All posts by lukeaolson

Ryken on Christian literature

The intellectual usefulness of literature is not that it necessarily tells us the truth about an issue but rather that it serves as a catalyst to thinking about the great issues of life. If this is true, we can also see how misguided has been the frequent assumption that it is the task of Christian literary criticism to show that works of literature are Christian. The task is rather to assess whether and to what degree works are Christian in their viewpoint. Christian enthusiasts for literature too often seek to baptize every work of literature that they love.

Been reading articles in Dr. Leland Ryken’s anthology of works on literature and the Christian imagination, called “The Christian Imagination.”  Writers like JRR Tolkien, Francish Schaeffer, Annie Dillard, George MacDonald and others weigh in on the conversation.

Leland Ryken is professor of English at Wheaton College, and was the stylistic consultant for the ESV, and who authored “The ESV and the English Bible Legacy” which I highly recommend, if you’re the least bit interested in the heritage of our English Bible.

What Defines You?

If I were to ask you “what defines you?”, what would you say?  Are you defined by what you do (your job, sport or hobby)?  Who you are culturally (African, hipster, gothic, etc.)?  By what ideals you hold to (Aristotelian thought, Nihilism, ideas of morality)?

Have you ever though about what God thinks about you?  If you are not religious or spiritual, this probably never happens, or often, who knows.  What if how you define yourself ought to be tied up in how God sees you.  After all, he made you.  Before the world was created, he had YOU in mind, and in this particular slot in history, he has placed you.

I’m one who places his trust in Jesus Christ, who came to earth to give us Love; the Father’s Love.  And it is in Christ where my hope and life lies.  Below is a video brilliantly made by an artist named Dan Stevers, and if you also put your faith in Christ, let it just remind you of the basics; that if indeed you’ve placed your life in Christ, how our Father views you, is how you are defined, is where your true identity lies.

I would like to challenge you.  Is your identity grounded in something that will last?  Say, forever?  When you’re dead, will the way you are defined, save you from death itself?  What if by embracing God’s identity for you, you become saved from death, and when death comes knocking on your door, it won’t be able to enter.  What if by embracing God’s identity for you, you tap into the very core of why you’re created.  And finally, what if by embracing God’s purpose for your life, you become a better singer, a better athlete, a better worker, a better mother, or a better father.

What Is the Oldest Carol We Have?

(This is my fourth installment in a series I call Christmas Carol Countdown where I’m endeavoring to uncover the rich history of Christmas carols)

As I’ve said before I love carols, and it is my goal to deepen my understanding of how these carols have come about.  I’ve often wondered what the first carols might have sounded like.  Most of the carols we know of today were written in the 1800’s and after.  Perhaps they were of humble beginnings, sounding nothing like the carols we have, or perhaps, they were glorious beyond imagination.

At first efforts, I went way way back and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t the angels who sung to the shepherds be the first carolers ever?”  It’s a song.  It’s about Christmas.  For those of you who don’t know, it went like this:

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God saying; Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  Luke 1:13-14

Then I realized a few things.  One, this technically was not about Christmas yet, as far as the meaning of Christmas goes.  It comes from “Christ Mass”; yes, mass like the boring service your grandmother used to drag you to.  Over the years, we simply started calling it Christmas, because it was easier.  But I guess in a way because they were singing about Jesus Christ, it might have been the first carol.

Then the other thing I realized was, according to the definition of carol, it has to be a song.  Take a look at the verse again.  Are the angels singing? “…heavenly host praising God saying…” (italics added)  They were simply speaking!  Not singing!  I remember a preacher once saying, “It takes for a soul to be lost and found for it to be able to sing.  Angels have never been lost, they’ve always dwelt in the presence of the Lord, and so they simply proclaim praise.  We get the privilege to sing.”  I’m not sure I agree 100%, but it’s an interesting notion.

So, according to the traditional definition of carol, Luke’s gospel account of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth, indeed does not count as the first carol.  In my book.

My hope then leaned on our early Church Fathers to show me the glory of the first carol.  As multiple sources said, the earliest (perhaps even earlier, I don’t assume exhaustive knowledge) mentions a carol or nativity hymn in the 3rd century.  Interestingly we have documents of our Church Fathers’ writings that go back even to the 2nd century, but unfortunately we only begin to hear of some sort of Christmas liturgy around the 3rd century.  Our dear church fathers, Saint Hippolytus of Rome and Sextus Julius Africanus, mentioned a nativity liturgy.  What they were singing…we don’t know.  Sorry if I got you going there.  But, thankfully around the 4th century we may have our first carol.  Drum roll please.

By Saint Ephraim the Syrian, a hymn (AD 306-373)

The feast day of your birth resembles You, Lord
Because it brings joy to all humanity.
Old people and infants alike enjoy your day.
Your day is celebrated
from generation to generation.
Kings and emperors may pass away,
And the festivals to commemorate them soon lapse.
But your festival
will be remembered until the end of time.
Your day is a means and a pledge of peace.
At Your birth heaven and earth were reconciled,
Since you came from heaven to earth on that day
You forgave our sins and wiped away our guilt.
You gave us so many gifts on the day of your birth:
A treasure chest of spiritual medicines for the sick;
Spiritual light for the blind;
The cup of salvation for the thirsty;
The bread of life for the hungry.
In the winter when trees are bare,
You give us the most succulent spiritual fruit.
In the frost when the earth is barren,
You bring new hope to our souls.
In December when seeds are hidden in the soil,
The staff of life springs forth from the virgin womb

There we have it!  The first extant carol of our time.  It doesn’t rhyme  and meter like some carols, it probably can’t be put to a catchy tune as some carols do, but it wonderfully captures the spirit and reason why we celebrate Christmas in the first place…the birth of hope for mankind.

Catechism or Kid’s Song – “The 12 Days of Christmas”

(This is my third installment in a series that explores our rich tradition of Christmas Carols and its rich history)

I myself was excited to start studying the history of this one, and I found a number of surprises.  At least to me they were.  For example I had no idea the 12 days of Christmas was an actual calendar set of days, after December 25th, which usually ends January 6th with a climactic feast called Ephipany.  It was an old Christian tradition dating back to Shakespeare’s time, and for you Shakespeare fanatics this comes at no surprise to you right?  The Twelfth Night?  (If you want to learn more about that tradition you can look up a pretty good article about it here.)

What really intrigued me was, what is up with all this fowl language.  Some of the first articles I read said that each bird or gift was a coded article that persecuted Catholics in 18th century England used to memorize the tenants of their faith with.  Honestly, I think I heard this before, and at first reaction, I believed it.  However after digging deeper, there is evidence to point in the direction that this carol was merely a kid’s song.  One of the more interesting articles said that during the twelve days of Christmas, children would sing this song in a sort of chorus; a child would sing the first verse, then the second child in the group would sing the second, and whoever couldn’t keep up would be out of the group.

At first I thought, here we go again, people just trying to put down traditions of the church.  Haters.  But I came across some good reasons as to why it wouldn’t be some sort of underground catechism (I’ll just list one for space sake); both Anglicans (the persecutors), and the Catholics (persecuted), believed in many common tenants that the song says Catholics needed to keep secret.  For example, partridge = Jesus, two French hens = New and Old Testament, etc.  These are tenants that are shared between denominations and would not require one to go underground.  Another real good indicator that it is false, is that this idea is actually a modern one.  First writings that purport this idea came as late as 1979, whereas the song first appears in 1780, and the tune even earlier than that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we may just have a real good children’s song etched in our Christmas Carols history, which I am fine with.  It’s a lovely song, not much meaning at all anymore for me, but lovely still the same.  Images of birds I’ve never seen dance through my mind, as I then catch them and wrap them and give them to my wife.  I think I just imagine pheasants and pigeons, with funny tails.

Don’t go just yet, there’s more.  Some say that what might have happened is around the late 1700’s the song “The 12 Days of Christmas” might have been confused somehow with a traditional catechism type song called, “A New Dial” (or also known as “In Those Twelve Days” in some circles I guess).  Consider the lyrics below of the first six days:

What are they that are but one?
We have one God alone
In heaven above sits on His throne.

What are they which are but two?
Two testaments, the old and new,
We do acknowledge to be true.

What are they which are but three?
Three persons in the Trinity
Which make one God in unity.

What are they which are but four
Four sweet Evangelists there are,
Christ’s birth, life, death which do declare.

What are they which are but five?
Five senses, like five kings, maintain
In every man a several reign.

What are they which are but six?
Six days to labor is not wrong,
For God himself did work so long.

I suppose it is possible that the “The 12 Days of Christmas” could have been an evolution of this song into less religious lyrics.  However, I’m inclined to think though that this song, which came out about 100 years prior to “The 12 Days of Christmas”, in 1625, instead lent a catchy tune to a kids song…about birds I’ve never heard of.

So what to do now?  I feel like I just popped the fantasy bubble in some peoples minds that this song had a deep important underlying meaning.  To you, I’m deeply sorry.  But seriously, what to do.  Not sure, but I think I’m going to try singing it the way it was meant to be sung; in choruses in a group with children, and the one who can’t keep up, has to take a shot of that crazy Christmas drink with raw eggs.

Happy Caroling!

A Carol That Welcomed Sacred Skulls & Bones – “I Saw Three Ships”

(This is the second installment in a series where I will explore the rich history of music surrounding the holiday of Christmas)

This one may not be so popular with everyone, but maybe I’m just saying that because I only vaguely remember the melody, let alone the words.  I got reacquainted with it as we were playing it on our playlist of Christmas Carols, and a question was just not let my mind go; “What’s up with the three ships?”  Are they an allusion to the Trinity, but in the song they only mention Jesus and Mary.  Is it because a city’s savior in the form of a military squadron of three boats came sailing in that morning?

As history would have it, the three ships came bearing gifts on Christmas, but not any ol’ gift you would give your wife or sister.  It is thought the three ships were carrying the remains of the Biblical Magi (which is a word, by the way, that comes from Old Persian, magus, meaning sorcerer, referring to a highly revered caste of Zoroastrians, of which one of the magi probably came) spoken of in the Christmas narrative in the Bible.  In agreement with the medieval churches interesting infatuation with saintly remains, their skulls and the rest, were being transported to the Cologne Cathedral, after of course, being wrapped in beautiful bows and ribbons.  They were a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa to Cologne, as a gift after capturing Milan, which is where the bones were before.  So yes it’s a nice carol, but it was also a song dedicated to the arrival of some very important relics.

“But”, you may say, “the lyrics say the ships came into Bethlehem.”  One quick look at a map of Israel shows you that disappointingly the city of Bethlehem is very land-locked.  So, I’m not sure what to say.  Perhaps some Broadway genius decided to take a Christmas themed play and mixed in it with a dash of Peter Pan and his flying ship.  The world may never know the reason for this discrepancy.

Happy Caroling!

Christmas Carol Countdown – Be a More Informed Caroler (intro)

It’s December 1st today, and Christmas is just around the corner.  If you’re like me, as you’ve enjoyed singing carols year in and year out, you come across songs and lyrics and realize, “I have no idea what I’m singing about, but hey, it feels good to be a part of this tradition of music.”  Like who is “Good King Wencelass”, why are the “Three Ships” important, where did the “drummer boy” come in to the Christmas story, and what is up with all the ridiculous types of birds, like turtle doves, French hens, and partridges.

There is such a beautiful tradition of music surrounding our holiday of Christmas, and it is my goal this Christmas to be a better informed carol singer.  Long gone will the days be when as I sung a carol tune I would wish I knew the context of the song.

Join me as we explore together the beautifully rich tradition of music that stretches back to the time of Christ.  We will explore the backdrop to some well known carols that everyone is familiar with, and lesser known ones as well.

How History Plays into Bibliology and Christology.

Dr. Daniel Wallace is a Textual Criticism scholar, and has written on the issue of the reliability of the Bible, evidence in ancient manuscripts, and what all that means for us today.  I’ve been following his works for some time now, and I’m so grateful for him in helping me formulate an informed view of inerrancy, textual criticism, and theology, and how it all pertains to my life.

I like this quote because it is a call for “hands-off” evangelicals to be better informed, and realize that our book has a wealth of evidence, which reinforces the pillars of our faith.

If Christ is at the core of our beliefs, then the incarnation has to loom large in our thinking about the faith. When God became man and invaded space-time history, this served notice that we dare not treat the Bible with kid gloves. The incarnation not only invites us to examine the evidence, it requires us to do so. The fact that our religion is the only major religion in the world that is subject to historical verification is no accident: it’s part of God’s design. Jesus performed miracles and healings in specific towns, at specific times, on specific people. The Gospels don’t often speak in generalities. And Paul mentioned that 500 believers saw the risen Christ at one time, then added that most of these folks were still alive. These kinds of statements are the stuff of history; they beg the reader to investigate. Too often modern evangelicals take a hands-off attitude toward the Bible because of a prior commitment to inerrancy. But it is precisely because I ground my bibliology in Christology rather than the other way around that I cannot do that. I believe it is disrespectful to my Lord to not ask the Bible the tough questions that every thinking non-Christian is already asking it.

Dr. Daniel Wallace

You can find more information on Textual Criticism, issues about the Bible, or if you want to read 2nd or 3rd century Greek manuscripts for yourself online, you can visit his website here, at the Center for New Testament Manuscripts.