Praying in God’s Theater

What roles do the Scriptures play in your prayer life?

This is a question that I am not sure many Christians, especially those of the evangelical traditions, consider very carefully. We read our Bibles. We pray. But do these things intersect?

Most prayer that I encountered as a pastor’s kid was what I call laundry list prayer. We would get a nice long list of people’s booboos and then present the list to God, usually accompanied with a lot of “Oh God” and “Please, Lord”. Sometimes there was event fervent mumbling and occasionally tears. These times of prayer would go on for quite awhile.

Since I am not much of an emotional person and I cannot keep my eyes closed for more than about five minutes without falling asleep, my mind would wander and my imagination would kick in. Before we got caught, a friend of mine and I used to play a game of keeping track of the sanctified stutters – those things people say when they are trying to think of the next thing to say.

During my adult experience of the Christian faith, I have gravitated toward a more careful form of prayer than I was used to hearing from people. It was not that the folks I grew up around were insincere or that they were somehow unspiritual. But at the same time, there was something that I felt like I should be doing that I wasn’t.

For the past decade or so, my pattern of prayer has shifted more and more to a conformity with Scriptural prayers and Scripture as prayer. In our congregation, we often do corporate Scripture reading as prayer – with the pronouns changed to reflect a personal cry to the Lord. In my personal discipline of prayer, I prefer to recite the Scriptures as petitions to the Lord.

So, the opportunity to review Joel L. Watts new book Praying in God’s Theater was too good to pass up. The book is written as a series of prayers and meditations drawn from the Book of Revelation. And if there is one book of the Scriptures that is neglected in the worship of the western church, Revelation is it.

I will be reading the book in the coming weeks, and I will post the review once I am done.


Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

Reading the Exodus and Wanderings

While our congregation is reading through Exous, Leviticus and Numbers, I thought I would add some daily notes of things that caught my imagination.

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:17)

What is so important about a name?

In the Egyptian worldview, your name was not just a label. It was a significant part of who you were. This is a difficult concept for us to embrace because names do not have nearly the same significance to us.

In 1323 BCE, the young pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amon died, possibly bludgeoned to death by assassins. His successors, Ay and Horemheb, spent their years of rule eradicating both his name and his father’s name from every monument and inscription in Egypt. Tut-Ankh-Amon’s father had been the great heretic pharaoh Ankh-Aten, who had abandoned the millennia old religion of Egypt in favor of the worship of the sun disk, Aten.

In the Egyptian view, the best way to destroy this heresy was to remove any mention of the names of those who followed it. Their names were struck from the king lists. Their monuments were either torn down or edited. Everything about their names was destroyed.

Most importantly, their tombs were buried under tons of rubble. This was fortunate for Howard Carter, the archaeologist who ultimately discovered Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in the early 20th century, but unfortunate for poor Tut-Ankh-Amon who, as far as the Egyptians were concerned, was left floating in the nether without completing his journey to the afterlife.

You see, in the Egyptian worldview, the final stage of passing through the afterlife requires your name. People in the world of the living must know your name. If they do not, you will not move on. You will be lost forever. The world of the living and the afterlife are inextricably connected.

When Moses asked God for his name, he was not making an excuse. An unnamed God had no power to the Egyptians.

And what a name God gives to Moses – I AM. This is a name of absolutes. It implies that he exists whether you know his name or not. God gives the ultimate name.

This was not lost on the Egyptians or the Sons of Israel. It had a weight and power that we cannot imagine. That is why Pharaoh laughs. It is a laughter of fear. God puts his existence up against all the Egyptians know and believe.

God wins.

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

Last weekend, our family watched the film version of Life of PiI was intrigued by the story, and I knew there had to be far more to it, so I requested the book through our library’s e-book system.

What a fascinating book. It is not that I agree with the philosophy of the book or that it was somehow life-changing. The book is just fascinating.

It is an exploration of the human experience, written in extremes and conflations. Whether it is the basic desires of safety or food, or the complex interaction with nature in all its terrifying beauty – Yan Martel gives them all the same treatment.

Martel’s narrative style is both vibrant and varied. When his protagonist is on (and possibly over) the edge of sanity, the frenzied sentences are much different than the voice of his anonymous, but obviously first person notations of the author meeting Pi.

The novel has a very straightforward style which partially obscures the very complicated story it is trying to tell; and Martel leaves so much of the “real” story to the reader’s imagination.

The Life of Thomas Linacre

The full title of this book is The Life of Thomas Linacre, Doctor in Medicine, Physician to King Henry VIII, the Tutor and Friend of Sir Thomas More, and the Founder of the College of Physicians in London with Memoirs of His Contemporaries, and of the Rise and Progress of Learning, More Particularly from the Ninth to the Sixteenth Century Inclusive.

(And people wonder why it is no longer in print!)

I highlighted Thomas Linacre yesterday, and I have to say that he led a wildly interesting life for the son of relatively unknown parents from Derbyshire.

This book, the only biography of Linacre I have been able to find, was written by John Noble Johnson, M.D., who was himself a member of the Royal College of Physicians which Linacre had founded. Pretty much the only thing we know about Dr. Johnson is that he wrote a biography of Linacre, so this is a matter of the unknown writing about the slightly less unknown.

I can’t say Johnson’s prose is anything approaching elegant, but at least it is succinct. He did live in an age when flowery, overwrought language was fairly typical.

This is just one of my most recent finds on Google Books. Google has footed the bill for scanning millions of out-of-print volumes to make them available to people online. It is estimated that by 2016, Google Books and other similar programs (such as the French Gallica project) will succeed in scanning all volumes available from both universities and major museums throughout the world – both printed and manuscript.

Social Media in the Ancient World

Social Media in the Ancient World

I am currently reading an advanced copy of Tom Standage’s Writing on the WallIt is an interesting look into the way human beings have communicated in groups over the years. We often think of social media as an innovation of recent years, but when you look at human history, it becomes obvious that we have used social media for a long time. Social media is not the anomaly. Unidirectional media (books, newspapers) that allow no dialectic or conversation are actually the anomaly in human history, and the internet has allowed us to reassert a latent part of human experience.

Thus far, a great book!

I love my Kindle.


A Fascinating Look into Medieval England

I love medieval history. I know that makes me weird. It’s ok.

Once, my father brought one of his friends up to New Hampshire to visit me. While sitting in a diner, my dad says, “Joe, ask him what he does with his free time.” His friend looked at me. I told him, “I study medieval and Byzantine history.” The two of them exchanged a look and my dad just laughed.

It is not that my father thinks I am weird. He gets it. History is the fabric of our own existence, and the medieval world is our most neglected and possibly also most influential thread of our history.

Given an opportunity to read a book that explores the Plantagenet kings who defined what it meant to be English in the Middle Ages, of course someone interested in such history would want to read it. 

It should come as no surprise that when the opportunity came up to review The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (Penguin Group – Viking), I leapt at it. 

What can I say? Dan Jones was a great job of surveying the period from Henry II’s ascension in 1154 until Henry VII’s ascension in 1485. Being three hundred years makes the job of creating a readable single volume history hard enough; but when those three centuries are filled with Plantagenet intrigue, corruption, marriage, warfare, plague, and any number of other elements, the job’s complexity is multiplied.

Dan Jones’ prose is direct and to the point, but he takes the time to occasionally pause for a brief humanizing anecdote that helps us understand specifics a little better. He balances his views of all of the Plantagenet kings and avoids the generalized caricatures you find in many works on the period.

Most importantly, Jones does not gloss over significant events. He does not simply note, as many histories do, that the Hundred Years’ War was a catalyst for the rising use of English as England pulled away from France. He takes the time to note the progress of this change, particularly focusing on Edward III’s Pleading in English Act of 1362 which changed the official language of the courts of England. I have read a lot of popular histories of the Middle Ages, and Jones is the first to note this seminal event.

In brief, I found Dan Jones’ book to be well worth the investment of money and time to explore it. So much of the book illuminates the seed ideas of our modern English-speaking culture. 

Washington Irving and the American Consciousness

It is a wonder to me that most Americans have no clue who Washington Irving was. Along with a very small group of writers – among them Edgar Allen Poe and James Fenimore Cooper – he was one of the first American writers to receive international acclaim. Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron were fans. Without Washington Irving, there would have been no Herman Melville or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Poe asked for Irving’s assistance on “The Fall of the House of Usher”.

Irving was one of the most influential American writers to put pen to paper. He literally created much of the American identity. Of course, he also fabricated some things that people still believe although there was absolutely no historical precedence.

St. Nicholas and Christmas

For example, in 1809, Irving wrote and published A History of New York under the adopted pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker. He had a series of advertisements in New York newspapers that appeared to be appeals for Knickerbocker to pay his hotel bills, and then with the whole town wondering where this supposedly aged Dutch historian had gone, Irving published the book to wide sales and general acclaim.

In Knickerbocker’s History, Irving gave the American people a number of myths behind the Santa Claus story. In the story, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of the first Dutch settlers. He provides guidance and assistance, helps the children of the colony and even slides down a few chimneys.

Irving wrote other books about Christmas traditions. He wrote five Christmas stories that were published as part of Sketchbook. These stories create an idealized Christmas scene, the precursor to the Victorian Christmas we know from Charles Dickens. In fact, Dickens later said that Irving was part of his inspiration for “A Christmas Carol.”

Christopher Columbus

Irving also penned a biography of Christopher Columbus. In the biography, he seems to have invented several ideas out of whole cloth. The most significant was that Irving was the first to say that Columbus sailed west to prove the world was round. This was in 1841, nearly four HUNDRED years after Columbus’ voyages. A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus was written while Irving was living in Spain and was published in 1828. It was so wildly popular that it has seen 175 editions, quite a lot of publication when you consider that America was still a small, struggling nation at the time.

Batman and Basketball

But Irving’s contributions were not limited to creating or repeating incorrect information.

It was Washington Irving who, if he did not coin the name, popularized New York’s nickname Gotham. Without Irving’s creativity and imagination, Batman would have nowhere to live. Gotham is borrowed from a little village in Notthinghamshire, England, that had a reputation for being inhabited by fools. He used the name in an issue of his satirical magazine Salmagundi – basically early 19th century New York’s Mad Magazine.

Irving has also influenced professional sports. The New York Knicks are actually named the New York Knickerbockers, a name that Irving used as a pseudonym and which later became synonymous for New Yorker.

The Star-Spangled Banner, Copyright Law, and Libraries

Irving also influenced our national identity in ways we truly do not appreciate.

Believe it or not, Irving was one of only a couple publishers who printed Francis Scott Key’s poem, “The Defense of Fort McHenry” which was later set to music and became the national anthem of the United States of America. The poem was written in 1814 during the bombardment of Fort McHenry. Irving was serving on the staff of Daniel Tompkins, the governor of New York and commander of the state militia. Shortly thereafter, Irving left for Europe and remained there for seventeen years. (It is the ultimate irony that someone who did so much to form the American consciousness was not actually present for that formation.)

Irving was also a very vocal advocate for a formal copyright law in the United States, thereby protecting not only his own works but the works of the thousands of writers who came after him. In 1840, after returning to the USA from Europe, Irving lobbied hard for a copyright law that was pending in Congress. “We have a young literature”, Irving wrote, “springing up and daily unfolding itself with wonderful energy and luxuriance, which… deserves all its fostering care.” Two years later, Irving returned to Europe after being appointed Minister to Spain.

When he returned to the US again in 1848, Irving became the executor of the estate of the extremely wealthy John Jacob Astor. He served as chairman of the Astor library and was instrumental in its growth and development. Later, the Astor library would form the core of the New York Public Library, the second largest public library in the United States behind the Library of Congress.

Just How Important?

When Irving died in 1859, many considered his importance second only to the first president George Washington. Irving had been friend to several presidents, author of many enduring works and inspiration to a whole class of authors. Of course, today many of his works feel a bit dated. Even during his lifetime some who had sought inspiration from him, like Edgar Allen Poe, began to look down on his work.

But others like Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., father of the Supreme Court Justice and a writer of some skill himself, revered him and considered his home at Sunnyside second in glory only to Mount Vernon. US Senator William C. Preston wrote to Irving in 1859, “I don’t believe that any man, in any country, has ever had a more affectionate admiration for him than that given to you in America.”

Irving helped craft America – both the reality of the nation and the somewhat fictionalized history we sometimes tell ourselves. It is a shame he is so little known today. Most of his works are in public domain now. Get on or and download some Irving for yourself. You won’t regret it.