I decided to celebrate the two hundredth literature study guide on the website by redoing the guide for my all-time favorite novel, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I have read the book at least a half-dozen times since I was in junior high school, but always in Lowell Bair’s excellent abridged translation (I discovered that, although it is a thousand pages shorter than the unabridged Modern Library version, it omits very little essential to the plot). I had always wanted to read the unabridged version, so this time I tackled it – all 1462 pages. I enjoyed it thoroughly and found that the themes of redemption, resurrection, and the futilityof revenge still struck a chord. Not surprisingly, the new study guide is more than three times longer than the old one. Though you may not be prepared to tackle the unabridged version in all its glory, I would heartily recommend taking the time to read Bair’s abridgement. By the way, this is not a good candidate for viewing the movie instead. The 2002 version starring Jim Caviezel does not come close to doing justice to the complexity of the plot, and even the 1998 French miniseries version starring Gerard Depardieu, which is generally quite good, deviates from the plot of the novel in a few ways that will disappoint the true fan of Dumas’ original.
The third and last of my chronological overviews of Scripture is now available from Planters Press. The Spread of the Gospel: A Chronological Overview of the New Testament Church After the Ascension completes the series the earlier volumes of which – The Greatest Life Ever Lived (an overview of a harmony of the Gospels) and The Road to Redemption: A Chronological Overview of the Old Testament – surveyed the other major portions of the Scriptures in chronological sequence. This final volume uses the book of Acts as a framework. Acts is treated verse by verse, and chapters on the other books of the New Testament are included where they fit into the time frame. Each chapter on the books of the New Testament includes an introduction, an overview of the contents of the book, verse by verse treatment of representative passages, and questions for study and discussion. The book may be obtained from Amazon or from the author at a cost of $19.95. Anyone who wishes to purchase all three books may do so for the special price of $40.00, obtainable only through the author; if you are interested, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pope Francis recently decided that capital punishment violates the Gospel and is never admissible because it attacks the inherent dignity of all humans, thus casting aside previous church teaching as outdated. This liberal pope, who has already shown himself to be soft on questions of biblical morality like abortion and homosexuality, is now rejecting another clear aspect of biblical teaching. Note the following:
• Capital punishment was mandated by God in cases of murder based on the inherent dignity of all humans – the fact that they are made in the image of God (Genesis 9:5-6). Thus human life is of great value. One who unjustly takes that life deserves to lose his own. Retribution is seen as justice, not vengeance. Scripture thus gives far greater attention to justice for the victim than humanists tend to do.
• Any attempt to use the Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13) against capital punishment is absurd given the fact that the next chapter enumerates six offenses for which it should be enacted.
• Concerns about the unjust administration of capital punishment are legitimate, which is why the legal system handed down by God included safeguards such as the requirement of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15).
• Part of the responsibility entrusted by God to the state is the use of the sword to punish evildoers (Romans 13:4), a power that Jesus Himself acknowledged (John 19:11), as did the Apostle Paul (Acts 25:11). These passages are particularly powerful because in both cases the state, in the form of a time-serving bureaucrat like Pontius Pilate and an insane megalomaniac like Nero, was acting unjustly. The remedy for the unjust application of capital punishment is not to eliminate it, but to carry it out in a just manner. Too often today, one gets the impression that the government exists to protect criminals from the society that has abused them and the system that seeks to hold them accountable for their deeds.
• One of the consequences of the Fall is that man became a violent being (e.g., Cain and Abel). Violence is therefore the result of sin and is now part of man’s sinful nature. When the Bible deals with the concept of violence, therefore, it does not take the simplistic humanistic approach that violence is always wrong. Instead, it recognizes that, because man is basically evil, those evil impulses must be controlled, and sometimes this requires violent actions against those who do evil, both as appropriate retribution and as a deterrent to future evil actions.
• Man’s sinful nature necessitates that he be held accountable for his evil deeds. Humanists, on the other hand, assume that man is basically good (contrary to their own evolutionary theory, which teaches “nature red in tooth and claw”) and needs to be reeducated or put into a healthier environment in order to change his behavior.
• Scripture assumes that people are responsible for the choices they make. To hear some defense lawyers tell it, today no one is considered responsible for his evil deeds; the fault is always laid at the feet of parental abuse, a horrible environment, poor education, psychological maladjustment, or some life-altering trauma.
Much more could be said on this subject, but the Pope’s recent comments cry out for a biblical response.
Much ink has been spilled in recent months about the question of immigration and how the complex problems associated with it should be handled. While I make no claim to presenting a solution to the question, I do believe it is important for Christians to look at the matter from a biblical perspective. In seeking a starting point for such a treatment, I have surveyed the passages in the Pentateuch that instruct Israel concerning the appropriate approach to strangers in their midst. We recognize, of course, that the Old Testament civil law was designed for a very different culture than the one in which we live, and that it was also designed for a theocracy, which is hardly our situation, so we should not expect that the laws found in the Old Testament can be directly transplanted into modern American culture. After all, the concept of legal or illegal border crossing did not exist in ancient Israel. We should expect, however, that the principles underlying those laws, which speak to us of God’s view of justice, should be applicable to all cultures in all ages.
The fundamental principle that is cited repeatedly in the Pentateuch concerning the treatment of strangers is that one law applies to all (Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 9:14; Deuteronomy 1:16). Non-Israelites who live among God’s people are to be subject to the same laws as native Israelites. This basic principle is worked out in a variety of ways.
• Strangers in the land are to obey the laws of Israel, including not working on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14), avoiding leaven during Passover (Exodus 12:19), and fasting on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29). They are subject to the same punishment as Israelites for moral violations such as child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), and illicit sex (Leviticus 18:26). They may participate in Israelite religious rites if they submit to circumcision (Exodus 12:48; Numbers 9:14), offer sacrifices properly (Leviticus 17), and undergo the appropriate forms of purification (Numbers 19:10).
• Strangers enjoyed all the benefits of living in Israelite society. They could participate in the celebrations associated with the Feast of Weeks (Deuteronomy 16:11), the Feast of Booths (Deuteronomy 16:14), and the Sabbatical Year (Leviticus 25:6). They had access to the Cities of Refuge should they be responsible for an accidental death (Joshua 20:9).
• The Pentateuch also emphasizes the need to love and care for strangers. The command to love your neighbor as yourself occurs in the context of caring for strangers (Leviticus 19:9-18, 33-34; Deuteronomy 10:18-19), often accompanied by a reminder that the Israelites themselves were once strangers in Egypt. Strangers are not to be oppressed (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 24:14, 17), but are to receive aid if they are needy in the form of being permitted to glean in the fields (Leviticus 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-21; cf. Ruth) and receiving funds from the tithes collected from Israelites (Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 26:11-13).
• Some differences did exist. Strangers were not expected to keep all the dietary laws; they could eat animals that had died on their own (Deuteronomy 14:21), though they could not eat blood (Numbers 15:14-16). They also were not eligible to serve as priests (Numbers 16:40) or kings (Deuteronomy 17:15). All in all, though, if non-Israelites were willing to live as Israelites among the people of God, they could partake in the covenant with God and all that it implied (Deuteronomy 29:10-15).
While these biblical principles cannot provide all the answers we would like to the vexing problem of immigration, they should serve as a starting point for calm and reasoned discussion from a Christian perspective on a subject that has generated far more heat than light in recent days.
I have just added the two hundredth study guide to the Notes on Classic Literature page. The work I chose to play this auspicious role was William Shakespeare’s final tragedy, Coriolanus. Imagine, if you can, a renowned public figure, known for his wealth and accomplishments but totally lacking in political experience, who decides to run for the highest office in the land. The professional politicians, who know how to play the game and manipulate the media, are jealous of him and are concerned that he will undermine their power in the government, so they determine to destroy him by accusing him of arrogance, claiming that he is an elitist who cares nothing for the common people, promoting class warfare, and spreading the rumor that he intends to make himself a dictator. The man in question does himself no favors because he is highly opinionated and says whatever he thinks, no matter the consequences, and often lets his temper get the better of him. If any of this sounds the least bit familiar, you understand why the play, considered the most political of Shakespeare’s works, has frequently been performed or filmed by those with a political agenda.
Many scholars of comparative religions have compared Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus, pointing out the following similarities:
• Both were born into the dominant religions (Hinduism and Judaism) of the regions in which they lived.
• Both are said to be incarnations of gods (this is true for Buddha only in the Mahayana version of the religion).
• Both are said to have come into the world through miraculous births.
• Both suffered temptations by the Evil One before beginning their ministries.
• Both challenged the religious authorities (Brahmins and Pharisees) of their day.
• Both gathered a select group of disciples around them.
• Both lived the lives of itinerant teachers.
• Both challenged their followers to leave all and follow them.
• Both sent out their disciples to spread their teachings.
• Neither wrote down their ideas, which were recorded by their followers after their deaths.
• Both are worshiped as gods by their followers (again, this is only true of Mahayana Buddhism).
The differences, however, are far greater than the similarities, and illustrate key differences between Buddhism and Christianity.
• Jesus declared Himself to be God, while Buddha explicitly rejected such an identification.
• Jesus taught that He deserved worship while Buddha repudiated it.
• Jesus proclaimed His message to all who would hear, while Buddha restricted his to the select few who were able to follow the ascetic lifestyle he promoted.
• Jesus died a sacrificial death to save His followers, while Buddha died from poisonous mushrooms.
• Buddha claimed to show his followers the path to Nirvana by his example and teachings, while Jesus claimed to be the way of salvation, paying for the sins of all who believe in Him.
• Buddha taught a way of salvation by doing, while Jesus taught that salvation comes only by faith in Him.
[Excerpt from my Defending Your Shield]
Detective fiction is a relatively recent genre, the earliest examples of which are Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In later years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized this form of literature with his stories about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, as did Agatha Christie with Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Detective fiction may seem at first glance to be frivolous, light entertainment, but the entire genre carries with it certain assumptions that correspond closely to a Christian view of the world. In the August 30, 1974 issue of Christianity Today, Lionel Basney wrote an article called Corpses, Clues, and the Truth in which he made this very point. According to Basney, the detective story contains the following key elements, all of which a Christian can readily affirm:
1. The story is based on a genuinely evil act. Evil is real, thus so is good, and the two are in conflict with one another.
2. Right and wrong are absolute, and so is truth.
3. The evil deed is the responsibility of an individual, and he is accountable for what he has done; one is not free to blame social maladjustment or the result of an underprivileged upbringing, thus shifting the blame to the larger society.
4. “Be sure your sin will find you out” – There is no such thing as a perfect crime; the criminal will always make some fatal mistake that will lead to his discovery.
5. Sin leads to more sin – Like Macbeth with his murders, one must add sin to sin, lie to lie, and often murder to murder in order to conceal the original dastardly deed.
6. The detective, in solving the crime, uses his reason and the clues that come to light. We live in a rational universe, and the detective story could not exist without it.
7. The detective, in solving the crime, acts as the representative of and for the good of society, which benefits when justice is done.
8. Good always triumphs. Though this may not seem to be the case in the real world in our daily experience, we know that ultimately this is the case.
It is also worth noting that modern mystery writers have deviated from the classic pattern precisely in the areas outlined above.
1. Protagonists tend to be as unsavory as the criminals. Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character is a classic example of this, but is hardly the only one. Conflicted heroes seem to be the order of the day, and all are inevitably morally ambiguous at best.
2. This leads to questions being raised about who the “good guys” really are. Since the emergence of the rebellious counterculture of the sixties, often the villains are the authorities, while the crooks display some sort of honor among thieves.
3. Some have even gone so far as to question the existence of the rational universe that is at the heart of detective stories. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a good example of this. Eco was an unabashed postmodernist and set about to write a postmodern murder mystery despite the fact that it is set a medieval monastery. Though he named his detective William of Baskerville in homage to Conan Doyle’s most famous Sherlock Holmes novel, he constructed a mystery in which the clues did nothing but lead the detective to wrong answers and where the truth was discovered by pure chance. To add to the postmodern flavor, he chose a title that has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot or its characters.
Such non-Christian approaches represent a poisonous deviation from a Christian perspective and have the power to influence the worldviews of those who read or watch them.
[Excerpt from my Thinking Inside the Box]
The concept of a worldview is unfamiliar to many, both inside and outside of Christian circles, but an understanding of it is vital in order to interact fruitfully with those outside the Christian faith. In order to do so, you must comprehend both your own worldview and that of the one to whom you are speaking.
What is a Worldview?
A worldview is, in simple terms, the spectacles through which a person understands and interprets reality. Someone who wears glasses or contact lenses sees everything around him through those curved pieces of glass or plastic; nothing enters his range of vision that is not filtered through the lenses in front of his eyes.
Our understanding of the world around us is like that. The spectacles through which we view the world consist of a set of presuppositions or assumptions about the outside world, ourselves, and God (if we believe in God). These presuppositions then determine how we interpret and interact with everything else. While these spectacles can be changed (think of getting a new prescription for your glasses), they can never be removed; you wear these glasses all the time.
Does Everyone Have a Worldview?
Unlike daily life, where some people have 20-20 vision and some need glasses, everyone wears worldview spectacles. Each individual has a basic set of assumptions by which he evaluates the ideas and information with which he comes in contact. The important thing to remember here is that there is no such thing as presuppositionless thought.
One of the problems that arises here is that most people are not aware of the worldview that colors their understanding of reality. They are used to looking at the world in a certain way and cannot imagine doing otherwise. If you were to ask such a person what his presuppositions are, he would be hard-pressed to answer because he doesn’t realize that he has any.
Worse yet, many people will vehemently insist that they operate without presuppositions. Such people believe that they look at the world in a neutral or objective fashion while insisting that Christians, because they believe in God, live by faith, and seek to follow the Bible, are biased. They thus assume the high ground intellectually while dismissing the credibility of believers. Such facile rejection of Christianity without even considering its claims cannot be allowed to stand.
Where Do Worldviews Come From?
Though in the final analysis all non-Christian worldviews come from man’s rebellion against God (see Romans 1:18-22), most people acquire their worldviews from their parents and other influences early in life. Because they have grown up in an environment where people look at the world in a certain way, they think it normal or natural to do so. Education also plays a major role in shaping worldviews; in fact, the American educational system has been in the business of altering the worldviews of students ever since the early part of the twentieth century when socialization became a big part of the educational process. Today, children in public schools are taught in an environment that conveys, either subtly or directly, that religion isn’t important and that truth and morality are relative. College campuses are even worse, with rampant political correctness enforcing certain accepted modes of thought while stifling the expression of Christian ideas and values.
Worldviews can change gradually as people learn to look at reality differently from the way in which they were raised. They can also change quickly and radically. For example, teenagers and college students rebelling against their parents and everything they stand for will sometimes profess ideas that are diametrically opposed to what they have been taught at home. The greatest means of drastic worldview change, of course, is conversion, where the Holy Spirit transforms the heart and mind (see Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9).
Can a Worldview Be Proved?
By the very nature of the case, worldviews are not subject to proof, either rational or empirical. The simple reason for this is that a person’s worldview determines what he is or is not willing to accept as proof. Like Descartes’s famous cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), all thought must start somewhere; for him, the starting point was the assumption of his own existence, though other worldviews take other starting points.
For example, an Empiricist begins with the assumption that only what is discernible by the senses and their man-made extensions (microscopes, telescopes, etc.) is worthy of belief. He therefore dismisses out of hand any aspect of the supernatural (God, angels, demons) or non-material (the human soul or spirit). But can he prove that only what is detectable by the senses exists? Of course not, but he has ruled out any arguments concerning suprasensory phenomena because they do not fall within his presuppositions.
Can a Worldview Be Tested?
Does this then mean that we are lost in a morass of hopeless relativism? Because worldviews cannot be proved, must we conclude that one worldview is as valid as any other? Does this therefore rule out intelligent discussion, since talking with someone who does not share our basic assumptions about the nature of things is an exercise in futility? Not at all. Though worldviews are not susceptible to proof, they can be tested and compared on the basis of how well they meet the following tests.
The first test of the validity of any worldview is internal consistency. If someone professes to believe in a system of thought that contradicts itself, he is no better off than the inhabitants of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s novel 1984, who were taught to practice doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Secondly, a valid worldview must be consistent with human experience. For instance, if your worldview includes the belief that matter doesn’t exist, you should as a result be able to walk through walls, abstain from eating and drinking indefinitely, and get run over by a bus without harm. These, of course, along with an enormous variety of similar tests, simply do not work out very well in practice. Note, however, that this does not imply that tests of this sort are limited to sensory experience (or we would have to concede the game to the Empiricists). Consistency with human experience would also include such things as the reality of emotions and relationships, which certainly extend beyond the realm of the material.
The third test of a valid worldview is that one must be able to live it out in practice. If a set of presuppositions is no more than theory, it means nothing at all. For instance, one may profess to believe that right and wrong do not exist, yet such a person cannot go through a single day without making value judgments about his own ideas and behavior and those of others. Being able to practice what you preach is of the utmost importance here, though we must acknowledge that no one achieves perfection in living out his or her beliefs.
[Excerpt from chapter one of Defending Your Sword]
For hundreds of years, people have sought to devise utopian schemes to create a heaven on earth. They have soon discovered, however, that society cannot be changed without changing the human heart, which only God can do through the saving work of the Holy Spirit. As a young man, Nathaniel Hawthorne spent a few months at Brook Farm, one of the many socialist communes that sprang up all over America in the first half of the twentieth century. He used his experiences in that failed experiment as the setting for the most recent addition to the literature website, The Blithedale Romance. More a study of the four main characters, including the unreliable narrator, than an analysis of the commune, the novel uses many layers of symbolism to discuss the changes occurring in American society in the middle of the nineteenth century as well as the unchanging characteristics of human nature that undermine any attempts to create a perfect world.
Some Christians have argued that reading literature is essentially a waste of time that might be much better spent in reading the Bible or devotional books. We should note, however, that, given the need for critical engagement with the surrounding culture, literature can have great value for the Christian in several ways.
The greatest value of literature is to give insight into the human experience. In this regard, much can be learned from non-Christian writers. By common grace, unbelievers often understand the world in which they live in profound ways, though for the most part they perceive the human dilemma of endemic evil and hopelessness without being able to provide any solutions. Thus the literature of the modern age, especially since the beginning of the twentieth century, tends to be depressing. From the novels of Thomas Hardy to the works of Faulkner and Hemingway to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Christians gain a better understanding of how modern man views the apparent absurdity of his own predicament – with a hopelessness that is hard for us to imagine.
Christians can also gain insight into how the world views us. It doesn’t take much exposure to literature and the popular media to figure out that they do a bad job of portraying the reality of Christianity, despite occasional astonishing exceptions like the portrayal of Eric Liddell in the movie Chariots of Fire. This should not be surprising, since “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (I Corinthians 1:18). Two major tendencies appear in literature that attempts to portray Christianity.
Such works as Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and John Osborne’s Luther give very unflattering pictures of Christianity. Such critical pictures are painful, but make it easier for Christians to understand the low regard in which we are held by the world around us. Even this can have value, since it equips the believer to respond to the caricatures and misperceptions that dominate the surrounding world.
On the other hand, when Christianity is pictured in a positive way in secular works, it is often the Social Gospel kind of religion. After all, unbelievers think that religion ought to be more concerned with this world than the next, and think the best Christians are those who care little about what people believe, are non-judgmental about their actions, and are willing to accept everyone. This is the kind of pastor that tends to appear favorably in movies as well as in well-known works of literature. For example, Jane Austen, who was a Christian, and George Eliot, who was not, both show this tendency among the clergymen who are pictured positively in their novels. The ones who are really religious are hypocrites and fools, while the “good” clergymen are much more liberal and tolerant.
Reading good literature can also help a Christian’s witness, since it enables him to understand how unbelievers think and to gain a window into their world that can be useful in preaching the Gospel. The common ground that good literature creates can often open the door for discussing the serious ideas found in that literature, and thus to a conversation about the answer the Gospel provides for the big questions being addressed.
Reading good literature can also cause us to praise God for the reality of the common grace that He gives, enabling even those who hate Him to create works of great power and beauty. We can thank God for these things even if the authors themselves refuse to acknowledge the source of their talents. Take note, however, of the frequent references in this article to good literature. Bad art, whether created by Christians or non-Christians, can elicit little praise to God, and is not generally helpful common ground for serious discussions with unbelievers.
[Excerpted from my Thinking Inside the Box, this essay is also found on my Facebook page]