Josh Philpot

Theology, the Church, and Music

Archive for April 2009

Book Review: “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough

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510nve4ke9l_ss500_Perhaps no other author can lock me into a book so quickly than David McCullough. His moving biography of John Adams is a favorite of mine, as is the fast paced 1776, both of which I commend to anyone interested in the history of our nation. Of course, all of us know that a book should not be judged by its first few paragraphs, and to this I think McCullough would agree. I can think, however, of many books I’ve picked up recently where reading the first chapter is like walking through heavy mud. McCullough is not of this sort. As a historical novelist, he walks the reader into the story so that he may feel, taste, hear and see the world about which he reads. After trudging through three J-term courses this winter, I decided to read leisurely while waiting for my upcoming, and last, semester. I picked up McCullough’s first book, The Johnstown Flood, and instantly felt like a character in this incredible story.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania, located southeast of Pittsburgh, was a small but thriving factory town of about 30,000 citizens in 1889. The people were diverse, hardworking and content, typical of late 19th century American industrialism. Their town, however, sat at the fork of two rivers (the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh) that overflow their banks every other spring when heavy rains drench the area. But since no one ever died there was never any attempt to control the waters up to that point, and the floods became commonplace. About 10-15 miles up the Little Conemaugh river was a resort for the Pittsburgh wealthy, which included a large lake upheld by a small, old dam built of stone. The dam contained a spillway which fed into the Little Conemaugh. Johnstown’s residents knew that if the dam were ever to break the flood waters would likely wipe out their town, yet they did nothing to secure the dam or assure that high water on the lake would not spill over. Numerous engineers and others suggested the dam be rebuilt or somehow stabilized, yet the Johnstown public repeatedly balked at the idea. After all, money was tight and resources costly. When the flood waters came year after year the dam continued to hold, which bolstered the confidence of Johnstown. But no one expected the the events of May 31st, for that flood wasn’t like any other. schultz

On May 30th a torrential downpour caused the lake at the dam to rise as much as one inch every ten minutes. Through the night the water at the crest of the dam rose from six feet to only two feet. The caretakers of the resort and dam knew that if the rain kept pouring Johnstown could be in for a natural disaster, so they wired to Johnstown hour after hour in an attempt to alert the citizens of a possible break at the dam. By morning of the 31st Johnstown was already partially flooded, about knee-high, which was a typical spring soaking. For them there was no reason to fear, so they went about their day as usual. After hearing the alerts about the dam, most chuckled at the prospect of a break. This concerned the caretakers of the resort, and a few even came down on horseback to alert the citizens themselves. However, only some in Johnstown fled to the hills, and most didn’t take notice. Most striking was the lack of attention given to the dam by Johnstown’s politicians, who likewise neglected to leave their own comfortable homes, let alone inform the public about an impending disaster. Yet about 2:50 P.M. the dam finally gave way and the waters rushed on, picking up trees, houses, debris, mud, rock and barbwire as it headed to Johnstown traveling 15 miles/hour. It was not a wave like those that crash into the Florida coast. Rather, it was a was a giant hill, 30-40 feet high of blackness, “a blur, an advance guard, as it were as mist, like dust that precedes a cavalry charge.” One onlooker described the wave as “a cloud of blackest smoke I ever saw.” Most impressionable was the terrible sound of the thing, and the ambivalence of those in Johnstown who neglected to leave the city. McCullough writes, “most of the people in Johnstown never saw the water coming; they only heard it; and those who lived to tell about it would for years after try to describe the sound of the thing as it rushed on them.”

The flood came upon Johnstown with great force, and McCullough describes the catastrophic event with precision and detail. In the end, 2,209 people lost their lives, many whose bodies were never found. Although thousands came to help the recovery and rescue effort, the clean-up would take months, even years. Many tried to sue the resort and caretakers of the dam for the loss of life, but the blame, writes McCullough, should be shifted. Indeed, the overarching theme of the book concerns the complacency of Johnstown’s own residents and leaders. In this light it is important to notice that the Johnstown flood is not simply a story about a natural disaster. It is a different subject than, say, the stories of the Chicago fire or the great San Francisco earthquake. It is more like hurricane Katrina. The theme of the Johnstown flood is that it is extremely risky, perhaps even perilous, to assume that because people are in positions of responsibility they are acting responsibly. The Johnstown flood, then, is a story of human irresponsibility, of shortsightedness of the clear “writing on the wall,” as it were. It is about man at his most thoughtless and naive.

Aside from the obvious downside of the flood itself, I loved this book. McCullough is a historical writer par excellence, and I highly recommended his works to anyone, young or old, for a satisfying and informing read.

Written by Josh Philpot

April 5, 2009 at 11:19 am

Book Review: “Death by Love” by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears

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I usually stay up to date with the ministry of Mars Hill Church and their pastor, Mark Driscoll. Although controversial, I have admired the way in which his ministry has reached Seattle, WA (the most unchurched city in America). Indeed, Mars Hill (not to be confused with Mars Hill of Rob Bell fame) has penetrated the culture with the gospel and thousands have been saved. As Driscoll has said elsewhere, Mars Hill seeks to combine a message that is timeless with a ministry that is timely, and I’m inclined to agree.

Aside from pastoring and teaching at conferences Driscoll has written many books, the latest of which is “Death by Love: Letters from the Cross,” published by Crossway as part of Mars Hill’s Re:Lit ministry. After seeing this provocative video I picked up the book this week and read it.

I won’t spend much space on this review, but to say that I endorse the book and pray that it has an impact on other Christians. The book is structured as 12 letters to 12 different people, most of which have been held captive by certain sins. All 12 are real people with real situations that Driscoll has counseled throughout his pastoral ministry. After meeting with each person, Driscoll writes them a letter explaining how Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection penetrates their individual situation. While Driscoll writes the bulk of the book, there is supplemental theological material by Dr. Gerry Breshears (prof. of theology at Western Seminary) at the end of each letter. What this amounts to is solid pastoral insight (Driscoll planted and has pastored Mars Hill for 12 years) with solid theological underpinnings.

There is much to be commended about the book, but I don’t encourage everyone to read it. Driscoll is not afraid to rebuke those who are held captive to sin. His language is often vivid and provocative. However, his language is sincere and his writing is filled with Christ. To that end, he takes his job seriously, and his impact for the church at Seattle has been very fruitful. I pray that we all would likewise be devoted to the gospel as Driscoll.

Written by Josh Philpot

April 5, 2009 at 11:17 am

Book Review: Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

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Having just completed Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice, I thought it necessary to post some of my thoughts. To sum up, this fictional account traces the life of the historical Jesus as a young boy (between 7-8 years of age), dealing mainly with his journey from Egypt to his hometown of Nazareth, and then back to Jerusalem for the Passover. In a nutshell, Christ the Lord is a novel about Jesus understanding his true nature; namely, awareness that he is the Son of David spoken of in the Old Testament. Although he doesn’t fully comprehend this nature by the end of the book, he nonetheless accepts his role with faith and assurance that God will show him the path he must make. While the journey out of Egypt was long and difficult with many trials along the way, Jesus has his own journey to make, one that he must keep secret until the appropriate time.

There are many strengths and weaknesses in Christ the Lord and I will try to mention them in light of the biblical data. First, there is much to commend in Rice’s historical research. She provides many intricate details for the setting in life in which Jesus lived. This is helpful because it gives us a grasp on the “humanness” of Christ. We see that he was taught from the Old Testament (and had to study hard!), that he worked as a craftsman with Joseph, and that sometimes he fell ill. While Rice is clearly writing a fictional account and taking liberties in doing so, she provides these details with precision. We must understand that Jesus was fully man yet without sin. I believe that Rice’s book is useful in this regard.

However, the book is no literary masterpiece. Certain features are clearly forced, mainly for literary tension and to support the theological presuppositions of the author (Rice is an ardent Catholic). For instance, in order to guard the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of Mary (based on the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which implies that Mary was not born in original sin and therefore lived a sinless life), Rice explains that Mary has never had sexual relations with any man, including Joseph: “I have never been with a man, not then, not now, nor will I ever. I am consecrated to the Lord” (53). Of course, this creates problems, the first being that of James, Jesus’ brother. We find out later that James is not Jesus’ brother by birth but his half-brother. Joseph, before marrying Mary, had a former wife who died after their son, James, was born.

A second issue deals with Jesus’ miracles. While the gospels present his miracles as signs that prove Jesus is the Son of God, in this account Jesus unknowingly performs them. Power simply slips out of him when he wants something done, usually out of the goodness of his heart. In the first chapter alone Jesus causes stone sparrows to be real sparrows, and raises a little Jewish boy to life! Later he heals his uncle, Cleopas, who was dying from illness. When in the Temple for Passover, Jesus has compassion on a blind man, and after praying the man receives his sight. Miracles are great, but miracles without a message are magic tricks. Jesus was not a 1st century David Copperfield. There were plenty of those floating around (Acts 8). In the gospels Jesus clearly knows what he is doing. Power doesn’t spurt out of his hands like Harry Potter’s wand. Rather, the power of Jesus is the power of the Father, fully manifested in him, to show he is truly God’s Son.

Many other issues are troubling. Caiaphas is somehow related to Jesus. This is probably to heighten the tension between the two when the time comes for Jesus’ trial and execution (Rice plans to write more novels in this mold). John the Baptist meets Jesus as a young boy, always staring at him and not knowing why. We learn later that John becomes an Essene, an extremely pious Jewish sect who lived in caves north of the Dead Sea. Of course, this is all speculative. One of the more disconcerting elements occurs in the Temple, where Jesus and the male family members go to sacrifice before Passover. When the sacrifice is done we learn of Jesus’ thoughts: “It is finished. Paid in full” (293).  But it is not finished! It is not paid in full (as far as this story goes). Only when Jesus dies as the once-for-all sacrifice is the payment made in full. Only when he is bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities can he cry, “It is finished.” The work was never complete in the sacrificial system of the Law. The sacrifices according to the Law are a foreshadowing of the coming sacrifice. As the book of Hebrews contends, “he has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself” (7:27). Further, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (9:12). Only by means of his own blood is the work complete.

One last point is not to be missed. After Jesus offers his sacrifice (he is about 8 years old) he wanders into the court of the Rabbis seeking answers to his questions. He stays with the Rabbis, we learn, for about 3 days, after which Joseph and Mary find him. Upon meeting him Mary says, “Why have you done this? We’ve been in misery searching for you.” Jesus replies, “Mother, I must know things now…things I’m forbidden to ask to you or Joseph. I must be about what it is that I have to do” (307)! At first glance nothing seems out of place with the story in Luke 2. But the implication is far reaching in Rice’s account. First of all, Luke explicitly states that Jesus was 12 years old when these events occurred (2:42), and that the Rabbis were listening to him teach, not the other way around. Furthermore, Luke records Jesus telling his mother, “did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business” (2:49). Rice’s account implies that Jesus was asking the Rabbi’s for information about who he really was (as if they would know), while Luke’s account seems to indicate that Jesus already knew his nature and purpose. Not only is the factual evidence distorted, so is the meaning of the text.

Other particulars can be pointed out and applied, which I will remain from doing here. The overall consensus? Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is an enjoyable book that seeks to show the reader how Jesus lived during 1st century Judaism, but more importantly how he came to understand his kingship. However, the story is skewed by the many false assumptions underlying the plot. As fully human Jesus must have come to a knowledge of his true nature in some way or another (most likely by his reading of the OT). But to come to these conclusions outside of the inspired text (Rice quotes the Apocrypha on occasion) is conjecture, which can lead many away from the truth.

I was once told that there is no such thing as an unbiased historian. I’m inclined to agree. Rice is no historian, but she has taken historical accounts and placed them in a literary framework outside of Scripture. Instead, she reinterprets the Gospel story with theological presuppositions. The question for us is as follows: without endorsing the book, should we recommend such reading to others in our churches? Should all such literature be ruled out? Before jumping to conclusions, think about The Passion of the Christ movie, or popular womens fiction like The Atonement Child or And the Shofar Blew, which are based on biblical stories. What about theological fiction such as The Shack? Are such works edifying to the church, or distracting?

Written by Josh Philpot

April 5, 2009 at 11:16 am

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