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Entries in Seminary Notes (83)


Augustine's Worship War

In Book X of Confessions, Augustine probes the matter of the pleasures of the senses. He does not want to allow his senses to control him, whether it is sight or sound. He recognizes that when his senses refuse to take "second place," there can be a problem. This applies to what he hears, including Church music. He is concerned that the music will overtake the message. He is concerned that he will love the music more than he will love the content. He leans to approval of the matter, but still is cautious:

So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the sense and the benefits, which as I know from experience, can aaccrue from singing. Without committing myself to an irrevocable opinion, I am inclined to approvae of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess thiat this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.

The issue of music in Church is not a new one. While Augustine struggled with the temptation to let his senses take control and seek more the music that the content, we today experience something similar with being tempted to be more caught up in the presentation of the music than the content. Augustine was concerned that his senses not be in control. Have we ever thought of our response to worship music in such terms? It is possible to really be caught up in a song, thinking it is really powerful, but in reality, it is only the music we are drawn to. Writing good worship music is the marriage of a singable, pleasing melody with rich words. We have a lot of church music today that have great melodies and appalling words.

Augustine considers it a "grievous sin" when the song is more important than the truth. That's a strong statement. There are some songs I have sung in church which musically, are pleasing to the ear, but promote terrible doctrine. Would I be willing to consider that sin?

It's interesting to see that even back then, music was an issue in church.


What is the purpose of a book review?

I've been working on a critical review of the book St. Augustine: A Life. When I first saw the assignment, and saw the adjective "critical," I knew Dr. Haykin was not looking for something I might put on my blog. The fact that it has to be 2,500 words was a sure indication of that.

Part of the assignment involves interacting with other critical reviews. Yesterday, I spent some time reading some. The reviews came from Christianity Today, The Calvin Theological Journal, Christian Century, and one in First Things, so there is a measure of comfort that responsible people were reviewing this book. 

What I noticed in all of these reviews was the lack of a concluding phrase that said the reviewer either recommended or did not recommend the book. Certainly, someone can read between the lines and discern if the reviewer likes the book. However, in the review from First Things, the author actually has a few indictments for Gary Wills. These criticisms are written alongside him calling the book "delightful." Yet, he did not conclude the review with a recommendation.

I was left wondering how much the presence of Amazon book reviews has affected what I perceive to be the components of a book review. I don't always look at the reviews on Amazon, but when I do I notice that the majority are not very long, and are usually five star ratings combined with some one or two star ratings. It's hard to get a feel for the book when the reviews fall into such poles.

We want recommendations so that we know we're making a good purchase. But I wonder if the prevalence of Amazon as a marketing engine has changed our expectations of what a book review ought to contain. Of the reviews I read, the one from First Things was the best because the reviewer interacted not only with what he liked, but what he disliked, and that was helpful. I've read (and written) some reviews where the glowing endorsement is far too good to be true. I would rather have more information about what the book actually contains. I was once given a book to review and was very honest about what I saw as problematic content. I have never been asked to review anything by this publisher again.

In future, when I read book reviews, I think I'll be less concerned about a recommendation and more about whether the reviewer gives me enough information to make my own decision one way or another. And if I end up hating the book, that's not a big deal. No one ever died from reading a bad book.


You can't have it all, baby

I love fall. It's my favourite time of the year. With the changes in colour, it is an amateur photographer's dream. As I drove to school on Thursday morning, I passed scene after scene which would make beautiful pictures. There was a gentle mist hovering over the fields, some of which still hold their soybeans. A little valley along the west side of the road was covered with a more dense mist that was lit up by the pink sky. I wished I had my camera. Technically, I could carry my camera with me everywhere, and one year, when I took a picture every day for 365 days, I did. But there is no time right now to stop and take pictures when I have to be in class by 8:30. I have a very picturesque drive, along a river road, and there are any number of places to stop, and on Thursday, I felt a little sad that my picture taking time has all but disappeared.

And then I arrived at school, and the discussion was full of interesting tidbits. My classmates and I are getting to know each other. Two of the other women and I enjoyed the seminary student lunch together after a really edifying chapel time. We planned to meet up next Thursday, when D.A. Carson will be the featured speaker at our school's annual Preaching Lecture Day. When I got home, there was a cute puppy waiting to pounce on me, and an older dog wanting in on the welcome home action, too. When you have pets, you do need to give them attention. I'm definitely of the mind that when you buy a puppy, you ought to play with him. 

My kids will be home at some point for Thanksgiving dinner. There is a turkey to cook, and pies to be baked and vegetables to be prepared. Picture taking time, despite the vast potential for gorgeous pictures, will wait. I will squeeze some time in to work on my Augustine class. I have two papers due on October 22nd. I have been studying about 4 hours each day; not all at once, but throughout the day. I should be studying more. I feel behind with the Augustine class. I'm thankful there are no classes this week, so I can spend the week working on the other class. I wonder how my classmate, who is taking five classes, is managing.

You just can't have it all. In order for me to do well in my school work, it has to be a priority. And I want to do well. Why spend the money if you're not going to give it your all? I've waited years for this opportunity; I'm not going to waste it. My cameras sit on the shelf, waiting to be picked up, and when Christmas break comes, I plan to do just that, but right now, the books take precedence. Next Sunday, I have to teach Sunday school, and I have to squeeze that in, too. 

There is the feeling that you can have it all. And there is a feeling that we should be able to have it all. But choosing one thing means sacrificing something else. I have not worked outside the home since 1989.That meant we didn't have a lot of things. We've never been to Disneyland. We did not buy cars for our kids. Our kids have student debt because we could not afford to have $40,000 for each child to finish university. But compared to most of the world, we were extremely well-off. Had I worked outside the home, there would have been other sacrifices.

I began followng a Facebook page of Canadian Landscape photography. The site is full of exquisite pictures of the fall colours. Yesterday, as I looked at a few of them, I longed to to out in the warmth of the afternoon and spend a few hours (because taking photographs is not a quick and easy endeavour) outside. But I did not do that. I washed my kitchen floor, did the laundry and read out on the deck so I could ensure my puppy didn't dig his way to China in my flower bed. It was a good day. The camera, and more beautiful pictures will wait. And on this Thanksgiving weekend, I'm very thankful.


If not seminary, then deep and wide

Last week, Tim Challies had an interesting article asking the question Is Seminary Really Necessary? Now, I realize this was directed to pastors, but as a woman attending seminary, this got my attention. I realize that not every woman has the desire or the opportunity for seminary, but when it comes to women in roles of influence, if one cannot attend seminary, she should at least read deeply and widely.

One of the things we experience as we grow up is that we are introduced to ways of living and thinking that are different from ours. We may visit a friend's house and see that her family does things differently. We go along in life thinking that the way our family does things is the norm. When I was a girl, we had two choices of drink at the dinner hour: milk or water. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that other families drank things like juice or even soda with their dinner. It is a process to learn how our contexts have affected what we regard as true or normal.

I have discovered this over and over again in the short time I have been in seminary. One of the things that has happened is that either through the professor himself or the scholars I interact with through the resources I read, I am being introduced to different ways of looking at things and am being challenged to look again at my own presuppositions. And no, this is not questioning my faith; it is about understanding why I have come to the place where I have come.

The systematic theology course I am taking uses Millard Erickson's Christian Theology. I had very little exposure to Erickson prior to this course, so I wasn't sure what to expect. So far, I really like much of what I have heard (although he does not like Stephen Charnock's The Existence and Attributes of God, which he thinks is too analytical), but there are places where I am not entirely sure. This does not create much angst within me, because I am learning the benefit of being challenged. Being challenged used to generate a lot of fear in me, and I believe it was because I didn't have an answer, and I was afraid of what being wrong meant. Seminary is helping not to be afraid to be challenged.

I wish there were more women in seminary. This past weekend, I was in the first of four eight hour classes with Dr. Haykin, studying Augustine (as a side note, those eight hours flew by). I was encouraged that next door to my class, there was a group of women meeting as part of the "Women in Ministry" program at my school. Margaret Köstenberger was as guest teacher as part of the class on women in leadership. I chose not to register for that class because it's an elective, and because in the long run, I believe the course on Augustine will ultimately have the more lasting impact. But I was so glad to see women there, desiring to learn; desiring to be challenged.

Not everyone has the opportunity to attend seminary, but women who write have the opportunity to educate themselves. I liked this footnote in my theology textbook, where Erickson discusses various levels of pursuing theology: 

"It should be noted, however, that some lay people are serious students of theology, reading widely and deeply, and are functioning at a level that may exceed that of many pastors."

If we can't attend seminary, and we want to teach and lead, at the very least, I think we should read deeply and widely, especially when it comes to theology. We cannot comment on culture and public life as a Christian without a solid theological foundations. It's not enough to simply have a strong opinion. If we can't be a seminary student, at the very least, we can be one of those "deep and wide" laypeople.


How blogging has helped me with seminary work

In the systematic theology class I am taking, we have a written assignment due every week in addition to a weekly quiz. Because this course is a survey course, the prof thought it more helpful to write short pieces on the material rather than a term paper. The questions look challenging, especially this one, due next week:

If God is omnipotent, and therefore has the power to do anything, can God make a rock so large that he can’t move it? This is not a stupid question (in spite of all evidence to the contrary)it has been used by sceptical philosophers to question the coherence of the whole idea of omnipotence. It is fundamentally an exercise in careful definition, so focus your attention on careful definition of terms and explain why you say Yes or No. 

Each assignment can be no more than 2 pages typed, double spaced, 12 point. That is less than 1,000 words. I handed one in today which was 568 words, and it was about a page and a half. These assignments feel a little like blog posts. But of course I'm being marked, and I have been given the topics to write about.

Being given a word limit is a good thing. I know that there are some topics that cannot be reduced to under 1,000 words, but many can, and having a word limit means that we have to seriously ask ourselves what is important. I had a similar exercise in my hermeneutics class. It forces us to put forward our best argument, and it keeps us from writing too much of a back story to our point. That is the temptation with a blog post which no one will penalize us for because we wrote too much. All the reader will do is stop reading, and we'll never know.

Also, being given a topic means having to think about something about I have not given a lot of thought. It's always good to think about the things for which we don't have an easy answer. Today in class, during the break, I had a look at the assignment list, and I saw what it was, and for the first few minutes when the lecture resumed, I didn't hear what the prof was saying, because my mind was whirling with, "How am I going to answer this?" Writing is improved with challenging content.

One thing blogging has helped me with is learning to be concise. While I do think it is a little unfortunate that 1,000 words seems like a "long" post these days, the upside is that learning to be concise is always a good thing. What I like about these assignments as opposed to blog posts is that my prof has a vested interest in my work. It's nice to write for someone who expects something and who has the skill and experience to provide valuable input. I know in the long run, these assignments will teach me a lot about writing, not just theology.