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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


Someone asked me recently why my wife and I switched churches. "We prefer sermons, not personal essays," I replied. Of course, personalizing potentially rote lectures is essential to good preaching. But over-personalizing is plaguing preaching today, writes Alastair Begg in Preaching for God's Glory. Begg spoke last month at a conference at Covenant Seminary called "Salt in Our Preaching: Back To Basics," and his book was excerpted recently at byFaith Online.

Begg has three basic explanations for the disappearance of expository preaching (and since I was raised on three-point sermons, this approach works for me). First, the church is losing confidence in Scripture; chalk it up to postmodernism and Baby Boomer's distrust of authority. Second, preachers are placing the political allegiances and psychological needs of their congregation ahead of theology. Third, there are few role models for good expository preaching.

My wife and I were schooled on the systematic sermons of the Reformed tradition, so we know the opposite problem Begg identifies: preaching that is "lifeless" and "thoroughly boring." "I never cease to be amazed," Begg says, "by the ingenuity of those who are capable of taking the powerful, life-changing text of Scripture and communicating it with all the passion of someone reading aloud from the Yellow Pages!"

But somewhere between the Yellow Pages and Dr. Phil-type pep talks lies the kind of preaching Gustaf Wingren speaks of, as Begg quotes him: "The passage itself is the voice, the speech of God; the preacher is the mouth and the lips, and the congregation . . . the ear in which the voice sounds." Begg's essay inspires and worshipers to seek this kind of harmony.

Also from byFaith Online: Appreciating creeds


From the New York Times:

BAGHDAD* — For those entering or leaving Iraq by air, [scenes of violence] are often the first or last images. Nineteen months after toppling Saddam Hussein, the American military and Iraqi forces have yet to secure what is arguably the country's most important stretch of road—the five-mile umbilical cord connecting Iraq to the world, the transit point for diplomats, business people, aid workers, security contractors and journalists. The security vacuum along it is emblematic of the sheer inability to maintain control over key areas of the country. Like an initiation rite, they have to run a gantlet on the six-lane highway before they can even begin work here. … Over nine weeks last summer, the military recorded 200 attacks.

From the Washington Post:

SHAWNEE, Okla. — Three decades ago, the tribal council of the Potawatomi Nation … rarely met and when it did, members fought (sometimes with fists) over money the tribe did not have. Tribal holdings had dwindled to 2 1/2 acres of trust land. Cash on hand in the tribal checking account (after the ex-chairman had seen to his bills) was $550. Then came a revolution in Indian Country, what tribal leaders and academic researchers describe as the most fundamental, far-reaching and positive pattern of change in more than a century. It has nourished a remarkable period of growth in Indian incomes, resuscitated many tribal governments and helped generate the energy—cultural, artistic and psychic—that fueled the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian.


  • Tucked inside the New Yorker's election issue last month was an insightful story on how Manhattan is environmentally friendly. "Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility," wrote David Owen. "The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties," Owens says, and urban dwellers use about half as much electricity as suburban and rural residents. At the population density of Manhattan, Owens' small Northeastern Connecticut town would pile their cars and pools and septic tanks to the skies. At the density of Owens' small town, Manhattan would cover eight states. "Spreading people out increases the damage they do to the environment, while making the problems harder to see and to address," Owens says. Not that Owens is denying the drawbacks to urban life: "Manhattan is loud and dirty, and the subway is depressing, and the fumes from the cars and cabs and buses can make people sick." Meanwhile, he says, you can't make Manhattan an exemplar of urban planning, "because the city's remarkable population density is the result not of conscientious planning but of a succession of serendipitous historical accidents." For one thing, you can't put most other cities on an island. (Article is unavailable online; see this blogger's summary and response)
  • "It would be a mistake to think of outsourcing as simply an economic transaction; it is a universal tendency, like gravity, that exerts a pull on everything," writes Cullen Murphy, in one of his delightfully wry essays for the Atlantic Monthly. He proposes a fourth law of thermodynamics, which states "that outsourcing—getting others to do things for you—is the intrinsic vector of all human activity." In Iraq, "core military functions such as building bases, guarding depots, and conducting surveillance are increasingly private-sector affairs," and selling the idea of democracy has been outsourced to a British public-relations firm. In Hollywood, the job of playing New York has been outsourced to Toronto. The job of waiting in line can be outsourced to the "service expediter" industry, which offers "human substitutes (for up to $30 an hour) who will save a place until your turn arrives." The job of writing wedding toasts can be outsourced to InstantWeddingToasts.com. And moral responsibility can be outsourced to blood sugar levels, childhood trauma, and genetics. Essay
  • What's the deal with premium gas? Does it really help your car run better? Is it an oil company scam? Chicago Reader answer man Cecil Adams wraps his head around the physics of engine combustion and concludes that premium gas is only for premium cars. "Using high-octane gas in a car designed for regular accomplishes little except more rapid combustion of your money," he writes, in a startlingly detailed technical analysis of engines. In fact, "Some automotive types claim that using premium in a car designed for regular will make the engine dirtier—something about deposits on the back side of the intake valves. … Believe what you like; the point is, don't assume 'premium' means 'better.'" Article
  • Want to write fortune cookie sayings for a living? Apply to Golden Bowl, which churns out four million fortune cookies a day from its Queens warehouse, which the New York Press toured recently. What makes a good saying? "Basically it's got to be happy," a salesman says. Golden Bowl tends to stick with bromides such as, "Nothing gets in they way of your vision of yourself in the future." There's a theory that fortune cookies were invented when 14th-century Chinese soldiers hid secret messages in moon cakes, but that's probably a tall tale, the Press says. In fact, fortune cookies are probably less than a century old, and started when Los Angeles noodle manufacturer David Jung started selling cookies with uplifiting messages (the Press just says the cookies "contained" the messages—it doesn't say how). So don't think that eating a fortune cookie is a cross-cultural experience. In fact, ten years ago, the Press says, "Golden Bowl tried—and failed—to sell fortune cookies in China." Article
  • Miscellaneous: How to estimate the total death toll and price tag in Iraq, from the Economist and Martin Marty's Sightings—Why are we short on flu shots? from The Week—Why are they rioting in the Ivory Coast? from the Guardian - It's not just the U.S., the E.U. is polarized, too, from Business Week - The myth about "crack babies," from the Columbia Journalism Review - Independent scholars gather, from the New York Sun - Why we romanticize the Amish, from Washington Monthly - A tribute to Solzhenitsyn, from First Things
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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