Back to Browsings

Mein Henna Artist

May 5, 2022

Here are odds and ends from my recent reading, a couple of them needing to be returned to the Brentwood library this afternoon.

 The Disciple of Spiritual Discernment, by Tim Challies (Crossway, 2007)

I may have first heard of Tim Challies when someone put me on to “Missing the T4G Early Bird Registration Deadline,” a funny voiceover for a Hitler rant from the movie Downfall. His name pops up along with those of such “Christian famous” luminaries as Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, and David Platt. So I picked up this book, with foreword by John MacArthur. (BTW, for other riffs on this film clip, Google “Hitler rant parodies.”)

He starts with a great illustration drawn from the closing days of WWII, when Germans were dumping tons of counterfeit British pound notes into a remote deep lake. They’d been planning to airdrop them all over Britain, creating economic chaos, a situation where the false currency would stymie the marketplace since merchants wouldn’t know which “bills” to trust. And he carries this concern over to the Canadian setting in which he writes. Though only .04% of the currency is counterfeit, 39% of his fellow countrymen fear that they’ll one day be fooled by a fake bill. So the Bank of Canada has promoted a “touch, tilt, look through, look at” test the people can use to separate the good from the bad. (All this for purposes of spiritual analogy.)

With pencil in hand, I marked up goodies for return study, e.g., the OT word for “discernment,” and its cognates; his reference to J. I. Packer’s treatment of “antinomy.” I do want to press him a bit on what the “sufficiency of Scripture” entails (e.g., What place is there for natural law, in light of Romans 1 and 2?; What guidance does the Bible give on important matters which it doesn’t address, e.g., the preference for democracy or monarchy; public expenditure on abstract rather than representational sculpture in the public park). And I don’t think I’m entirely on board with his take on “decision-making and the will of God.” I make more room than he for the subjective, intuitional, mystical, and seemingly irrational leading of God (but I trust not to the level of “charismatic chaos”). In my work-and-leisure course at Southern, I recalled the counsel of long-time SBC student ministry head, William Hall Preston: 1. Follow your bent; 2. Look for the gleam; 3. Watch for open doors. And I add a couple of cues of my own, those of the spotlight and the convergent rivers. (I’ll flesh them out upon request.)

A couple of the items haven’t aged so well: He quotes Josh Harris, who has since left the faith, and the web site he commends in his back-cover bio note ( has been replaced by And I have to say I take comfort in a typo I spotted. A book I’ve worked on recently is now in print, and only now I’ve spotted a misspelling. Guinness (as with ‘Os’) appears both with a single and a double ‘n’ on the same page. (As they say, “Proofreading is 20/20 after publication.”)

Will Rogers: A Biography, by Donald Day (David McKay, 1962)

Though proud of his Cherokee blood, Will Rogers said,

Ancestors don’t mean a thing in the human tribe. They’re as unreliable as a political promise. A western range mare is liable to produce a Man o’ War. You won’t know what will happen. You just raise ‘em and then start guessing. They no more take after Father and Mother than a Congressman will take after a good example.

Of course, Proverbs 22:6 says that parents have some input in nurture, but it’s refreshing to hear a Native American eschew tribalism. 

He attended the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1924, and offered wry commentary on both, noting the dullness of the former and the raucousness of the latter. He didn’t choose sides, saying “I am just progressive enough to suit the dissatisfied and lazy enough to be a Standpatter.” Nevertheless, he (humorously) offered himself to the Republican as a candidate for the vice presidency, noting that if Calvin Coolidge died in office, “I would do just like Mr. Coolidge—I would go in there and keep still and say nothing. He is the first President to discover that what the American people want is to be left alone.”

Will became an international celebrity and a friend of notables throughout the nation despite his stock-in-trade, good-natured jabs at them. His humor was on display when, in April, 1925, he traveled to DC to speak at the Gridiron Dinner. While there, the Speaker of the House took him to the White House to meet President Coolidge. Commenting on their ready access his private office, Rogers observed, “Of course, I don’t lay all the credit to Nick for a prompt entrance, because the President knew I was not looking for an appointment to a post office, nor did I want a friend transferred in the Army, nor a wife pardoned out of jail.” And before going in, the Speaker bet Will he couldn’t make the president laugh. But Coolidge couldn’t help himself when Will opened with, “I beg your pardon. I did not catch the name.”

When the Depression hit, he was not kind to bankers. His sarcasm stung, and the Wall Street Journal hit back. But he very gracious in his funeral eulogy for Florence Ziegfeld, who’d been his employer at the Ziegfeld Follies for years. With an obvious lack of theological discernment, he preached Ziegfeld into heaven:

Among us gathered here, our religious beliefs are many, but one belief is universal with all, and that there is some Divine higher than the earthly. We can speak to him in many devious [divers?] ways, in many languages, but He sees us all in the same light, and judges us according to our actions, as we judge the actions of our children different because we know they are each different. Among all our earthly accomplishments, the greatest is to beautify, for beauty speaks no language, beauty appeals to every eye that is put into the human head. Well, certainly our Divine Being above welcomes back into His fold a man who has been on earth and given to it beauty. 

Act Like You Got Some Sense, and Other Things...My Daughters Taught Me, by Jamie Foxx (Grand Central, 2021)

I was particularly impressed with Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of singer Ray Charles in Ray, but have not been so impressed with his hawking sports gambling through BetMGM. He’s an engaging fellow, and the book title grabs you (including the cross-out of “I Taught My Daughters”). You don’t have to read long before seeing that he came from a familial mess and has made something of a familial mess of his own. His biological parents split over his dad’s shift to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. As for his mom, “[S]he was not ready for the responsibility of parenting—I mean, I get it now, she was not ready to give up her youth, she was still out in them streets.”  His grandparents adopted him, as they had his mother, so his mother was his sister. And though it was hard on him at the time, he came to appreciate her more when he found himself being a lousy father, “Because I too was out in them streets. In fact, I still am.” But, as the book title suggests, he’s gotten the hang of it, even though he never married the women through whom he gained two daughters.

Ah, but things turned around when his grandmother (actually, his “adoptive grandmother-slash-aunt-by-marriage”) became his mother, because she was a good Baptist who insisted that he go to church. Well, some qualifiers. She did bring discipline into his life and provided him physical nurture and protection, but she was a rough customer, who could menacingly brandish a firearm and cuss like a sailor. As Foxx appreciatively put it, “Granny was a tough lady . . . Basically, Granny was a b*d**s b***h. Everybody in Terrell [TX] knew you better not step to Estelle with nothing “messy,” as she liked to call it, unless you wanted to get your a*s handed back to you.”

But what about her Baptist piety? Well, as Foxx recalls, when he was a fifth grader, the preacher said one day that “God created Adam and Eve. He didn’t create Adam and Steve.” At which point, she stood up and yelled, “You stop that! God made sissies too. You stop that.” When a few years later he asked her about it, she explained, “God made everybody on the planet. So when people trying to separate everybody, that don’t make sense. We ain’t here unless God said to be here.” By this, she was “trying to tell the reverend that he needed to ‘open the umbrellas of Christianity.’” Foxx explains that this conviction took shape in her over the years by her daycare work, where she observed that some boys like to play with army men and some with dolls. They’d confide in her, and she “would protect them and their secrets.”

Well, of course, there’s place for protection, but not for rewriting the Bible to affirm homosexuality. And for proudly ignoring the logic of her thinking, which would extend to God’s making and cherishing slanderers, child abandoners, pedophiles; even preachers whose faithfulness to the text offended her. Incidentally, the book title comes from his grandmother, who repeatedly told him, “Act like you got some sense.” But she showed shortfalls of her own in this department.

Be that as it may, the church made a big impression on Jamie, and he talks about his faith in the chapter, “Getting to the Pearly Gates.” Though he came to think, at age fourteen, that organized religion “felt like a racket,” he says that today, “I’m still a deep believer . . .  I do still have a very deep connection with God. I still attend church and pray daily.” He had his daughters memorize the books of the Bible and even had one of them recite them from the platform of the Democratic National Convention, where “the crowd went wild.” He adds, “I’m not gonna say that’s why Obama got reelected, but it didn’t hurt him!”

And picking up on daughter Anelise’s claim that God was in her heart, and sometimes the Devil also, he wrote that she was right: “If living free of sin was the easiest thing in the world, we wouldn’t need Jesus Christ to die for our sins . . . the Devil is around and tempting us.” But he cautions against pressing the point: “So when you introduce religion to your kids, just make sure you don’t hammer it so hard that they label it as some uncool thing parents are into, close the door to any relationship with God and burn in you-know-where forever.”

Well, he knows the language, but he also casually and confidently employs another form of language, as we’re treated to an average of one F- or S-bomb a page. And watching him maneuver through the field of moral decision-making, it’s hard to look. One moment he’s asking a daughter why she’d erased her internet browsing history, the next he’s letting his unmarried daughter share a bedroom with her boyfriend.

He sees himself and his daughters as amphibians of sort, part “Texas,” part “Hollywood”—a mix of traditional values and “craziness.” And that’s fine with him. It works out in a variety of ways: “I had decided early on that it would be hypocritical or disingenuous if I tried to shield my daughters from my somewhat colorful language. I’ve always wanted them to know exactly who their father is. I’m a comedian; I’m a Black man; I talk a gang of s**t. And I know they hear much worse from their friends anyway.” (193)

And so it goes. He’s clearly God haunted. Not so clear he’s God honoring.

Profiles in Evangelism: Biographical Sketches of World-Renowned Soul Winners, by Fred Barlow (Sword of the Lord, 1976).

As part of group welcoming newcomers to our congregation, we enjoyed hosting some people for after-church lunch at our house last Sunday. Somehow, conversation turned to the phenomena associated with John R. Rice. A college student in our midst had never heard of him, so a couple of us pitched in with background, mentioning his start in Wheaton (where his daughters attended the college), his book, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, his break with Billy Graham over “ecumenical” crusades, his newspaper, The Sword of the Lord (mailed to every SBC pastor back in the day), and his ministry move to Murfreesboro, TN, just down the road from Nashville. As a regular recipient of TSOTL back in my 1980s pastorate in Arkansas, I turned through the issues, finding good stuff here and there. But I was astonished by one article calling Jerry Falwell a liberal. Turns out, his offense was in linking somehow with W. A. Criswell, the pastor of FBC Dallas. Now Criswell was a strong biblical inerrantist, a leader in the SBC “conservative resurgence.” The problem was that Criswell’s church gave to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Cooperative Program, which, at that time, channeled some funds to seminaries such as SBTS, with some liberals on the faculty. Yes, Falwell was conservative, as was Criswell, but Falwell had not sufficiently separated himself from one who had not sufficiently separated himself from liberals. Thus I discovered the orders of separation— whether first, second, third, or even fourth, I suppose—that were hallmarks of capital-F Fundamentalism.  

Which brings me to this book from Sword of the Lord Publishers. (And the author, Fred Barlow published a brief biography of Rice through the same channel in 2006.) Turns out, it’s quite ecumenical, with the 46 profiles (each, 3-4 pages long) ranging from Methodists (Francis Asbury and John Wesley) to Southern Baptists (Lee Scarborough and George Truett); from the 18th century (Jonathan Edwards and David Brainerd) through the 19th century (C. H. Spurgeon and Dwight Moody) on into the 20th century (Mordecai Ham and Hyman Appelman); from China (J. Hudson Taylor) to Burma (Adoniram Judson) to India (William Carey) to Wales (Christmas Evans); with a music evangelist (Ira Sankey) and even a Catholic, the 15th century friar, Girolamo Savonarola.

I’ve enjoyed sampling the accounts of men I already know, but I’m looking forward to learning about evangelists of whom I’ve never heard, including Fred Brown, E. Howard Cadel, John Carrara, B. R. Lakin, Paul Levin, and Henry C. Morrison. (This could be my new “bathroom reader”).

Why Conservative Churches are Growing, by Dean M. Kelley (Harper & Row, 1972).

This book was lightning bolt  in 1972 when I was in grad school. Though Kelley was an officer of the liberal National Council of Churches and a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he stirred up a lot of anger among mainline churches and gave aid and comfort to conservative groups like the Southern Baptists and the Missouri Synod Lutherans. Though he was “progressive” in his politics, he argued that churches who were focused on taking the social gospel into the public square and broadening their tent at the expense of core commitments had squandered their vitality. From the book jacket, we read that the “tide of ecumenism, dialogue, and church renewal has absorbed the energies of the more liberal denominations, but with modest effect.” In fact, the result was decline, leading toward death.

The book is full of charts and statistics, among which one set covers shrinkage in missionary forces from 1958 to 1971 among major Protestant denominations—American Baptists (407 to 290); United Presbyterians (1293 to 810); PCUSA (504 to 391); United Methodists (1453 to 1175); Episcopalians (395 to 138), and the UCC (496 to 356). And early on, Kelley spells out the “recipe for failure.”

1. It is generally assumed that religious enterprises, if they want to succeed, will be reasonable, rational, courteous, responsible, restrained, and receptive to outside criticism; that is, they will want to preserve a good image in the world (as the world defines all these terms).

2. It is expected, moreover, that they will be democratic and gentle in their internal affairs (again, as the outside world defines these qualities).

3. They will also be responsive to the needs of men (as currently conceived) and will want to work cooperatively with other groups to meet those needs.

4. They will not let dogmatism, judgmental moralism, or obsessions with cultic purity stand in the say of such cooperation and service.

This was 50 years ago, when the “conservative” SBC was still growing in numbers, with a 130% gain since 1940, the same period in which the “liberal” American Baptist Convention had declined about 5%. But the SBC is losing numbers now, and one wonders if we’ve started cooking with some of the ingredients listed above, e.g., when a platformed officer urges us to not insult critical race theory since (see item #1) “the world is watching.”

Mein Kampf, by Adolph Hitler, translated by Ralph Manheim (Houghton Mifflin, 1971).

In an Encounters piece on this site, “Don’t Watch?”, I talked about a dissertation in the works, one by MBTS student Josh Holler, one which treats of the ethical issues in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting (and viewing). After I wrote it, I heard reference to Hitler’s enthusiasm for boxing, and I tracked down the passage in Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), which he wrote in prison after his initial power grab. It laid out his perspective and cause, which would be realized later as he was released and ascended to the “throne.” 

One question for Josh and me is whether Hitler’s commendation is poison or whether he’s on to something when he says that boxing can have a good effect on young men, toughening them up, readying them for conflict. Hitler’s prose is over the top, but is his case totally empty?

Not a day should go by in which the young man does not receive one hour’s physical training in the morning and one in the afternoon, covering every type of sport and gymnastics. And here is one sport in particular must not be forgotten, which in the eyes of many ‘folkish’ minded people is considered vulgar and undignified: boxing. It is incredible what false opinions are widespread in ‘educated’ circles. It is regarded as natural and honorable that a young man should learn to fence and proceed to fight duels right and left, but if he boxes, it is suppose to be vulgar! Why? There is no sport that so much as this one promotes the spirit of attack, demands lightning decisions, and trains the body in steel dexterity. It is no more vulgar for two young men to fight out a difference of opinion with their fists than with a piece of whetted iron. It is not less noble if a man who has been attacked defends himself against his assailant with his fists, instead of running away and yelling for a policemen. But above all, the young, healthy body must also learn to suffer blows. Of course this may seem wild to the  eyes of our present spiritual fighters. But it is not the function of the folkish state to breed a colony of peaceful aesthetes and physical degenerates. Not in the respectable shopkeeper or virtuous old maid does it see it is ideal of humanity, but in the defiant embodiment of manly strength and in women who are able to bring men into the world.

And so sport does not exist only to make the individual strong, agile  and bold; it should also toughen him and teach him to bear hardships.

If our entire intellectual upper crust had not been brought up so exclusively on upper-class etiquette.; if instead they had learned boxing thoroughly, a German revolution of pimps, deserters, and such-like rabble would never have been possible; for what gave this revolution success was not the bold, courageous energy of the revolutionaries, but the cowardly, wretched indecision of those who led the state and were responsible for it. 

The Henna Artist, by Alka Joshi (Mira, 2021)

Here’s my take on the latest Vanderbilt alumni book club selection:

I wish I’d found time to do this book justice, but I’ve been preoccupied with other projects, and it’s really long. I found the intro engaging, both for its literary craft and for the cultural insights, but I’d had my elegant sufficiency about page 50. After that, I’ve turned through it, spending about 30 seconds a page, underlining or circling this or that as connections spring to mind or I stumble on an item fresh and engaging to me. In a famous quote uttered by a South Pacific islander who’d been watching movies projected on a sheet with WWII troops, US films could be summed up with the word’s “Kiss, kiss. Bang, bang.” Well, I’d sum this book/character up as an amalgamation of Martha Stewart, Fredericks of Hollywood, Margaret Sanger, and Oprah. My chief joy came from noticing (and usually recalling) word roots, e.g., ‘pyjama’ and ‘pandit’ (which we render ‘pundit’) and ‘jodhpurs.’ (My mom was in an equestrian club in Detroit in her youth, and she still had a pair of jodhpurs in her closet.) And I was surprised to see so many references to US media, including their interest in Reader’s Digest, the movie Some Like It Hot, and the song Rock Around the Clock. (I loved the image of rickshaw driver tossing coins at the screen at the sight of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe in tight skirts.) It was fun to see the currency of names that have become familiar in the US, e.g., (Sanjay) Gupta, (Harold &) Kumar, and (many of the hotel managers I’ve met thought the years named) Patel. And then there were nice taxonomies, e.g., the various castes, the three karmas, the various potions and recipes. Behind all this, I had in mind my two trips to India (1966, 2010) and living in a duplex in Evanston IL, with a couple whose wife was a very proud, self-proclaimed Brahmin. As a pastor, I’m familiar with the role that William Carey (1761-1834) played in the prohibition of widow burning in India. And yes, the novel encouraged my conviction that India is in dire need of Christian missionaries. BTW, gospel inroads have been particularly deep among the Untouchables (Dalits), who’ve been told that they’re low rent by traditional Hinduism, but that they made in the image of God by Christians.

The Great Scientists in Bite-Sized Chunks, by Nicola Chalton & Meredith MacArdle (MJF, 2015).

Dedicated “To Felix, who wants to be a scientist one day,” this little book of one-to-two-page articles is engaging and informative to us older folks, who’ve passed the point of thinking we might be scientists one day. But it does give us a greater sense of what scientists have meant to our lives and encourages us to join with Chalton and MacArdle in hoping Felix might, indeed, pursue science, if (and that’s a big ‘if’) he’s someone we could trust when he says, “Trust the science” (vs.  Faucists who say they’re the soul of science when they seem to be keener on political science than medical science.)

The book begins with such ancients as Aristotle and Hipparchus, and progresses through the centuries in chapters dedicated to the various disciplines, beginning with astronomy and cosmology. And I’m glad to see that the authors take note of religious influences on the scientists and the science. For instance Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a life-long Lutheran who intended to become a minister, but his interest in astronomy took over. The Thirty-Years War (1618-1648) raged during his lifetime, and tensions (as well as bloody conflict) raged between Catholics and Protestants. As a Protestant he had to move several times, when the Catholics book over Graz (in today’s Austria), Prague (now the Czech Republic), and Linz (again, Austria).

Another entry features two men, the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) and the Italian Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712), whose names are forever linked as discovers and delineators of Saturn’s rings. Fast forward to our millennium, and I found myself on a raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, one of two dozen Christian professors, guests of Answers in Genesis. One of our lecturers was Dave Coppedge, who played an important role in coordinating computers for the joint US/Europe deep space mission to Jupiter and Saturn—"Cassini-Huygens”. I’d forgotten Dave’s name, so I went to AIG’s site for a reminder. And there I found that he’d been demoted at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena for passing along some AIG DVDs to interested co-workers.  I think it’s unlikely that he would have been hassled if he’d shared some Carl Sagan stuff. 

As I turned through the book, I found that a bunch of folks came up with “pi” (3.14) independently (Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Indians, and even the Mayans), but that it took the Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi  (429-500) to calculate it to seven decimal places. I learned that Leibniz (1646-1716), whose Theodicy we read in apologetics, refined the binary number system, the base for computer technology. That quantum physicist, Erwin Schrodinger dabbled in Eastern Philosophy and was “a well-known womanizer” in an “open marriage.”

The book gives nice coverage to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the Dutch lens maker whose 300-power lenses far outstripped the other lenses of the day, limited to 30-power capacity. Inventing the microscope, he also invented microbiology. What you don’t read in this book is an item we feature at, a word of testimony from this Dutch Calvinist:

The preceding kinds of experiments I have repeated many times with the same success, and in particular with some of this sediment which had been kept in my study for about five months . . . From all these observations, we discern most plainly the incomprehensible perfection, the exact order, and the inscrutable providential care with which the most wise Creator and Lord of the Universe had formed the bodies of the animalcules, which are so minute as to escape our sight, to the end that different species of them may be preserved in existence.

Not surprisingly, Rachel Carson receives glowing words, without a word of criticism. But her over-the-top take on insecticides in Silent Spring led to a worldwide ban on DDT (a chemical for which won Paul Müller the Nobel Prize in 1948), thus encouraging the spread of malaria. Arguably, this particular environmental cure has proven more deadly than the malady. (We also cover this in