Book Review: Tolkien And The Great War

Tolkien And The Great War:  The Threshold Of Middle-Earth, by John Garth

This particular book will remind its readers about the focus of the recent movie on Tolkien [1] that focused its attention on the TCBS and Tolkien’s school-age friends, a group of friends that was shattered by the death of half of its core members in World War I’s trenches.  This particular book is about the time in Tolkien’s life that is perhaps the most dramatic, given that he spent most of his life as an Oxford don whose rich imagination covered for a general lack of excitement in his life.  Yet having an exciting life is clearly overrated, as this book examines the horror that was faced by Tolkien and his friends and the damage that it did, even as it provided inspiration for some of the greatest literature of the 20th century.  And while this book has comparatively little to say about Tolkien’s more famous work in Middle Earth, it does a good job at showing Tolkien’s early writings that became part of the Lost Tales and other parts of his legendarium about Middle Earth, and also does a good job at uncovering some of the forgotten and obscure early poetry that Tolkien wrote.

This book is about 300 pages worth of reading material, and it begins with a list of illustrations, maps (mostly of the area of the Somme where Tolkien and his friends fought), and a preface.  After that the book is divided into three parts and thirteen chapters.  A prologue begins the first part of the book, which focuses on the “immortal four” of the TCBS group of Tolkien and his school chums, including a chapter about Tolkien’s early childhood (1), his having too much imagination (2), the supposed council of London that tried to keep the group united before World War I (3), the interest of Tolkien in faerie literature (4), Tolkien’s own writing about benighted wanderers (5), and the beginnings of the war (6).  After that the second part deals with the horrific experience of combat (II) for Tolkien and his friends, including chapters on the call to service (7), the early efforts of the British at the Somme (8), the death of half of the TCBS (9), and Tolkien’s struggles as a soldier living in a hole in the ground where he got a nearly fatal case of trench fever (10).  Finally, the book ends with a look at Tolkien’s experience recuperating in England (III), with chapters on Tolkien’s writing while healing up (11), and the successful British defense in 1918 that ended before Tolkien was able to return to active duty (12), after which there is an epilogue about Tolkien’s early writings on Middle Earth as well as a postscript about Tolkien’s loss of lightness in his later writings as well as notes, a bibliography, and an index.

By and large this book is a worthy biography about a focused period of Tolkien’s life, a part of his life that many people know little about.  It is by no means a complete biography of his life, though.  The author does a good job at showing how Tolkien viewed the Germans as having a sense of humanity and pointing out that his decision to go to war was by no means the result of a fierce hostility to England’s enemies but a sense of duty, even if it was a costly one.  Indeed, Tolkien’s identity was a tough one as he had a German name and was proud of his German heritage and had been born as an uitlander in South Africa and as a Catholic to boot, all of which made him somewhat of an outsider among English protestants.  Yet in exploring Tolkien’s complex identity, the author does great service here in providing a picture of the complicated inspiration of literature and life in inspiring Tolkien’s writings, and in pointing out how a group of friends was shattered by the effects of war, and how Tolkien himself struggled mightily to recover his health after his time in the trenches.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Tolkien

Tolkien:  How An Obscure Oxford Professor Wrote The Hobbit And Became The Most Beloved Author Of The Century, by Devin Brown

In reading this book I am reminded that there are a great many people who might want to read a biography but do not want to read one that is particularly long or detailed.  They may not want to know a lot of information about the author but still have a fondness for Tolkien thanks to his writing and do not want to take too much time to get at least some understanding of how it was that he became famous and how he lived his life when he wasn’t writing about elves, orcs, hobbits, and the like.  And this book certainly does provide some information about the providential publishing of Tolkien’s works as well as just praise of C.S. Lewis for encouraging the work.  One cannot help but think that there is a lot more about Tolkien that could that could have been written here that wasn’t.  This just isn’t a very long and detailed book for all of its focus on the publishing history of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and though that isn’t a bad thing, it is hard to avoid wanting more from a biography of Tolkien that somehow manages to be less than 150 pages.

This book is a short one of about 150 pages or so that begins with a prologue that looks at the current popularity of Tolkien and his body of writing.  This book was, perhaps unsurprisingly, published in the midst of the film trilogy of the Hobbit that showed the enduring mass appeal of Tolkien’s writing to the contemporary generation.  After that the author provides a three-chapter biography of Tolkien that is immensely short, beginning with Tolkien’s life as a son and schoolboy examining how he was born in South Africa and was orphaned during childhood after first his father and mother died, and how he made friends with a group of other students before going to Oxford.  After that the author discusses Tolkien’s career as a scholar and soldier switching from Classics to English and then serving as an officer in the trenches of World War I until trench fever knocked him out of active service.  After that the author discusses Tolkien’s long career as a storyteller and mythmaker while also working as an Oxford professor.  An epilogue follows and then there are supplementary materials included that provide curious facts of Tolkien’s life and writing as well as fourteen Tolkien sites that can be visited by the interested reader, as well as suggestions of additional resources.

I suppose there are far worse things about a book than to want more form it.  This book is enjoyable to read and for what it is it is certainly not bad as a first taste of biographical material about Tolkien.  Obviously, someone who is a fan of Tolkien and wants to understand the context of his life is going to want a far larger biography than this one.  And it is rather telling that a man who wrote long and difficult books and one of the most sprawling collections of legendaria in the entire history of epic literature would have a biography this short to discuss why it was that the series was almost never published in the first place because of Tolkien’s perfectionism as well as the fact that publishers thought that there was not a huge market for his material.  Obviously, as this book points out, things have changed in a big way and Tolkien regularly tops readers’ lists for favorite books of all time.  All of that means that there is a market for plenty of books, big and small, about Tolkien and his writing.

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Book Review: Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues

Tolkien’s Ordinary Virtues:  Exploring The Spiritual Themes Of The Lord Of The Rings, by Mark Eddy Smith

This book is a classic example of a secondary work whose whole reason for being depends on the primary existence and popularity of an existing work, namely the Lord of the Rings.  The author has clearly read the Lord of the Rings multiple times and views it as a worthwhile book in ethical instruction, and this book has the added benefit of being far shorter than the book it happens to be about, making this a comparatively easy book to read for those who are interested in the Lord of the Rings and also have an interest in defending and (hopefully) exhibiting some of the virtues described in the volume and portrayed by various characters in the Lord of the Rings.  The fact that Tolkien was such an openly Christian writer who was interested in exploring the implications of his faith on his fantasy world makes it particularly obvious that this book would be dealing with virtues that were intentionally rather than accidentally being presented in the work.  A reader who wants to see the virtues exhibited by the characters within Lord of the Rings can be sure that this book presents what Tolkien put into his books.

This book is a short one at less than 150 pages but has 30 chapters and is divided into six parts based on the six parts of the Lord of the Rings.  After acknowledgements and an introduction, this book begins with a discussion of five virtues that can be found in the first part of the Fellowship of the Ring (I), namely the simplicity of hobbits (1), the generosity of Bilbo (2), the friendship of Merry, Pippin, Frodo, and Sam (3), the hospitality shown to the hobbits as they begin their quest (4), and the faith shown by Frodo (5).  After that there are six virtues demonstrated in the second half of Fellowship of the ring (II), namely perspective (6), community (7), sacrifice (8), wonder (9), temptation (10), and failure (11), the last two of which are somewhat surprising to think about in the context of virtue.  The third part of the book then looks at the virtues of atonement (12), suffering (13), resurrection (14), humility (15), and providence (16) that can be found in the first half of The Two Towers (III).  After that comes a discussion of the virtues of  trust (17), trustworthiness (18), wisdom (19), hope (20), and imagination (21) that can be seen in the second half of the Two Towers (IV).  The virtuous views of submission (22), stewardship (23), courage (24), mirth (25), and foolishness (26) are discussed for the first half of The Return Of The King (V).  Finally, the book ends with a discussion of perseverance (27), celebration (28), justice (29), and love (30) are explored for the second half of The Return Of The King (VI), after which there is a conclusion and bibliography.

Is this book an enjoyable one?  That depends.  Potential readers would do best to consider whether they have already read Lord of the Rings and appreciate Tolkien’s Christian worldview.  If they have an interest in exploring some of the elements of Tolkien’s work and have an interest in virtue, this book is one that will likely be appreciated.  It is a short book that for some readers (especially those who are knowledgeable about the Lord of the Rings already) will be quick to read and will also provide some thoughtful material on virtue as it is presented in Tolkien’s writings.  Virtue is one of those subjects it is far easier to read about (and read about) than it is to practice, and that is something that has to be admitted when one praises works on virtue as this one is.  Still, it is unlikely that people will be virtuous unless they see some sort of examples of virtue in their reading whose behaviors they can model their own after, and so books like this are practical to the extent in which they encourage others to practice the virtues contained in this book. Hopefully that is the case here.

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Satan’s Seed In John 8

What does it mean to be Satan’s seed?  Obviously, few people would want to be such, and most people at least think that they are righteous in their own eyes.  Even those who have sympathy for the devil want to believe that they are good and decent people.  And those who claim to follow the God of the Bible certainly do not want to be viewed as being Satan’s seed.  Yet we find in John 8 a particularly nasty debate between Jesus Christ and some of the Jews of Jerusalem.  This debate is a long one and it extends from John 8:13 to John 8:59, only ending when Jesus miraculously escapes an attempt to stone Him after he reveals his identity as the “I Am.”  It is not our point today to discuss this whole passage, much of which centers on the question of how Jesus justified and defended his identity in the face of the obstinate refusal of the Jews to accept the authority of His self-attestations to His identity as the Son of God in a unique way.

Rather, it is our intent to discuss the contrast between Abraham’s seed and Satan’s seed in John 8:37-47:  ““I know that you are Abraham’s descendants, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.  I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.”  They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.”  Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.  But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this.  You do the deeds of your father.”  Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.”  Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me.  Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word.  You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.  But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me.  Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me?  He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.””

This is a particularly fierce discussion as Jesus Christ points out the consequences of His identity when it comes to the identity of the people who were harshly speaking about Him while proclaiming their own closeness to God.  The logic is inescapable.  If someone truly is the Son of God, He will act as God does.  If someone is the child of Abraham, they will do as Abraham did.  Fatherhood here is not merely origin, but belonging through imitation.  It is in this sense that believers end up being children of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob whatever their ethnic heritage because their changed beliefs and practices to follow God’s ways makes them true Israelites and sons and daughters of Abraham in a way that this audience was not because of their hostility to the Christ.  And the rhetoric here was surely harsh on both sides, for Jesus’ critics did not accept being considered children of Satan but wanted to claim (as at least some Jews do to this day) that Jesus was born of fornication rather than having been the divinely born son of a virgin who did not engage in sexual relations until after Jesus’ birth with her husband Joseph, at which point she gave birth to several younger children, two of whom, James the Just and Jude, wrote books of the Bible.

What does the Bible say about someone being of the seed of Satan?  What qualities are referred to here?  Well, Jesus says that a hostility to Jesus’ work (and a misrepresentation of his character and origin) make someone a seed of Satan rather than of Abraham.  Likewise, he states that those who are the seed of Satan act out what they have seen their father do, and so they mimic the behavior of Satan, which would include hostility towards righteousness as well as a murderous hostility towards opponents.  These are obviously elements of Satan’s children that we can see in the contemporary world as clearly as we can read it here in scripture.  Jesus states that the children of Satan want to do the desires of Satan, which is also something that we can see in evidence, since John 8 begins with a discussion of adultery and Jesus’ audience accuses Jesus falsely of being born of fornication, which include at least some of the desires of Satan that his children wish to do.  Likewise, the children of Satan lie on their own resources, or the resources of their father, and like their father wish to accuse believers of evil rather than admit their own darkness.  If this sort of thing sounds like you, you may be a child of Satan at present rather than a child of God.

While this is truly a dreadful and hideous thing, it is worthwhile to note at least that it is possible to move from one category to the other.  This was the case with Paul, for example, who would fit the bill of Jesus’ interlocutors at this part of his career, being hostile to Jesus Christ but of the belief that he was serving God until he was forcefully reminded of his hostility and of the wrong that he had done by imprisoning and killing Christians and seeking to coerce them to blaspheme Jesus.  Paul’s repentance and subsequent loyal service of God is a reminder that one is not stuck in being a child of Satan if one indeed is rebellious and hostile to God’s ways at present.  One can repent and be forgiven and change one’s behavior and loyally serve God instead of being hostile to Him.  If it is unclear how many in Jesus’ audience were able to make that leap and change their identity, such an option is at least open to us.  Who wants to be a child of Satan, knowing his fate, after all?

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Chronic Illness As Satanic Binding:  An Exploration Of Luke 13:16

One of the more obvious ways that Satan makes his presence known in our lives is the situation of chronic illnesses.  Like many people, I have plenty of experience in suffering from chronic illness in my own life and in seeing the suffering of other people from chronic illnesses.  Without discussing too much personally, though, it is worthwhile to frame this discussion in what the Bible has to say about the issue in Luke 13:10-17:  Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.  But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.  But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?  So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”  And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.”

What is remarkable about this passage is the way that the illness of the woman bent over who could not raise herself up is viewed as being bondage to Satan.  While it is not hard to imagine demon possession as being bondage to Satan, it is vastly more striking and important to view chronic illness as being a sort of bondage.  Why is it that we have chronic illnesses in the first place?  The broadest answer is that we are fallen beings who live in a fallen world.  Sometimes we are failed by our genes, such as not being able to metabolize various items that we come across in our lives and so have deadly allergies, or are unable to make good red blood cells or view parts of our body as enemies worthy of destruction and so our body attacks itself.  Sometimes the traumas and injuries we suffer have biological effects, like tau proteins that harm our brains, or releasing so many stress hormones that we kill our kidneys with our fight or flight responses and so on and so forth.  Sometimes our bones fail us and we end up with horrible and painful crystals in our joints, or our bones are contorted or break too easily or something else of that nature.  Ultimately, many of these failures are cases where Satan is to blame for having corrupted humanity and our world.

What are the implications of Satan being to blame for chronic illnesses?  For one, there is a frequent tendency of people to blame those who suffer from chronic diseases.  There are certainly sometimes where the behavior of people has an impact on the way that diseases work, but in a great many cases, people are not responsible for the chronic conditions that they suffer from.  It is highly unlikely, for example, that someone can be blamed for having chronic fatigue syndrome if the disease results from the human response to trauma and abuse, given that they were first a victim of horrors as a result of living in a wicked world and then suffer from the way that the human body responds to such horrors.  Likewise, someone is not to blame if they do not have the ability to properly process uric acid.  To be sure, people can handle the conditions they have well or poorly and there are consequences for this.  But when we look at the question of where the responsibility for the conditions lie, we look at Satan.  And Jesus is unambiguous about this, stating of a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years that Satan had bound her and that healing her was setting her free, and that such an activity was absolutely appropriate to do on the Sabbath in part because one of the characteristic themes of the Sabbath (see, for example, Leviticus 25) is freedom.

What does this mean for us, though?  There are a great many people who suffer chronic diseases of one kind or another.  In many cases these diseases are not cured so much as treated with drugs and lifestyle changes, and quite a few of them progressively deteriorate the condition of the body and the life of the person suffering from them over time.  Often the presence of such problems is not a response to the sin of that person but rather the demonstration of the power of God either now or in the future in the lives of those who suffer.  Whether or not people find healing now or when they are resurrected, such healing is an aspect of freedom from the effects of sin in this world, and such freedom through healing is a direct attack on the harm that is done to people for living in a world that is ruled by Satan and that lives with the consequences of problems that began a long time before anyone now living was responsible for the origins of the problem.  To accept responsibility for how to deal with the repercussions and consequences of our existence is not to accept blame for their etiology, nor is it an abdication of the longing for freedom from those limiting conditions.

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Book Review: I’ve Seen The End Of You

I’ve Seen The End Of You:  A Neurosurgeon’s Look At Faith, Doubt, And The Things We Think We Know, by W. Lee Warren, MD

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Multnomah/Waterbrook Press.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

In the process of reading this book, I realized that the title of the book was far darker than I had thought it to be before starting it.  Over and over again in this book, the author reflects upon his knowledge of a particular type of brain tumor, glioblastoma, with a very typical pattern of recurrence and infliction of horrible suffering before (nearly) certain death within a few years.  The author artfully manages to discuss this particular disease in the context of his own struggles to understand and accept God’s providence (or lack thereof) in his own life and in the lives of others, even as he serves to combine faith with skilled medical care and a high view of science in general.  In the end, he comes to an understanding that he does not see the end of his patients as inevitably as he thought, and that the awareness of the gap between what he knows and what he believes is one that frees him (and others) from a great deal of the bitterness that could otherwise consume one who is engaged in the long war against brain cancers.

This book is about 250 pages long and is divided into three parts and 33 chapters.  The three parts of the book are unequally divided to such an extent that the first part contains 27 chapters of the book, before the death of the author’s son put him into a deep crisis of faith and almost derailed his attempts to promote his first book.  This “before” chapter runs over much of the same ground the author had previously written about when discussing his experiences as a military doctor and discusses a variety of cases and his own growth as a doctor in dealing with brain tumors and the question of how end-of-life decisions and work dealing with grim brain cancers affects one’s Christian walk.  Four chapters deals with the during period where the author deals with the darkness of struggling with grief and the books and counsel that helped him through his crisis of faith.  The book then ends with two chapters that look at his efforts to provide encouragement to others dealing with the same situations and the recognition that believing is better than the illusion of knowing what will happen, after which the book closes with an epilogue that looks at two options that are worse than a life of honest belief, as well as acknowledgments and notes.

One of the strengths of the author’s approach as a writer is the way that he makes his practice and the people that he encounters come alive.  Whether the reader is reflecting upon the author’s process of developing competence and compassion on those he deals with, or whether we grieve with him at the death of his son and of the slow decline to so many people to recurring brain tumors and the hope and surprising life changes that result when people receive such a grim prognosis after having had seizures and nosebleeds and headaches that led them to the CT and MRI scans and biopsies that provided the evidence needed to diagnose them, this book’s description of the lives of doctors and patients and friends is moving.  The author manages to pursue several simultaneous lines of inquiry, including a discussion of the various paths that glioblastoma can take in the lives of people, a harrowing discussion of the way that some people are afraid of death and do not realize that there are some things worse than death, including lives destroyed by fear, as well as an appreciation of the mysterious and inscrutable ways in which God works in people to accomplish His purposes.

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Book Review: Putting Jesus On Display With Love And Power

Putting Jesus On Display With Love And Power, by Brian Blount

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Chosen Books.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Sometimes one’s impression of a book can be colored by its context, and that was definitely the case for me here.  It is easy to see how this book could have been a great book and certainly a compelling one, but there are aspects of this book that keep me from getting onboard with the author.  Three of them stick out to me in particular.  First, the author organizes this book in such a fashion that he skews discussion of Jesus’ power towards the beginning and mentions himself as a wounded healer with his own son’s struggles late in the book.  It would have been better to foreground the story with a discussion of his own family struggles, so it would have been obvious that the author was not trying to snow the reader.  Second, the author mentions big companies while being silent about mentioning small companies, as if he is trying to impress the reader with corporate reputation, which makes me uneasy.  Third, the author mentions a lot of supposed leaders in various Pentecostal circles as a way of borrowing clout for himself, and as I am not part of that tradition I do not find it effective.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into ten chapters.  The book begins with a foreword by Robby Dawkins as well as acknowledgements and then moves on to discuss the miracle of deaf ears opening from the author’s travels (1).  This segues into a discussion of Jesus’ mission and message and ministry of healing (2) as well as the author’s insistence that the Kingdom of God is at hand (3).  After that the author discusses the desirability of living an “as you go” lifestyle (4) and posits that risk opens the door to the impossible (5), thus encouraging believers to be open and make themselves vulnerable.  After that the author urges the reader to look, listen, and respond to God’s promptings (6) and states that we were created to do good works (7) and that we are empowered by love (8).  This leads the author to comment on the way that we possess treasure in fragile earthen vessels (9) and then end the book with a chapter that reads more like an appendix of providing a healing and power evangelism model to other charismatic churches (10), which closes the book’s material by presenting the author as a leadership consultant for other churches.

As someone who exists as an outsider with regards to the charismatic and Pentecostal tradition, I wonder what sort of book would allow the message of the author to resonate with a wider audience outside of his own denominational world.  Like many authors, the author is wise to point out cases where God’s Spirit still works in miraculous ways contrary to the expectations of cessationists.  That said, the people who the author considers to be authorities to bolster his credibility simply do not resonate outside of the world of other charismatics who likely believe in many of the same points about the desirability of preaching and living with power.  I was admittedly a bit disappointed that while the author has a lot to say about showing the power of the Spirit in praying for healing and in engaging in evangelical work for lay Christians that comparatively little is said about living a godly lifestyle in accordance with biblical ways.  It is easy to talk about good works but a lot of people need to be told exactly what works are good works and this book does not manage to do that, unfortunately.

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Book Review: Free To Believe

Free To Believe:  The Battle Over Religious Liberty In America, by Luke Goodrich

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Multnomah/Waterbrook Press.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

This is the sort of book that is easy to respect, even where I disagree with some of its points.  It is clear that this book is written for an audience that is mainstream and evangelical and that is used to being part of the dominant culture of the United States and is quite alarmed at the way in which serious and mainstream Christianity has been undermined by cultural changes among elites with the threat of hostility.  The author’s advice is for such readers to get used to being a counterculture but to be savvy and wise in the way that Christianity is defended.  As someone who belongs to a more sectarian and outsider tradition, much of this book struck me as not particularly surprising and if somewhat alarming than at least nothing alarming that I was not already aware of and concerned about.  Other readers may in fact be surprised at the author’s experience and perspective and may thus view this book as more surprising than I do, though.

This book is a relatively short one at 200 pages long and is divided into three parts and thirteen chapters.  The book begins with an introduction and promises a foreword that was not available in the review copy I read.  After that there are three chapters on the definition of religious freedom (I), including chapters on how Christians get it wrong (1), how they can get it right (2), and how to persuade others to respect religious freedom (3).  The bulk of the book discusses the threats to Christian freedom of religion (II), namely the question of whether Christians are under attack (4), is discrimination inherently evil (5), will abortion have to be accepted (6), the problem and solution of whether gay rights will trump religious freedom (7,8), will Muslims take over (9), and will God become a dirty word in the United States (10).  After that the author looks at what can be done in the mean time (III), tempering expectations of victory in the culture wars that creates bad blood with others (11), learning from scripture about the promise of persecution for those who follow God’s ways (12), and preparing for the future (13), after which the book ends with acknowledgments and notes.

One of the underlying focal points of the author that he returns to over and over again is the way that the Christian defense of religious freedom and of liberty in general must be genuine and consistent and not only self-serving.  It is immensely difficult to defend freedom in a consistent manner, because a great many people are not always fond of the way that religious freedom looks from the point of view of Mormons or Sabbatarians or Jews or Muslims in the same way that they would look at it from the point of view of mainstream evangelical Protestants.  The author’s broad experience in defending religious liberty helps him to see that it may be immensely wise for broader alliances to be made of people who support godly and biblical standards of morality than have traditionally been the case in the past, which would involve a friendly and mutually respectful dialogue with conservative (but not extreme) Jews, Catholics, and Muslims as well as more outlying Christian traditions than has often been the case.  The author’s advice and counsel in these areas is wise, because he sees a prolonged period of religious tension and conflict within society, and it is clear that we need to be able to handle such matters wisely.

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Get Behind Me Satan:  An Exploration Of Matthew 16:23 and Mark 8:33

“Get behind Me, Satan” is a memorable enough phrase from the Gospels that it actually became the title of a popular album by the alternative band The White Stripes around a decade ago or so.  Yet while this phrase is most often associated with Jesus’ reply to a suggestion by Peter that would have prevented Jesus’ crucifixion from taking place, the phrase has a deeper layer of meaning that is worth discussing.

First, though, let us provide the phrase in context, first in Matthew 16:21-23:  “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.  Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!”  But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.””  We also see this account discussed in Mark 8:31-33:  “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He spoke this word openly. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.  But when He had turned around and looked at His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.””

When examining this particular phrase and its meaning and importance, there are several layers to this interaction that must be taken into account.  For one, it should be noted that this low moment for Peter follows immediately after he confesses the Christ, which is one of the higher points of his time as a disciple.  While Peter was bold (and accurate) in confessing Jesus to be the Messiah/Christ, he did not properly understand what that meant.  While it is much better understood at present that Jesus Christ came the first time to sacrifice Himself to pay the price of sin for humanity, to the extent that many people do not realize that He will come again with a sword to conquer the earth and bring it under His rule, this was not as well understood by Jesus’ earliest disciples, who along with the contemporaries looked forward to a Messiah that would overthrow the Romans and bring forth a Messianic age of freedom.  And so it was that when Jesus stated what it would mean for Him to be the Christ as the sacrificial lamb of God to blot out the sins of those people who would repent and follow God, Peter somewhat predictably expressed his desire that this would never come to pass, which would have condemned all of humanity to death and destruction for our sins.

In that light, it is no surprise at all that Jesus Christ would say to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” because to have refused to die for the sins of the world would have negated the whole purpose for Jesus’ first coming to provide a way for sins to be forgiven and to open a path to salvation that could not have been forged by the efforts of mankind to earn passage into God’s kingdom.  It is perhaps more surprising that we make the reverse error that Peter did, and find it uncomfortable to deal with Christ as king while celebrating Jesus as the sacrificial lamb.  And it is likely that we too, if we expressed our abhorrence of the coercion that Jesus is going to unleash on a rebellious world at his return, would be told the same thing that we were being mindful of the things of man and not the things of God.  For there is a time to be a sin-bearing sacrifice and a time to be the lion of Judah, the returning king who will recover His throne and rule over His creation and put all His enemies under His feet.  One has to know the proper time for these things.

Let us also note one more thing.  The expression “Get behind me, Satan” is present in the Bible in more than just these passages.  Indeed, this statement occurs in the temptation of Christ as recorded in Luke 4:8:  “And Jesus answered and said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ”  It is worthwhile to remember this statement, and to note that Jesus said to Peter just what he said to Satan himself when Satan attempted to thwart God’s plans.  Luke’s use of this expression in both situations may be a hint that allows us to recognize that Peter’s refusal to accept that Jesus Christ would have to suffer and die to pay the price for the sins of humanity was itself inspired by Satan even if he did not realize it.  It should be also noted that Satan need not be a personal name here, but rather a recognition that to oppose the plans of God, however inscrutable they are, is to make one an adversary of God, and therefore worthy of being called Satan.  At any rate, this particular passage provides at least a few reasons as to how Satan seeks to oppose the plans of God, and that even after a moment of realization that humanity is still prone to blunder and make errors when it comes to understanding what God is about.

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I Saw Satan Fall Like Lighting From Heaven:  Satan In Luke 10

One of the more intriguing references to Satan takes place in a short passage in Luke 10 that deals with the return of 70 disciples to Jesus Christ after having conducted a census of faith in Judea and Galilee.  Luke 10:17-20 tells us:  “Then the  seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.”  And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you.  Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.””  

We will return to this passage when we look at demons and the biblical language of demonology to see this passage as part of the context that demonstrates the ubiquity of demon possession in many of the problems faced by people in the first century AD that were healed by Jesus Christ and His early disciples, but let us pause for a moment here to discuss the relevance of this passage as it relates specifically to Satan himself.  This comes in the single sentence, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”  The obvious question when we see a sentence like this is, “When did Jesus see Satan fall like lightning from heaven?”

There are several possible answers to that question.  Indeed, multiple answers of that question may be possible simultaneously.  Let us explore the various options.  The first option is that Jesus Christ saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven in the past.  Most likely this would have occurred in the context of his original rebellion when he was removed from his position in heaven after having been corrupted.  If this is what is meant, then Jesus’ comment can be understood as saying that Jesus saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven and it was a foretaste of the binding and defeating of Satan’s kingdom that would take place when demons were fully subject to believers.  Of course, this particular situation was a foretaste of the removal of demonic influence at the return of Christ and the final judgment of the demons that will take place simultaneously with the Great White Throne judgment that will determine the ultimate fate of all humanity who did not believe in their physical lives on earth.

It is also possible that this statement refers to the fall of Satan at the present, suggesting that the fall of Satan like lightning from heaven was related to the harm that was being done at that time to his kingdom by the efforts of the 70 disciples in subjecting demons to Christ’s name.  If this is the case, then the fall of Satan from heaven is not from being thrown out but because he leaves in anger seeing it as necessary to bolster his kingdom from the threats faced to it by believers who cast out demons from suffering people.  This meaning may certainly be true, as it fits the immediate context of the passage and the way that Jesus says the phrase as part of an encouraging message to the believers in giving them authority over demons (portrayed as serpents and scorpions).  We will return to this passage later on and explore this idea in greater context, but for the moment let us simply say that there are serious and often unexplored implications of this layer of meaning that are worth discussing at greater length.

Finally, it is also possible that Jesus Christ was speaking with the future in mind as if it had already happened, and pointing out that the fall of Satan from heaven was something that would happen and that the binding of Satan’s kingdom would be a foretaste of this blessed occurrence.  Again, this would not be the first time that the New Testament would provide a look at the future as if it was the present, as it is something that we see also in the Transfiguration.  And it is also possible that the fall of Satan is something that occurred for different reasons at different times, and that multiple layers of meaning were meant by this utterance.  It is lamentably all too common that we see a single layer of meaning and then think of it as the only layer of meaning, and a thorough study of scripture should counteract this native tendency of ours to think that we have exhausted the levels of insight and applicability within the Bible.

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