Perhaps it would be lost in a world without such films as The Goonies, Gremlins, Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone, Home Alone 2, Mrs. Doubtfire, Bicentennial Man, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and—oh, yeah!—the first two Harry Potter movies! So when the folks at HarperCollins offered MuggleNet a sneak peak at Chris Columbus's new book—going on sale April 23, 2013—what do you think we said? Yes, please!

In this book, apparently the first in a series, the writer and director of so much of our childhood joins forces with co-author Ned Vizzini, whose books include such angsty-teen drama-comedies as Be More Chill and It's Kind of a Funny Story (now a motion picture), as well as episodes of MTV's Teen Wolf. Together, they have created a strange, thrilling, funny, scary, kid-friendly novel about three present-day siblings and a 107-year-old house caught up together in a magical world with medieval bandits, World War I fighter pilots, scurvy pirates, living skeletons, and giants (no—colossi).

The Walker family has just moved into the historic Kristoff House, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. They have just settled down to their first family meal in the place, when a witchy neighbor lady hurls the whole house—with Cordelia, Brendan, and Eleanor in it—into the combined reality of three novels written by her father, who built the house in 1906. Dahlia Kristoff, also known as the Wind Witch, wants the Walkers to find and deliver to her a magical tome called The Book of Doom and Desire.

With this book, the Wind Witch would have the power to rule the world. And she can only get it by manipulating the Walker children—by bringing out their worst, most selfish desires. Until the children agree to give the book to Dahlia, they will be in constant danger from cutthroat villains on land and sea. Plus, they are menaced by rising flood waters, cursed bones, sharks, a tattoo-covered shaman, a sadistic fiend who likes to cut up living people, and the book itself—which tempts each of the children in turn to betray his or her loved ones.

Meanwhile, the often-bickering Walkers grow closer, depending on each other more and more. The dangers they face bring out the hero in each of them. Plus, a fictional British flying ace joins them, offering friendship and (for Cordelia) a hint of romance. All these criss-crossing historical eras combine together with the mouthy attitude of today's kids—particularly a video-gaming jock, his bookish older sister, and their horse-crazy, dyslexic younger sister—in a hilarious, touching, and at times grimly suspenseful combination. There are even some educational touches, such as a few Latin incantations, the names of bones in the human skeleton, and references to San Francisco history and geography. And if you find yourself wanting more adventures of the Walkers and Wing Commander Will Draper, you'll be delighted rather than disturbed by the epilogue, which suggests ominous developments to come in Book 2.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Coded Hermeneutics

Further to my rant about the coded meanings of "sola scriptura," and the danger of its oversimplified application to bible interpretation...

Briefly, in review, "sola scriptura" (the text alone) is too often "coded language" for one or more of the following hidden assumptions, any of which can get in the way of treating the holy text with respect, honesty, and objectivity:
  • "I have sufficient expertise in reading the Bible to judge whether it teaches something or not, without any help from you (and if I haven't seen it there so far, I'm never going to see it)."
  • "All I need to know about religion, I can and do learn solely by reading the Bible (and anything I had learned beforehand, from whoever taught me to interpret it, is hermeneutically insignificant—like the dark matter that makes up 84% of the mass of the universe)."
  • "If God expects me to believe something that I find hard to accept, the burden of proof is on him (and it may take mile-high letters of fire to change my mind)."
  • "God's revelation is always clear and never vague or confusing (so if I run across any word or assertion that conflicts with my reason, I stroll past it, whistling, and pretend it is not there)."
A second "coded hermeneutic" is the famous "Scripture interprets Scripture," which I discussed in passing during my debate with the Blanks. Again, I see some hidden assumptions riding the backdraft of this important principle:
  • "If I find the tension between two biblical teachings too uncomfortable to maintain, all I need do is marshal a few verses proving the one and—poof!—the other disappears. Thus, no patient acceptance of a difficult statement, paradox, or mystery will be necessary."
  • "If one passage says something I disagree with, I can veto it by quoting any other passage that superficially seems to support my views—no matter how remote it may be from the context, or how irrelevant to the teaching in question. Because, don't you know, all Bible verses have equal authority in relation to any topic."
  • "The catena of Bible verses (or even just references) that I was forced to memorize at a crucial stage of my faith formation—or maybe I swallowed them willingly because they seemed to 'make sense' at the time—contain the answer to anything. It will never be necessary for me to reconsider my position, even in the face of overwhelming biblical evidence."
The third "coded hermeneutic" I want to consider today is the "Inerrancy of Scripture." This concept was coined amid the early 20th-century Pentecostal and Charismatic movement and spread like wildfire throughout the Evangelical movement and conservative, "mainline" denominations. Without entertaining even the slightest suspicion that the Bible contains errors, however, I worry about the cost of accepting "inerrancy" into our hermeneutical panoply. For one thing, there are too many irreconcilable schools of thought on just what "inerrancy" means. For another thing, there are too many disturbingly disparate doctrines that all claim to be founded on the study of the same "inerrant" text.

In the third place is a concern frequently pointed out by the magazine where I worked until recently. To wit: A definition of the nature and character of God's Word that only discusses the Bible (as opposed to other forms taken by God's Word), or that only stresses authority, clarity, sufficiency, and inerrancy but goes no further, ignores the best part of what Scripture teaches about itself. No "doctrine of the Bible"—nor a body of doctrine built on it—can be complete without showing that God's Word is living, active, powerful, efficacious, killing, life-giving, and at work in us and among us. It makes such a huge difference that it might be the right answer (or a right answer) to the often-asked question, "What is unique about Lutheranism?"

But in the fourth place, the proposition that one's theology is based on "biblical inerrancy" also has about it the whiff of a coded meaning or two:
  • "Everything printed and bound within the covers of the Bible is beyond question. (And by the way, have you turned in your check for a copy of the Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear Self-Study Bible with Expanded Footnotes? Hurry up, because it takes a lot of pages to print a Bible with an inch of Scripture to every six of commentary, and paper doesn't grow on trees you know!)"
  • "If you disagree with our interpretation of Scripture, no matter how novel our position may be or how far back in church history yours goes, you are a damnably counter-scriptural heretic (I love that phrase!)." From which it may be further inferred:
    • "Only those who subscribe to our sectarian views constitute the true Christian Church on earth."
    • "The majority of so-called Church History is the chronicle of an unreal semblance of Christianity, because the Holy Spirit deserted the apostles and has only come back to earth in this latter day, now that we have restored Jesus' true teachings." (Several restorationist and Anabaptist teachers have said pretty much exactly this, flat out.)
I'm saving for a later post, when time and energy are more in my favor, a refresher on "rightly dividing Law and Gospel," and an essay on whether God (or more specifically, Christ) wouldn't ever seriously teach something that his audience couldn't be expected to understand.

Being Honest About the Text (Part 2)

In Part 1, I shared the gently edited text of my debate with a Protestant couple about infant baptism. Their contention was that the Lutheran teaching that Baptism has saving, regenerating, forgiving, sanctifying power, which also applies to infants, is a damning, counter-biblical heresy. In response, apart from quoting the clearest New Testament witnesses to Baptism (all of which favor the Lutheran teaching), I more or less said that the burden is on them to prove that the Bible teaches the contrary—a burden of proof that that, in my opinion, they have not met.

In Part 2, it is not my intention to continue this debate about Baptism. Rather, I want to use it as an example to illustrate some concerns about biblical hermeneutics that arose in my mind while I was considering how to respond to Mr. and Mrs. Blank of Anywhere, USA.

First, a matter of anthropology. The classic Reformed system of theology, from which pretty much all American Protestantism is either derived, modified, or in rebellion, is founded on certain assumptions about human reason. Reason, or at least "enlightened logic and reasoning," as Mr. Blank puts it, can not only be relied upon but may even be considered a source of knowledge alongside (though perhaps slightly lower than) the holy text. The proper interpretation of that text cannot conflict with reason. God (it is further assumed) would not reveal anything that is obscure to human reason—unless, again in Mr. Blank's words, we are speaking of "the darkened reasoning of the unregenerate, carnal mind." Following the fingerposts of reason, one must inevitably arrive at a form of doctrine relatively similar to the content of Calvin's Institutes, or the Three Forms of Unity, or the Westminster Standards, or the Thirty-Nine Articles, or [insert the title your sect's founding statement of faith here]. Obviously, the unanimity of consensus flowing from all this enlightened reasoning is too overwhelming to be ignored. (Irony off)

The thing that gets me, anthropologically speaking, is that the reasonable, rational, Reformed system of doctrine does not allow for any absolute certainty that your (i.e. any individual's) reason is enlightened, as opposed to "darkened, unregenerate, and carnal." To be sure, there is that decree that the Sovereign God made in eternity, before the beginning of time, specifying who among us is destined to be redeemed, enlightened, and saved without fail, and who is to be hardened, befuddled, and damned without reprieve. But seek what evidence you may, you can never be certain you are of the elect—never, that is, until the veil is pulled aside either by death or by the Lord's coming. Any evidence that you are a sincere Christian can be faked; a "seeming saint" may not even realize that his felt faith is but a tormenting fume from hell. The rest of the story is as easily told as counting the petals of the TULIP. As long as you're outside of grace, you're Totally depraved, and so your judgment in spiritual matters is not to be relied upon—see again Mr. Blank's "darkened, unregenerate, carnal." And in the event that there's a devil set aside for you, by dint of Unconditional (double) predestination, your reason will never be anything but spiritually darkened, unregenerate, and carnal—no matter whether it seems otherwise during this life. Since Jesus' atoning death is Limited to those pre-selected for grace, none of God's promises are meant for you and so any faith you might put in them is vain. And since grace is Irresistable (but only to the elect) and the faith is Persistent (but only in the elect), any resemblance between a hardened reprobate and a sincere Christian must be coincidental. After all, the fact that they end up in hell will prove (retroactively, at least) that they never truly received Christ, or were even offered Him, since they could not have resisted Him if offered or fallen away if received.

It's one of those brilliant rationalizations that can never be falsified by any reasoning whatsoever, because it turns around and devours its own tail, world without end. And the upshot is: You may think you're a sound Bible interpreter, but for all you know—for all you can possibly know with any degree of certainty in this life—you are just a sham Christian reading the text through a veil of carnal, unregenerate, darkened reason. Epistemologically, this system provides no basis for evaluating the aptness of its own application of the holy text. Simply put, assuming TULIP—which is nothing if not a monument to the application of human reason to the systematization of biblical theology—no theologically consistent exegete can rely on his own reason. Again, epistemologically speaking, if the election to grace (which no one can be sure he himself possesses) is a prerequisite for reading Scripture through the lens of "enlightened reason," and if any seeming Christian could be applying darkened reason unawares, then all reason is purely subjective and may prove, in the end, to have been a satanic deception. And thus the rational assumptions that create this epistemological crisis must, themselves, be suspect. And so round and round in an endless, paradoxical conundrum.

But that's just the appetizer. Morsels of the meatier main course protrude, in a half-baked state, out of odd and sundry paragraphs of my debate with Mark and Dru. The crux of the problem is whether phrases like "sola scriptura," "the inerrancy of Scripture," "Scripture interprets Scripture," etc., are sufficiently resilient as hermeneutics to bear weight in a doctrinal system that deals honestly and respectfully with the holy text. I am, suddenly, in doubt. The observations that trouble me:

First, "sola scriptura" ("the text alone"), as I saw the Blanks applying it, seems to have a coded meaning. This coded meaning is somehow intertwined with the sentiment, which the Blanks are far from alone in expressing, that "I have read the Bible cover to cover every year for the last 25 years, so I'm pretty sure I know what is and isn't in it." This avowal of expertise always seems to appear in breathtaking proximity to either an assertion that Scripture says something it doesn't, or a denial of something that it definitely says.

Another piece of baggage carried by "Sola Scriptura" is the assumption that the burden of proof lies on God. The purpose of His Word is then not to proclaim the truth with creative, renewing power, but to prove certain arguments, directly, explicitly, unmabiguously, and in terms too strong and specific to be gotten around. "Certain things," I say; these strict rules of evidence don't apply to everything—and we reserve for ourselves the right to determine what doctrines must be established by such a strong test of scripturalness. We require God to close every conceivable loophole, to give us multiple witnesses, to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, solely on the basis of evidence that no reasoning can rationalize away—though such evidence can never be, once our reason is fore-armed with half of a Bible verse quoted out of context. Using this as the basis of a transparently fallacious syllogism, we can then browbeat anyone who opposes us with the charge that they are—what was my phrase? ah! yes—damnably counter-scriptural heretics.

Mark the number and magnitude of novel teachings and sectarian dogmas that have flown under the flag of "Sola Scriptura!" Mark the aptitude of annual, cover-to-cover Bible readers who, for all their expertise, can actually interpret every verse that directly refers to Baptism as though the words "washing," "water," or "baptism" weren't there. Mark how they will actually contradict the primary assertion of a sentence's main clause on the basis of an adverbial clause or a complementary, neighboring sentence. Mark how readily they will begin a sentence with "My Bible never says" and continue it with an almost word-for-word Bible quote. Mark how they will challenge Holy Writ to disprove an idea of recent origin, which some clever-boots somehow convinced them was biblical, and then ignore anything the text says in answer, unless it meets the exacting test which they insist must be met before they will consider their claim falsified. And then mark how they will tar anyone who simply, unquestioningly believes what the Bible says, with the epithet of "heretic" and the charge of reading foreign ideas into the text. Mark what "sola scriptura" means according to their code!

Again, I do not want to go over my arguments regarding infant Baptism again. The issue, spotlighted by my controversy with the Blanks, simply makes for a good illustration of what troubles me. Can "sola scriptura" stand up as a principle of biblical interpretation? Not, I believe, if that means that infant baptism is a heresy because the Bible doesn't explicitly mention infants being baptized, or because it doesn't specifically command that they be baptized. "Sola scriptura" doesn't deserve the dignity of a serious hermeneutic if it means subjecting God to the role of a prosecuting attorney who needs to prove anything we choose to question beyond a ghost of a doubt. There are many doctrines that nearly every Protestant believes without question on the basis of far less biblical evidence—including some of the dubious assumptions on which the Blanks based their reasoning. I would have expected people who profess to put so much stock in the sovereignty of God to be more respectful of His Word. But then again, if they have read His holy text over and over and still claim, on the basis of "sola scriptura," to believe what they do about what it says and doesn't say, they must either be liars, blinded and deluded by the devil, or reading the text through the veil of darkened, unregenerate reason. Which of these would be the most charitable assumption?

Is "sola scriptura" up to hermeneutical snuff? There are some reasons for concern. First, if you can't read the text rightly without already being enlightened and regenerate, then either you are approaching the naked text as an unregenerate heathen (and thus unable to interpret it rightly), or you are bringing knowledge to the text that you received elsewhere. Give credit where credit is due. Who told you how to interpret the text? And so, even if they aren't in the room with you and the holy book, can you really claim to be alone with the naked text?

Second, if so much depends upon reading the text rightly—up to and including the eternal destiny of those who hear and read your account of it—can you dare confront the naked text on your own, without any reference to the insights of prior interpreters? How can you be sure you haven't missed a crucial distinction, or a historically significant textual variant? Do you know every verse of the Bible by heart, including all the variant readings in the original tongue? Have you honestly considered every possible translation and interpretation, without any aids to memory outside the text itself? Can you infallibly and exhaustively cross-reference every Bible verse that may be relevant to the text immediately before you, or even judge which verses really are relevant, without being prompted by a prior interpreter or interpretive aid? And if you do consult such resources, how did you decide which authorities to trust? Ryrie's Study Bible, Thompson's Chain Reference Bible, and Elwell's Analytical Concordance (for example) are all examples of interpretive aids that bring a decided bias, and in some cases a downright heretical one, to their selection of which Scripture ought to interpret which. They illustrate how the choice of which passages you judge to be relevant to the text before you can have a big impact on how you interpret it. And can you really go "sola scriptura" while deciding which, if any, translations or editions of the holy text to read, and what contributions by which lexicographers, grammarians, commentators, teachers, and preachers to take into account before you arrive at your interpretation?

I used to groan with impatience whenever somebody answered "Scripture alone!" with "Yeah, but when is Scripture alone?" But let's be honest with ourselves—or, if we need something that commands our respect, let's be honest with the text: When we say that the Bible must be the "sole source and norm for all doctrine and practice" in the church, we're not actually imagining ourselves alone in a sealed room with nothing in us or around us but the naked text. Heck, we can't even find two or three exegetes who will agree on precisely what the text is! What we really mean—if "sola scriptura" is to have any objective value as a hermeneutic—is that the holy text and our interpretive tradition (embodied, for example, in a set of confessions to which we subscribe because (quia) they proclaim the truth of Scripture without error) feed into each other in a continuous loop. We accept what Scripture plainly says without trying to reason around it; we accept where it is silent without trying to fill the gap with our own "lofty speculations" (2 Corinthians 10:5); we test the form of sound words we have received (2 Timothy 1:13) only against the testimony of Scripture; we question everything we hear, placing it up against the text to see whether it is so (Acts 17:11); but we accept that, after all, we have not received the Word of God from the Bible alone, and that before we dare approach the "naked text" on our own, we must first hear the Gospel proclaimed and receive instruction in sound doctrine. And so the circle keeps turning: Scripture informing and correcting what we believe, teach (or are taught), and confess, and the preaching and teaching we have received preparing us to read the text with better comprehension.

I want to go on further to discuss the coded meanings of other hermeneutical principles, such as "Scripture interprets Scripture"—though I may have covered that sufficiently in my debate with the Blanks—and the "Inerrancy of Scripture," which Protestants customarily braid together with Scripture's Authority, Clarity, and Sufficiency, to use as a flail against anybody who doesn't read the text with the same horse-blinders that we wear. Then there's the contention (also covered somewhat in Part 1) that God would never tell us anything contrary to reason, or anything that we wouldn't understand; and, of course, the whole Law-Gospel issue (again), which lay at the bottom of so many of the Blanks' assertions about Baptism being an ordinance we are required to perform. What past discussions have not covered, there will be room for in future installments. Until then, my sage advice is to put less stock in how many pages, chapters, or books of the Bible you have read this year... and go to church!

Being Honest About the Text (Part 1)

I've been thinking back over the principles of Biblical interpretation ("hermeneutics" for short) discussed earlier on this thread. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, my latest thoughts have been prompted by yet another debate with a Protestant denier of infant baptism, who argued along similar lines with the Versailles, Missouri, "Christian" pastor I used back here as an example of twisting Scripture. First (in Part 1), the story of my little debate with a couple who asked to be removed from the mailing list of the "heretical" magazine I then worked for—one whose latest issue spot-lighted the Lutheran teaching on baptism. Then (in Part 2), the thoughts on biblical hermeneutics that grew out of that debate.

The story began when my office received a subscription card bearing the name and address of a married couple whom I shall call Mark & Dru Blank (which is not even remotely similar to their real names). Ordinarily, we interpreted this type of communication as a request to start sending them a subscription to our magazine, and to bill them for it. A short while later, the Blanks sent me an email claiming, "We did not order this heretical magazine nor request it. Someone else ordered it and gave our name and address... Please cancel this invoice immediately as we have no intention of paying it." (Based on a phone later conversation with Dru, I gather that the couple suspected one of their Lutheran friends of making a botched attempt to send them a gift subscription, or at least a complimentary copy of our latest issue, in the hope of luring them back into the Lutheran fellowship they had lately departed.)

In my initial reply, I simply told the Blanks that I had canceled their subscription. I could not, however, resist asking them: "Out of curiosity, what led you to consider the magazine heretical?" After thanking me for my prompt handling of their request, Mark & Dru replied to my question:
We consider the magazine heretical because it applies the power of salvation to something other than Jesus' atoning sacrifice on the cross and resurrection: baptism. Baptism has no such power and is not a requirement for salvation, only repentance and faith are required as Paul tells us he preached in Acts 20:21 and Hebrews 6:1.

Infant baptism is found nowhere in the Bible. The magazine made a big production out of telling the reader to be a good Berean yet there was not one scripture reference presented that supported a practice of infant baptism or the power of salvation in works (baptism). Instead there were straw men arguments and scripture references for Original Sin which, contrary to what the magazines stated, non-Lutheran reformed Protestants do believe in.

This is deceitful and heretical information you are sending around and it needs to be repented of. One cannot trust in baptism to be saved, only in the finished work of Jesus Christ. That is His grace towards us and that is what the Bible teaches.
I replied to these charges in a Bible-based defense of some length. The Blanks replied back, responding point-by-point to my defense of baptismal regeneration etc. Before I noticed that they ended their last response with a request to let the matter lie, I sent them a further reply with my counter-counter-arguments embedded among their counter-arguments. To reproduce all of this back-and-forth in its original format would be confusing and tedious. Instead, and admittedly at the risk of giving an inaccurate impression of what was said, I will try to re-cast the debate as an oral conversation. Feel free to imagine us lounging in a cozy corner of a Panera Bread Co., bezarfed cups of Bolivian roast coffee and a picked-over plate of cranberry scones between us. I'm the one wearing an out-at-the-elbows sports jacket, a black clerical shirt turning gray around the collar, and a goatee decorated with cranberry-scone crumbs. They're the couple dressed in business-casual attire, accessorized by "9 months clean" rings from Recovering Lutherans Anonymous. Here, more or less, is our conversation. All of our exact words are there; only, some of the furniture has been rearranged for clarity, and a couple of Bible references have been fleshed out into full-length quotes. I have added horizonal rules to divide the points of the argument up, because this dialog format can make it tricky to appreciate which point is being discussed.

Fish: Lutheranism teaches that the power of Baptism is nothing else than the power of Christ's atoning sacrifice applied to each of us individually, according to God's express command and promise. Romans 6, especially the first 7 verses, explains this (to give one striking example):
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
Blank: When Paul says in Romans 6 that we are baptized into Christ's death, he is referring to the baptism of the Holy Spirit which is unseen.

Fish: How do you know this? Is this not an assumption based on ideas imposed on Scripture from the outside?

Fish: Colossians 2:10ff. also discuss this in very striking language:
In [Christ] you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
Blank: Colossians 2:10-12 does not refer to water but to regeneration of the heart.

Fish: Did you not see the words “in baptism” in verse 12?

Blank: We become dead to sin through God's regeneration of our hearts—the Adamic nature dies and we become new creatures in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, not the act of going into water. It states it is a "circumcision made without hands." That is not baptism.

Fish: Paul calls it “made without hands” because it is God’s work. The washing is visible but the circumcision of the heart, which God carries out in and through the washing, is invisible—his work, not ours.

Fish: To say that Baptism does not have saving power fails to account for 1 Peter 3:21, which says: "Baptism now saves you."

Blank: 1 Peter 3:21 makes my point when we look at the whole verse and not just the portion you quoted. Peter states clearly that he is NOT referring to the outward ceremony of washing with water because that has no power, it simply cleans the flesh. He is referring to the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit. He stated that so no one would do what you did and misinterpret what he was saying.

Fish: Actually I studied not just the one verse, but the whole paragraph in Peter’s epistle. What he’s saying is that Baptism is the “antitype” of which the Flood was the type. In other words, just as the waters that drowned the sinful world also saved Noah & his family by bearing the ark upon them, so also Baptism saves us—i.e. by drowning the old Adam and washing away sin.

Fish: To say that Baptism is not necessary for salvation (leaving aside the question of how "absolutely necessary" it is) ignores Mark 16:16, "He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved." It also ignores what Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3, especially verses 3 and 5, where He describes Baptism as being "born again [or from above] of water and the Spirit."

Blank: You also selectively quoted Mark 16:16. The following verse says that he who does not believe will be damned—baptism is not mentioned in the second half. The lost are damned for unbelief not for not being baptized which puts baptism in its right place. As for the section you quoted, it also cannot be saying that outward baptism saves because in Acts 8:13 Simon Magus believed and was baptized and yet was not saved.

Fish: The fact that baptism isn’t mentioned in the 2nd half doesn’t negate what it says in the first half. Jesus doesn’t say that not being baptized is a cause of damnation. But he puts believing & being baptized together. Lutherans have never argued that everyone who is baptized necessarily believes or even that everyone who isn’t baptized is necessarily damned. But the fact remains that Jesus puts baptism together with faith as the means to salvation.

Blank: John 3:3-5 same thing. Since 1 Peter 3:21 has already established that the outward washing of water is not what saves we know that Jesus is not speaking of outward baptism...

Fish: 1 Peter 3:21 established no such thing. That’s an idea you imposed on it. Peter’s qualifying statement that it isn’t the washing of dirt from the flesh does not negate his main point, that Baptism now saves you. Still less does it wipe out Jesus’ remark that one is saved by being born again by Baptism (water + the Spirit).

Blank: ...Similar to what God said in Ezekiel 36:24-27 and 1 John 1:9. He wasn't going to rain sprinkles down onto Israel , He was going to cleanse them with His Word and His Spirit. Scripture interprets scripture.

Fish: “Scripture interprets Scripture” only applies to relevant passages. You can make the Bible seem to teach anything if, for example, quoting any obscure passage that doesn’t mention Baptism can wipe out the plain sense of what Jesus said specifically about Baptism. If you’re going to let Scripture interpret Scripture concerning any given article of faith, you have to hold the passage(s) where the article of faith is/are most clearly revealed *above* passages that don’t directly deal with it. In short, a passage discussing Baptism has more weight when discussing the doctrine of Baptism than a passage that doesn’t discuss Baptism.

Fish: To say that Baptism has no regenerating power flies in the face of Titus 3:4-8, which speaks of it as the "washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit." To say that Baptism has no sanctifying power ignores Ephesians 5:26, in which Christ is said to sanctify the Church "by the washing of water with the word"—a highly significant description of what Baptism is.

Blank: I don't see outward baptism mentioned here, just regeneration.

Fish: Did you not see the word “washing”?

Blank: The same regeneration that is mentioned in Ezekiel 36:24-27. It's a renewal of the heart (Psalm 51:10), producing a new nature.

Fish: God brings that renewal & rebirth about, and he does it through a washing. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture (John 3)…That washing would evidently be Baptism.

Blank: Ephesians 5:26 same thing. Washing of water BY THE WORD. God's Word cleanses us, not water. Jesus is the Word.

Fish: Did you not perceive that the word “water” is in that sentence? The water and the Word (Matthew 28:19) together make it Baptism. Your approach to interpreting too many of these verses seems to be simply to ignore what it says about baptism/water/washing. I don’t see you explaining why those words are included in the sentence. I believe the obvious explanation is that the Holy Spirit meant us to notice them.

Fish: To say that Baptism does not forgive sins or give the Holy Spirit ignores what Peter said in answer to the Jews' question "What shall we do?" in Acts 2:38: "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

Blank: The important part of this verse is "in the name of Jesus Christ," not "be baptized".

Fish: That sounds pretty arbitrary to me.

Blank: Again, scripture interprets scripture. Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14, Colossians 1:20, and Ephesians 2:13 make it clear that forgiveness of sins comes through the blood of Jesus and His grace, not baptism.

Fish: And yet Peter said what he said. And not only Peter but also John (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3) puts Baptism in the same breath as forgiveness. To omit that word from the sentence is to do violence to the holy text.

Blank: "Be baptized" is a command to publicly show what has already been done inwardly by the Holy Spirit.

Fish: Says who? Where is that written?

Fish: To say that “infant Baptism” is found nowhere in the Bible makes the (I think very weak) assumption that if Jesus meant for infants to be baptized, he should have added “INCLUDING INFANTS” to the words “all nations” in Matthew 28:19. It also ignores the fact that in Acts 2:39, after Peter tells the Jews that they will receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit through Baptism, he immediately adds: “For the promise is for you and your children.” To say nothing of the accounts of entire households being baptized in Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16; and Jesus’ clear instruction that very little children are to be brought to him (Mark 10:13-15), for if anyone would come into His kingdom, it must be in the same way as the littlest child.

Blank: Yes, if infant baptism really is what you say it is then it would be stated very clearly, specifically and repeatedly throughout the NT. This is not the case. God is not vague and would not leave something that is allegedly so important to assumption.

Fish: That simply doesn’t hold water in light of Matthew 13:13 (Jesus: "Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand"). It’s an assumption foreign & contrary to Scripture, but one that I have seen dragged in time after time as an excuse to pooh-pooh something Jesus clearly said, on the grounds that He would never say anything we couldn’t understand. Read the gospels. The apostles were constantly misunderstanding things & catching on only later.

Blank: In the case of Acts 2:39, what promise is to "you and your children and to those who are afar off even as many as the Lord our God shall call"? The promise that if they repent and are baptized they shall receive forgiveness of sins. We've already seen in Mark 16:16 that it's the unbelief that damns a man, not the neglect of baptism.

Fish: But in both verses, Baptism is clearly involved in how God saves the man.

Blank: How shall the Lord "call" an infant? How can an infant repent? That is also part of this verse.

Fish: However he does it, it is evidently the same way he calls & saves everyone else—since the promise, which includes baptism, applies to the children as well. I don’t see how you can get around what Peter says here.

Blank: How do you know that those "entire households" had infants in them? You don't.

Fish: How do you know they don’t? Same problem. Why do you assume that the burden of proof is on the side of infant baptism? If an exception was made for infants, wouldn’t Scripture mention it?

Blank: It is your assumption and not one to hang an entire doctrine on.

Fish: My point is, I’m not the one hanging a doctrine on it. Your assumption that infants aren’t included because no specific mention is made of an infant being baptized is no more fit to hang a doctrine on. No one in recorded church history gave a second thought to baptizing infants until sometime during the Reformation period. And really, this new “doctrine” strikes me more as a denial than an article of faith.

Blank: Why you would quote Mark 10:13-15 is baffling to me. This, if anything, works against your argument. What does Jesus do with those little children in Mark 10:16? Did He rush them to the water and pour it over them? No. He took them in His arms, put His hands on them and blessed them. No baptism there.

Fish: (1) He says “bring the children to Me.” Does he say, “but not Baptism”? No. Does he say anything about waiting until they’re ready? No. (2) He says anyone who enters His kingdom must do so in the same way as a child. Does he make an exception regarding when or whether Baptism is to take place? No. Does he suggest that children are in anyway disabled as to how and to what extent they can receive Him? On the contrary. They are held up as the pattern to which the rest of us need to conform.

Blank: Seems like if infant baptism were so important Jesus would have done it or commanded them to do it. He didn't. Mark 10:15 says "whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall not enter it." "Like" a child, not when they are a child or obviously no one who was baptized in the NT would be saved because they were all adults.

Fish: This objection is ridiculous. Even granting your distinction between “like” a child and “when a child,” if we need to be “like” a child, then certainly a child meets the qualifications.

Blank: So what are children "like"?

Fish: Here begins an example of “reading into” the text.

Blank: They are trusting and do not question or doubt. They readily believe Mom and Dad when Mom and Dad say they are going to get ice cream after their piano lessons. And that is how we should believe the gospel. What you are trying to extract out of this scripture is simply not there.

Fish: I submit that you just described what you yourself are doing. Jesus doesn’t explain what he means by “like a little child.” It’s absurd to get dogmatic about what you think that means when all you have to stand on is human speculation. What is totally clear, however, is that Jesus invites children to be included & regards them, not only as no different from anyone else to be saved, but as the very pattern for all who are being saved.

Fish: It is also interesting that Paul (in the Colossians passage cited above) cites circumcision as a biblical metaphor for Baptism. Nobody in OT or NT times ever questioned the validity of the circumcision of an 8-day-old boy. And so, if Baptism is comparable to circumcision, its validity even for infants can be safely assumed. One would have to find positive evidence that infant Baptism was NOT permitted before the argument that “infant Baptism is found nowhere in the Bible” would carry any weight.

Blank: Romans 2:29 explains what kind of "circumcision" is needed for the believer. Circumcision of the heart, a supernatural work and not the outward work of baptism.

Fish: We teach that God actually does this supernatural work in and through the outward sign of Baptism. I have already demonstrated why I think that is a Scriptural teaching. [Here I omitted to point out that the Romans reference doesn't explain why Paul, in Colossians 2:11-12, works his way from circumcision to baptism.]

Blank: To say that since the Bible does not explicitly denounce infant baptism therefore it is a doctrine of salvation is not only a huge leap but a logical fallacy.

Fish: Beware. This goes both ways. I would submit that it is more dangerous to assume that infant Baptism is invalid without any word from God to that effect (thus depriving infants of the blessings and benefits of Baptism for no good reason) than to trust the promise given by God, which is unconditional & certain to be true.

Blank: You admit that repentance and faith are granted by God. They are a supernatural work that produces salvation. Baptism is not a supernatural work of God.

Fish: Yes it is. You can only maintain otherwise by willfully deceiving yourself & refusing to believe the testimony of Scripture, such as the passages I have already pointed out.

Blank: [Baptism] is a work we do with our own hands, a work that follows salvation, and does not proceed it.

Fish: God always works through means. When He combines His promise of what He will do with a command to do something like Baptism, we must take Him at His Word. See 2 Kings 5 for an illustrative example, especially verse 13. [This is where Naaman the leper, departing angrily after hearing Elisha's advice on how to be cleansed, is brought up short by his servants saying: “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”]

Blank: Like all good works it happens because of salvation, not as a part of salvation. In order for me to state that infant baptism is nowhere in the Bible, I would have to have read the entire Bible. Which I have, many times.

Fish: The denial of infant Baptism is also nowhere in the Bible, as you should have noticed at some point while reading the Bible many times. But evidently, reading it is not the same as accepting what it says.

Fish: As Lutherans we don’t like to speak about what is or isn’t “required for salvation.” We bring nothing to salvation. God gives us all, including repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 2 Timothy 2:25) and faith (Mark 9:24; Romans 10:17; Ephesians 2:8). Baptism, the message preached and taught, the Lord’s Supper, and the forgiveness of sins are God’s means of planting faith in us (James 1:21; 1 Peter 1:23). Baptism, absolution, and the Supper are different forms of the same Gospel in which Christ crucified for our sins is at the center.

Blank: James 1:21 says nothing about water but about the process of sanctification, killing sin in our lives, repentance, none of which an infant can do. James 1:25 makes this clearer.

Fish: I didn’t say James 1:21 mentioned water. I made reference to it to point out that faith is a seed that God plants in our hearts. Jesus makes a similar point in his parable of the sower & John 1:11-13 states it even more aggressively. Saving faith is the gift of God.

Blank: Ditto with 1 Peter 1:23. 1 Peter 1:22 states that we have purified our souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit—again not something an infant can do and does not involve water.

Fish: Again, you seem to think 1 Peter 1:22 wipes verse 23 out of existence. It doesn’t. The point I have been feebly trying to make since my paragraph about Mark 10:15 is that we are all as helpless as infants—and conversely, infants are no more helpless than we adults are. Baptism isn’t about what we do but what God does in us & for us. This goes right along with Romans 5, where Paul describes what Christ did for us “while we were still helpless” (verse 6), while we were yet sinners (verse 8), while we were His enemies (verse 10). Or in Colossians 2:13, where Paul says, “You were dead” (see also Ephesians 2:1, 5). God does not wait for the dead to raise themselves. Like Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus, He calls us forth & creates life where that very moment there was nothing but death. As long as you hold onto the idea that salvation is based on anything you do, you cannot understand God’s grace.

Blank: We cannot purify our souls with water—as Peter clearly stated in 1 Peter 3:21. Obedience comes from a purified heart through the Holy Spirit, not the work of baptism.

Fish: What was most clear in 1 Peter 3:21 were the words “Baptism now saves you.” That’s your subject & predicate. Everything else in that sentence is by way of being an adverb. I won’t quibble much about the adverbs for now, as long as you admit that in spite of what you say here, God nevertheless promises to save us through Baptism.

Fish: We “trust in our baptism” exactly in the sense that it is God’s miracle and sign, filled with God’s promises, in which we can trust with certainty even when all human assurances fail. It has nothing to do with believing in our works. It has everything to do with being certain that God’s Word is active and powerful, that He keeps His promises and does not lie, that when He says something is so it is most certainly so. Baptism is not a Law that we must keep as a requirement for salvation. It is the Gospel by which God declares His promise to us, creates faith in us, and saves us.

Blank: I respectfully disagree. You see what you want to see in scripture but let's see what it actually says. You are confusing the act of baptism with what it signifies. It is an outward sign of what has already occurred inwardly and therefore the baptism with water has no power. It merely is a sign of what the Holy Spirit has already done inwardly.

Fish: Where is this written? Jesus calls it rebirth in water & the Spirit. Paul calls it a washing of regeneration, a washing in water and the word. Show me where Scripture teaches the idea that it is only “an outward sign of what has already occurred inwardly.” I see it teaching only the opposite where Baptism is concerned.

Fish: What you are calling heretical is, in fact, exactly what the Scriptures teach about Baptism. Lutherans approach these biblical promises with simple faith, setting aside the type of human thinking that ignores what God’s Word says when that seems to conflict with reason.

Blank: Nope. This does, however, remind me of a passage in the magazine that stated that we must set aside reason in order to believe what was stated about the Bible. This is simply not true. God has given us the ability to be logical and to reason and calls us to do it. Samuel reasoned with Israel in 1 Samuel 12:7. The Lord commanded it in Isaiah 1:18. It is commended in Hebrews 5:14. Paul exhorted Timothy to study the scriptures and show himself approved. This is how we grow and learn to rightly divide the Word of God. Simply child-like faith is how we enter the kingdom at which time we are babes. But like real babes we must grow, study the Word and apply it in our lives using our God given and now Holy Spirit enlightened logic and reasoning. We must be able to give an answer to all who ask about the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). Nothing in God's word conflicts with Holy Spirit enlightened reason. It only conflicts with the darkened reasoning of the unregenerate, carnal mind.

Fish: I have no quibble with anything you say in this paragraph, except the word “Nope.” But I think what our writer is getting at when he says you must set aside your reason is that the content of Biblical revelation cannot be fully grasped by reason. Moreover, no one can be quite certain that his reason is entirely regenerate, since our whole human nature has been corrupted by sin & that sinner remains in us, along with the justified believer, until our resurrection from the dead. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).


I don't think much needs to be added to this debate. I might have added a thesis to the effect, "To say that Baptism is not the Holy Spirit's means to make us fellow members of the body of Christ is to discount 1 Corinthians 12:13, where Paul writes: 'By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body...and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.'" I might also have looked for some pretext on which to trot out Galatians 3:27 and Ephesians 4:5. But frankly, I could see early on that this was a case where no "preponderance of evidence" or soundness of rational argument would penetrate the veil through which my interlocutors read the Bible. I had done what I could, which is to proclaim the mighty Word of God, which has in it the power to change hearts and to save. And so, let us hasten onward to Part 2, where we look at the hermeneutical concerns that the above debate raised in my mind.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Four by Two

Shades of Grey
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Ages: 12+

Thanks to an audiobook expertly read by John Lee, I finally found the courage to bite into this woolly, dystopian, world-building type fantasy by the author of the "Thursday Next" novels. I admit, I had held paper copies of the book in my hands a few times, and considered buying or borrowing it, but my heart always failed me. I remembered what heavy going it was, breaking through into The Eyre Affair—an effort that included reading Charlotte BrontĂ«'s Jane Eyre for my first time—though since I did, the rewards have been rich indeed. And now that I've successfully penetrated another daringly original world out of Fforde's imagining, I am glad to find out that this book is also the start of a series. Now that two more novels are projected in what is currently a "Shades of Grey" trilogy, this first book has been retroactively retitled The Road to High Saffron. Or so Wikipedia told me, when I went to check the spellings of proper names in the book. All of the copies I have seen, including the audiobook, simply bear the title above. According to Wiki, the planned sequels will be titled Painting by Numbers and The Gordini Protocols.

Now that I've cleared my throat and rubbed my hands together, so to speak, let's see whether I can briefly explain what this book is about. Sometime in our distant future, the society we know has come to an end. The civilization that takes its place is organized around the ability to perceive color. Color perception is limited, and nobody can see in the dark, apparently because of the narrowness of everybody's pupils and a lack of "rod" photoreceptors in their eyes. Your status and role in the community are based on which one or two (if any) of the primary colors you can see, and how strongly or how many shades thereof. At the lower end are the Greys, who can see less than 10% of any color and are restricted to menial tasks and manual labor; their lack of rights and frequent mistreatment places them not much above slavery. At higher color levels, the community is divided into clans by which color(s) they can see, led by a council of prefects representing each primary and secondary color. Those with the highest levels of color perception automatically rise to the top of the social order. And "order" is most definitely the word of the day, in a society strictly governed by a set of Rules that regulate every aspect of life down to the tiniest, fussy detail.

Basically, if you want the short version of the story, it's a totalitarian nightmare. You might have a hard time believing that people would put up with such restrictions, including a number of rules that seem frankly insane. But generations of terror and ignorance have bred a population that meekly accepts these rules... for the most part. The people of each village live in fear of straying too far from the town boundaries, lest nightfall catch them away from home. They live in daily fear of lightning strikes (especially ball lightning), giant man-eating animals (especially swans), and a disease called the Mildew, which has been known to wipe out entire villages and even, in one instance, a whole sector. They live in ignorance of their own history, due to a succession of "leaps backward" and "de-factings" which relieve them of more and more books and technology. They live in complacent acceptance of the rules left behind by a mysterious figure named Munsell at the time of the "Something That Happened," rules which determine everything from what each person should wear to who can marry whom. Besides the usual industries and agriculture, they devote a lot of labor to digging color scrap out of the ruins left behind by the Previous (i.e., us), converting the scrap into pure color which they need to make their world interesting, to make food and clothing attractive, and to fight back against the Fade. Besides that, they need color for a range of medicinal purposes, ranging from cures for constipation and wound care to life-saving measures and strong narcotics. In the world where Eddie Russett lives, color is everything.

Eddie Russett, age 20, narrates the story. He has been brought up to serve the collective with an admirable selflessness. A strong Red (though this will only officially be known after his Ishihara test), Eddie is on "half-promise" to marry a girl from a wealthy Red family, an arrangement that will benefit both of their families. His only shortcoming is a streak of inquisitiveness. He offends against the sanctity of the rules by suggesting an innovative way to queue for meals. So, when his father (a "Swatchman" who practices color-based medicine) gets sent to relieve one of his colleagues in the frontier town of East Carmine, Eddie is packed off with him on a ludicrous make-work assignment—a census of chairs, if you'll believe it—as a lesson in humility.

Even before they reach the village, Eddie's inquisitive nose picks up the scent of a mystery, which deepens hourly after their arrival in East Carmine. It starts with a Grey being caught "wrong-spotting"—wearing the badge of a high-caste Purple—and a fierce girl with a cute nose is somehow involved. We know from the beginning of the book that Jane (she of the cute nose) is eventually going to push Eddie into the digestive tract of a carnivorous tree, and yet in spite of her roughness and tendency toward violance, Eddie falls right in love with her. Their romance deepens in tandem with the mystery as Eddie becomes convinced that someone murdered one of his friends, and that someone also murdered his father's predecessor as the town Swatchman, and that someone who can see in the dark is lurking in the village. He sees something like a ghost, and makes other strange discoveries, during an expedition to a neighboring town that had been wiped out by the Mildew. He plays matchmaker to a couple who are willing to risk Reboot (a one-way transportation to the Emerald City for those who earn too many demerits) to be together. He bargains for information with the Apocryphal Man who lives upstairs, and who is officially Not To Be Noticed, even if he walks right into a public meeting with no clothes on. He agrees to look out for suspicious characters on behalf of a visiting National Color agent, while at the same time promising Jane that he will keep her secrets. And in only a few fast-paced days, he becomes dangerously involved in the complex politics and personal relationships of East Carmine.

In those four days or so, Eddie survives more than one attempt on his life. He makes new friends, only to be betrayed by them. He attracts sworn enemies, only to save their lives. He wins and loses not one but two desired fiancĂ©es, only to be forced into a hideous arranged marriage. He loses his virginity (mild adult content here) and most of his merits, only to win big in the Ishihara sweepstakes. He offers himself up as the leader of an expedition to the village of High Saffron, from which no previous explorer has ever returned. He finds out what's really going on in his sick, twisted world—and what's all but unprecedented: He lives to be in a position to change things. And in the very end, he must make an appalling decision in order to safeguard his chance to make the world better.

Unsurprisingly, given the hilariousness of Jasper Fforde's other books, this is a hilarious book. But it's also an immensely intelligent, mentally challenging, thought-provoking one. And as the story builds toward its conclusion, it becomes increasingly suspenseful and gripping. The last page is unexpectedly devastating. Under all the humorous quirks and whimsies that keep, as it were, a head of foamy froth on top, there is a dark, strong liquor that savors of horror and evil. It's really a complete book in itself, requiring no sequels, if you don't mind leaving to imagination the outcome of Eddie and Jane's campaign to change their world. But now that I've seen the train roll out of East Carmine station, taking a piece of Eddie with it, I won't rest easy until I read what happens next.

The Woman Who Died a Lot
by Jasper Fforde
Recommended Ages: 14+

In book 3 of the second quartet of "Thursday Next" novels, we find Swindon U.K.'s greatest literary detective facing a vast array of mid-life challenges, such as controlling the residual pain in the leg she broke in her previous adventure, not being bitter when command of the newly re-organized Spec Ops literary division is handed to a younger agent, settling into a new career as director of the Wessex All You Can Eat at Fatso's (Drink Not Included) Library Service, and having trouble remembering to visit the body-art parlor to ask why she got a tattoo reminding her that her daughter Jenny is a mind worm created by a super-villain able to tamper with people's memories. She has to face budget cuts, a mysterious series of book vandalisms, crises in the lives of her two teenaged children, and an impending smiting by a wrathful Deity—all while being repeatedly replaced by lookalike synthetic life-forms, built to last only a day or so, for some reason best known to the world-domination-coveting Goliath Corporation. So yeah, her plate is pretty full.

At this point, you need to understand—and please ignore the fit of evil laughter I'm having at the notion suggested by the word "understand"—a few things about the world Thursday Next lives in. Right up front: it's not exactly our world. It's one of the seventy-odd alternate realities that exist alongside, or under, or (gulp) some yet-to-be-invented-preposition our world. It's a pretty daft world; though, mind you, so is ours. But it's a world that should particularly appeal to bookish people like you and me. For example, in Thursday's reality, literature is taken very seriously. Librarians are legally empowered to use deadly force to recover overdue books, and to protect library holdings from theft and vandalism. Fans of many authors include militant extremists who are not above committing deadly violence to protest revised editions and negative criticism. And the Goliath Corporation wants, among other things, to cash in on the vast, untapped market that exists within the Book World—the text-based reality where the settings and characters one imagines while reading, exist and dwell.

I'm going to leave it at that for now, because the more I try to explain it, the more ludicrous it sounds. The point is, Goliath wants into the Book World; but until now, only Thursday Next could go there. But with highly advanced "Day Players" running around—those synthetic folks whose superhuman mental and physical abilities make up for their short shelf life—there is now a real chance that Goliath will find a way in. And you can bet they won't go as polite visitors; their mission is to control and exploit.

While Thursday tries to work out what the Goliath angle is this time, she finds herself constantly having to check whether she's really herself or a Day Player double. Meanwhile, she must try to figure out why Goliath is so interested in copies of not-very-rare manuscripts by a mediocre medieval saint. Meanwhile, her family's fictional butler (don't ask) is trying to explore the Dark Reading Matter where deleted fictional characters go, using the imaginary childhood friends of dying people, together with early-model dodo birds brought back from extinction by cottage-industry genetic engineering. Meanwhile, Thursday's genius daughter Tuesday is trying to perfect her anti-smite shield technology in time to save downtown Swindon from a scheduled smiting due at lunchtime on Friday. Meanwhile, Thursday's son Friday struggles to cope with the knowledge that the illustrious career he would have had in the ChronoGuard (defenders of the optimal timeline) has been replaced with a prison sentence for murdering an obnoxious twerp named Gavin Watkins. Meanwhile, Thursday's brother Joffy, spiritual leader of the Church of the Global Standard Deity, bravely resolves to face incineration in the divine smiting as an act of protest, while the only apparent way to save him (by luring the smite out of its fore-ordained path and onto a tent full of really sinful people) is one that will only enrich the evil Goliath Corporation—and so Thursday must somehow stop it. Meanwhile (!!!) Aornis Hades, mnemonomorph (that means she can toy with your memory), has escaped justice for her crimes and is hiding right under Thursday's nose—a problem that, for reasons you can easily imagine, will be nearly impossible for the Next family to resolve, especially as Aornis nears the completion of her plan to make them her slaves.

That's enough meanwhiles for a couple of books. And yet all of that is in this one outrageous, hilarious, bizarre, brain-tickling book. All of that, plus a Welsh-built car that handles like a tank (because it is one), an order of nuns who worship a lobster, an order of monks who constantly throw themselves out of windows, a former celebrity stalker who is now studying to earn his hermit license, a peel-off painkiller that gives new meaning to the word "bootleg," a man who ages backward on one side of his body, and the dilemma of how to save the planet from an oncoming asteroid using time travel, which hasn't been invented yet. Or rather, it has been retroactively determined that it will no longer be invented. Find the loophole in that and you just might be loopy enough to experience Thursday's world. Trust me: The book will go by quickly, in a whirl of sexy, funny, smart, and action-packed surprises. And while some long-running conflicts are finally resolved in this book, I hope and trust there will still be plenty of juice left over to run the rumored final book in the series: Dark Reading Matter.

Trials of Death
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

In book 5 of the "Saga of Darren Shan," a.k.a. "Cirque Du Freak"—or book 2 of the "Vampire Rites" trilogy, which is the second of four trilogies within the same—half-vampire Darren starts to look less like an eternally whiny teenage git and more like someone with the potential to be a hero. But it looks as if he may need to be drowned, roasted, sliced, and skewered along the way. As you would expect from the ending of Vampire Mountain, Darren must either pass five trials of physical courage, luck, and endurance—any of which could kill him—or, upon failing or wimping out, face execution by being dropped repeatedly into a pit of sharpened stakes. While none of the possible deaths offered by the randomly-drawn trials sounds much better than that, Darren opts to face fate on his feet.

But after seeing Darren survive his first three trials and growing more confident that he is going to make it through them all, what happens next may not be what you expect. Just when I was enjoying the predictable groove the book had fallen into—livened up by an escalating series of scary close-calls—author Darren Shan (actually O'Shaughnessy) did the thing I least expected: the unexpected. And by giving his story a surprisingly surprising twist, he actually surprised me. Well done!

Okay, to be honest, I had noticed some hints and fore-shadowings. It isn't so much what happened that surprised me, as when it happened, and where it left poor Darren at the end of this book. Let's just say that there's a highly placed traitor in Vampire Mountain; an invading force of the vile Vampaneze clan getting ready to strike at the unsuspecting vampires; a faithful friend lying lifeless in the dark; and one disgraced young hero who, when offered the choice between joining the enemy and certain death, chooses the latter. It really seems like time is up for Darren.

How the next installment, titled The Vampire Prince, is going to pull him out of this cliff-hanger is a breathlessly urgent question, considering how the end of this book leaves Darren not dangling from a cliff, but actually plunging to his swift and gruesome doom. Me? I'm not worried. I've got Book 6 (or Book 3, if you prefer) on hold at the public library. I'm sure it will become available before the suspense drives me insane. (Twitch! Giggle!)

The Vampire Prince
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book 6 of "The Saga of Darren Shan," also known in some markets as the "Cirque du Freak" series, begins where the previous book left young half-vampire Darren—in a damp, dark place deep within Vampire Mountain, hurtling down a subterranean river toward all but certain death. Even after he (barely) survives his tumble out of the mountain, Darren faces odds stacked mightily against him. He has failed the trials that were to decide whether he is to be accepted by the vampire clan or executed. He has run away from a death sentence, which also carries a death sentence. And a vampire he counted on to help him, turns out to be a murderer and a traitor working with those enemy bloodsuckers, the Vampaneze.

As Darren slowly recovers from his injuries, naked in a winter wilderness and surviving only by the help of a pack of wolves, he faces some tough choices. Choices like going back to face the music for his disgrace, only to warn the vampires of the danger that lurks within their halls—and doing it before Kurda Smahlt is invested as a Prince, with the power to command absolute obedience. If Darren does not act soon, Kurda will have access to a wonderful stone that enables the Vampire Princes to locate any vampire in the world. And Darren knows that Kurda already has Vampaneze allies hidden in the mountain, ready to begin carrying out the prophecy that says they will wipe out the vampires.

In this dark, violent, dangerous adventure, Darren shows courage, resourcefulness, and the ability to feel compassion toward his enemies. He faces the fury of battle, an assassination attempt, and a trial for his life. He learns more about how vampire society works, and thinks about how it should change. He sees death, grief, and disabling injury come to people he cares about and respects. He experiences the agonizing dilemma between two options in which good and evil seem equally mixed. He proves himself worthy of being spared the death sentence that hangs over him, yet must face a system of vampire laws which are slow to change and which recognize only one way to cheat a death sentence... a solution that may surprise you as much as it surprises Darren.

The fact that this book concludes the "Vampire Rites" trilogy (the second of four trilogies in this 12-book series), should not discourage those of us who are captivated by Darren Shan's (or rather O'Shaughnessy's) unique twist on vampire lore. The next trilogy is titled "Vampire War," and its first book is Hunters of the Dusk—which I expect to pick up at my neighborhood library today!