The latest addition to my literature website is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. It is the most serious of her novels, containing little of the comic flair found in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. The heroine of the story, Fanny Price, is quiet and withdrawn, largely separated from those around her by the lower social status of the family from which she comes and the strong moral principles she clings to despite contrary influences. In this way, she is similar to the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The novel also represents Austen’s most direct treatment of Christianity, the Established Church, and the clergy of her day. Fanny, and to some extent Edmund Bertram, stand out as genuine Christians in a society filled with those who profess Christianity because of their cultural environment but rarely practice it. Furthermore, Edmund both defends the true calling of a minister and lives it out despite the powerful arguments and temptations placed before him by the worldly Mary Crawford. We thus find in Mansfield Park the clearest picture of the brand of Christianity in which Jane Austen was raised by her father, an Anglican rector, and which she personally espoused. The story, though set in a society in many ways very different from ours, has great relevance when so many around us profess Christianity while denying it by the lives they live.
The third course in the Doctrine series is now available on the Sunday School webpage. It deals with the Doctrine of Christ and is divided into two major sections – the Person of Christ, which considers His Incarnation, humanity, and deity, and the Work of Christ, which addresses His fulfillment of the Old Testament theocratic offices of prophet, priest and king by looking at His perfect life, His atoning death, and His resurrection, ascension, heavenly session, and return. Who Christ is and what He has done is at the heart of the Gospel. Without these truths we have no salvation; as Paul said in I Corinthians 15:17-19 in reference to the resurrection, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . . If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Henry Fielding was one of the originators of the English novel. His masterpiece, Tom Jones, which is the latest addition to the literature website, was a best-seller, but appeared to decidedly mixed reviews. Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that the novel was among “the three most perfect plots ever planned. And how charming, how wholesome, Fielding always is!” Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, wrote to a friend of his, “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it: a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.” So is Tom Jones a classic or a piece of immoral trash? Though the title character certainly does engage in numerous sexual escapades before finally obtaining his lady fair, the descriptions of these are mild compared to the way such scenes are handled today, not only in literature, but also in films and on television, where nothing is left to the imagination. Not only that, but when one of Fielding’s characters swears, the author gives only the first and last letters, reluctant to include such inappropriate language in his novel. More to the point, Fielding insisted that the theme of his book was nothing less than human nature. As an Enlightenment figure, he believed that most people were basically good, but that even good people had their flaws; his extensive cast includes no perfect characters. His hero changes for the better over the course of the novel, repenting of his follies at the end and adopting the prudence and religion that his mentor had long advocated. In addition to the moral lessons the author intends to teach, the book contains numerous classical allusions – one of the comic figures frequently makes terrible jokes the puch lines of which are in dreadful Latin – and is both clever and very funny. Altogether a worthwhile read despite its length of almost 900 pages.
The second course in the doctrine series for adults, the Doctrine of God, is now available for purchase on the website. It deals with questions concerning the existence of God, the names of God, the nature of God, and the attributes of God. In compiling this series, I have drawn from previous research, including my doctrinal survey, The Bible Tells Me So, and previous adult Sunday School series on the Names of God and the Attributes of God, in addition to consulting other resources. I trust this will be helpful to churches as they seek to deepen the understanding of biblical doctrine among the members of their congregations.
In the past when I’ve taught doctrine courses in our adult Sunday School, I’ve simply adapted the material I wrote for my high school students. At this point, however, I’ve decided to write up eight series of doctrine lessons for adults that go into greater depth than is to be found in The Bible Tells Me So. The first of these is a series on the Doctrine of Scripture, which is now available on the website. I have drawn from earlier work I have done on this subject, including Defending Your Sword, but have also added research from other sources. By the way, this is the fortieth adult series available for purchase on the website.
The Great Depression had a stranglehold on the American people in the early 1930s, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, a member of the so-called Lost Generation and chronicler of the Jazz Age, was struggling to make ends meet and to keep his marriage to his increasingly troubled wife intact by writing mediocre short stories to keep the money flowing. In 1934, he published his last completed novel, Tender is the Night, dealing with a brilliant psychiatrist who struggles with an increasingly meaningless career and an emotionally troubled wife and finally declines into drunkenness and dissipation. The goals the protagonist established for himself – fame, money, a beautiful wife, and social influence – were at the heart of his understanding of the American Dream. Fitzgerald had discovered, however, that such achievements are both empty and transitory at best, as anyone who knows the Scriptures can readily attest. The novel is a classic illustration of Jesus’ question to His disciples, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” This is a question that we must always keep before us in this materialistic age.
In the 140 years since its initial performance, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the latest addition to my literature website, has been viewed as a proto-feminist document by advocates and critics alike. Ibsen, however, denied that he was a feminist and insisted that he wrote instead of all humanity, portraying the forces in society that kept people from becoming the free individuals they ought to be. The play pictures a late nineteenth-century middle-class household that is completely dominated by the husband, who treats his wife like a child. She is pampered and spoiled and has no idea that life can be lived in any other way. By the end of the play, she insists that she must leave her husband and children in order to achieve self-realization. which Ibsen believed was essential for all people. From a Christian pespective, however, Ibsen’s approach to men and women, marriage, and society is deeply flawed. The relationship between Torvald and Nora Helmer at both the beginning and the end of the story is far from the biblical ideal and demonstrates innate selfishness, even when they try to give of themselves for the benefit of the other. The play is worth reading, both as a way of understanding some of the roots of modern humanism and feminism and as a basis for discussing how both fall far short of what God wants people to be, both in their individual lives and in their relationship to one another.
The reality of suffering is perhaps the greatest stumblingblock that keeps people from accepting Christianity. Whether a person experiences suffering in his or her own life, grieves over the suffering of a loved one, wonders at all the pain that exists in the world as a result of disease, natural disasters, or man’s inhumanity to man, or questions the Christian doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell, many struggle to believe in a God who would allow such things to happen. How many people do you know who have experienced unbearable physical or emotional pain and have even prayed to God for deliverance, but have found no relief? How many have been deprived of children through senseless accidents or incurable diseases? All too often people who suffer these things wind up questioning the love of God, and rather than continuing to believe in a God who would appear to be so callous, they reject belief in God altogether. Others struggle with the massive scale of suffering in the world at large. Why do millions die of starvation or the AIDS virus in Africa? How can someone who believes in a loving God explain the thousands whose lives are snuffed out in earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters? Could God not have prevented such monstrous examples of human cruelty as the Holocaust or the massacres under dictators like Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, or Pol Pot? What kind of God would allow such things to happen if He had the power to prevent them? Worse yet, how can Christians argue that their God is a God of love if He ultimately consigns the vast majority of His human creatures to an eternity of torture in Hell? Such a God seems more like the devil than like a loving Father. For some, these questions cause them to turn away from the Christian faith in which they were raised. As children grow older and become more aware of the extent of evil in the world, they begin to ask questions, and when they find that their parents, teachers, and pastors are unable to give what they think are satisfactory answers, they reject the faith and turn to a naturalistic view of the universe that explains suffering as the result of “nature red in tooth and claw” and “the survival of the fittest.” Others turn away from the faith as a result of personal suffering, feeling as if God has deserted them. In many cases, the problem of suffering in this world and the next becomes a justification for unbelievers to reject Christianity. The classic argument is that the existence of evil in the world proves that the Christian God cannot exist; either He wants to eradicate evil and cannot, in which case He is not omnipotent, or else He is able to eliminate the suffering in the world but chooses not to do so, in which case He obviously cannot be a loving God. If suffering in this world becomes the basis for an anti-Christian apologetic, how much more is this the case when one considers the eternal torments of Hell? Any all-powerful being who would consign His own creatures to such horrors clearly is not good at all, and is unworthy of belief by any reasonable and moral person. These are the questions that this book is designed to address. It looks first at five fundamental truths that underlie any reasonable discussion of the problem of human suffering – the existence of God, the fact that He has revealed Himself in the Bible, and what the Bible teaches about His love, power, and the reality of evil. After dealing with these issues, it turns specifically to the problem of evil in its many aspects as it has been used to attack the Christian faith. What does the Bible tell us about the problem of evil, and perhaps more importantly, what does it not tell us? It then moves on to the question of eternal punishment, considering what the Bible teaches about Hell, common objections to the idea, attempts by some Christians to provide alternative explanations to this doctrine, and finally how to harmonize it with what Scripture tells us about God’s character.
Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, the latest addition to the literature page, is a long, rambling novel that, unlike most of the author’s works, was written with a clearly stated goal in mind. Dickens wrote that he intended the novel “to exhibit in a variety of aspects, the commonest of all the vices; to show how Selfishness propagates itself; and to what a grim giant it may grow.” Near the end of the novel, the title character mourns that his own selfish behavior had ruined everyone and everything he had touched, wrecking his family in the process. Such a description may lead to the conclusion that the novel is essentially bleak, but Dickens also includes admirable characters whose selflessness contrasts with the prevailing attitudes and behavior of those around them, and some of the selfish characters repent and experience a form of redemption, though with Dickens such redemption is always on the human level rather than eternal in nature. Also worth noting is the fact that the author took a short break in the process of writing the book to pen a novelette called A Christmas Carol, which, like the longer book, deals with a selfish man who finds redemption at the end of the story.
The latest addition to our Sunday School curriculum is an adult course entitled the Ministry Training Seminar. It is designed for believers who are serious about ministering the Gospel in a world that has alienated itself from Christian truth. The course is divided into three modules of six lessons each; when I taught it originally we met in three separate six-week periods in the evenings. The first module deals with the heart of the Christan; after all, we can’t hope to minister to others unless our hearts are right with God. The second module deals with the state of contemporary culture, tracing its devolution from a general Christian consensus in the Western world to an overt rejection of biblical principles and practices. Understanding these things is important, because someone who seeks to speak truth to the unbelieving world must understand how non-Christians think and what motivates them. The third module addresses the challenge of ministering to that unbelieving world. How are we to present the Gospel to those who in many cases are incapable of understanding what we are talking about? I trust that this course will be as challenging to you as it was to the members of our congregation when I taught it years ago.