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By In Books, Culture, Theology

The Great and Terrible Wilderness

Moses Brazen Serpent SebastienBourdon

In the Bible we hear of “that great and terrible wilderness” (Deut. 8:15), a place of punishment for faithless Israel, the abode of the scapegoat, satyrs, and tempting spirits. And yet David longs for wings to “fly” and “be at rest…in the wilderness” (Psalm 55: 6-7). Elijah also finds here refuge and God’s miraculous provision; and that same disloyal Israel finds manna “upon the face of the wilderness” (Ex. 16:14). Our Lord is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil and yet angels minister to him there, after a great victory. The season of Lent has strong connections with the Biblical wilderness–a subject near to my own heart and imagination–so what better time to make something of this thematic ambivalence (or seeming ambivalence…) concerning the Wilderness. To do so we must begin with an understanding of what the Wilderness is, inside Scripture and beyond.

Classically, the Wilderness is the place of death and disappearance, the abode of faeries, trolls, wolves, witches, and willow-the-wisps. It’s not a fun place. (more…)

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By In Culture, Film

A Defense of Whedon’s Shakespeare

Whedon Much Ado Romance

Contractually obligated to take a ten-day break between principal filming and editing of The Avengers, Joss Whedon gathered a group of friends (many of whom already met often to read Shakespeare together) and filmed an adaptation of the Bard’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. Though the setting and costumes are modern, Shakespeare’s original text serves as the script. The final product opened in a limited release last summer and met with mixed reviews from major critics. By my lights, the film was witty and enjoyable, faithful yet innovative, but the professional critics generally made good cases for their criticisms. Less compelling were some of the Christian responses.

The moral and theological features of Shakespearian drama have been coming back into vogue among Christians. In Reformed circles, that is due in large part to the work of men like Peter Leithart and Ralph Smith who, in recent years, have combined considerable pastoral and literary gifts to produce thoroughly Christian readings of some of Shakespeare’s greatest works. Unfortunately that renewed Christian enthusiasm for the Bard’s plays can trickle down into a moralizing tendency. In their excitement to distill clear moral themes and messages, the less careful will often over-simplify otherwise complex drama. These well-meaning but unfortunate approaches might (more…)

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By In Culture

Should You and Your Kids Skip the Zoo?

by Sean Johnson
child zoo glass gorilla scare

Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I don’t believe it.

I know two young children between the ages of five and ten and, while it will seem that I’ve invented them for the purposes of this essay, I assure you they are real. Their names have been changed to protect the innocent (me, in this case). Let’s call them Sancho and Dulcinea, we being an optimistic people, after all. They are almost never allowed to play outside, but not for lack of opportunity—they have good-sized front and backyards, and live in a safe (read: gated) neighborhood patrolled by security guards. No, they are kept indoors by their mother for fear that they might come into direct contact with dirty, germy things; living things; unknown things.

Sancho and Dulcinea are allowed to visit the zoo, and therein lies the genius of modern parenting. (more…)

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By In Culture

Some American Typology: The Gadsden Flag

by Sean Johnson

I was cruising down the road recently when a hog passed me. Not one of the sweaty, hairy, toothy things that live in the brush; one of the rumbly, metallic, two-wheel things that live in the garage—all of its valves and cylinders and carburetors and handlebars being as rumbly and metallic as they could manage. There was, however, something sweaty, hairy, and toothy seated on top of the hog. As his ilk is wont to do, he had swaddled himself in many fine leathers. He was rumbling metallically along at too great a clip for me to know just how many and how fine were his leathers, but I did notice the colorful design on the back of his jacket: a fanged serpent ready to strike. Now, someone seeing such an image on such a fellow might very well assume that the Hell’s Angels had finally traded in their skulls and demon wings for a more traditional and historical Satanic sigil (after all, graphic depictions of the Devil don’t get more historical or traditional than the serpent). But, they would be wrong (and maybe a little right).

They would be wrong because, in actuality, what I saw on the back of the swaddled fellow was the Gadsden flag—a flag depicting a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me” dating from the time of the American War for snake yellow field Dont Tread On Me rebelIndependence. Since its creation, when it was flown by the Colonial Navy’s flagship (there’s a pun there, somewhere, I’m sure), the flag has represented at least one aspect of the nation’s international demeanor: mess with the snake, get the fangs. More recently, though, it has sometimes been adopted to represent the demeanor of individual citizens or citizen groups over and against their own Federal Gov’t.

They may be a little right, or at least justified in their mistake, because the talking snake is an awfully evocative image and its adoption by an ostensibly Christian nation or ostensibly Christian citizens could be puzzling. Of course, I can understand why the serpent would say “Don’t tread on me;” he knows by heart the whole bit about having his head crushed and we shouldn’t be surprised if he tries to talk his way out of it, that’s part of his modus operandi after all. (more…)

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By In Politics

Review: Seven Men by Eric Metaxas

by Sean Johnson

In saying, “everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher,” the Lord gave us not merely a fundamental truth about the end education and discipleship, but about the means. As the surrounding context in Luke 6 confirms, the Eric metaxas seven men and the secret of their greatnessprocess has a great deal to do with exemplification: anyone following you is going to end up wherever you end up—if you’re blind, that will be a ditch—and your poor vision will perpetuate theirs. In the schoolhouse we are recovering this wisdom (acknowledging that the best teachers do not just dictate accurate information, but model a lifestyle of wisdom and faithfulness); in the broader sphere of life, however, we never lost our innate understanding of it.  It has been codified in the concept of the “role model.” Many life lessons are best learned through images and the most vivid images are often human lives themselves. Therein lies one of the greatest values of biography: moral and spiritual formation via exemplification and imitation. And therein lies the greatest value of Eric Metaxas’, Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.

Metaxas consciously places his Seven Men in the tradition of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans or Foxe’s Book of Martyrs—biographical works intended chiefly to hold up the conduct and character of certain men as examples for readers to emulate (or avoid). He has sketched the lives of seven famed Christian men in order to commend their exemplary behavior to all readers, but especially to young men, who (more…)

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By In Culture

A Man and an Art for All Seasons

by Sean Johnson

Christian kitsch

All great cultural produce (that is, art) is religiously motivated—the stylized mythologies of the Mediterranean, the architectural triumphs of Roman civic religion, the gothic style, the hagiographic painting and sculpture of the Renaissance, the scientific innovations motivated at various times by extreme love of God or extreme love of man, etc., etc., etc. In recent years, though, the Church has experienced what many would acknowledge as a crisis of art. The fruit of this historical circumstance has been, among other things, the hot mess of contemporary Christian music, Kinkadean depictions of crosses and cottages aglow with the radiation of sentimentality, and Kingsburyian baptized pulp fictions.

As a people we are still in a moment of uncertainty about how to regain the artistic potency of our forbears, and reinfuse our art with that intangible-but-unmistakable clarity and power—like lightning and cold steel—that truly biblical art cover art Malcolm Guite Englishhas always possessed. (more…)

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By In Politics

Double Vision Check

by Sean Johnson
eye test lenses double-vision anagogical vision
Recently, some comments from Peter Leithart got me thinking about the ways different folks interpret Revelation, which in turn got me thinking about the ways they interpret current events. It seemed, in my armchair musings, that our interpretations of the news have a lot to do with our eschatology, and I’m not just talking about the 666-handbasket-of-the-whore-of-Babylon-Five folks, either. (more…)

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