A lot of times, when you hear that “college may be the best four (or five…or six) years of your life,” the statement comes along with worldly conations of poor decisions, poor grades, and a new understanding of the word “poor” (enter: Ramen noodles). But, for some of us, the sweetest moments you remember are the deep conversations with friends that carried late into the night, complete with tall cups of coffee and ad hoc pondering. The sometimes passionate and often varied opinions put forth and defended ferociously yet graciously, often lead to iron sharpening iron, and fostered a genuine love and trust for each other. As a collection of essays and articles, short and varied, reading through The Best of the Reformed Journal was a bit like sitting down with one of those old friends.
The Best of the Reformed Journal is a compilation put together by James D. Bratt and Ronald A Wells, that gathers some of the best and most engaging articles through the years in one volume. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of a magazine is the variety of content, as well as the diversity of the authors. But where a “greatest hits” album will sacrifice the most creative, intriguing, and personal work through the years for songs with the greatest commercial success, Bratt and Wells seem to have worked hard to find the pieces that represent the magazine best, both doctrinally as well as in their ability to provoke thought and conversation.
Over the years The Reformed Journal earned respect and maintained a high reputation, and so there was great comfort in knowing early on that I could trust this new found friend. The Reformed Journal has “set the standard for top-notch, venturesome theological reflection on a broad range of issues” (back jacket). As I walked through four decades worth of articles, I found things I never expected. Some articles brought insights that I had never heard before, or made connections I had never considered. Some pieces reinforced my opinion on topics, while others challenged it. There were even chapters that I walked away from disagreeing with the conclusions of the author, for one reason or another. And yet, unlike some books, the ideas felt as if they were presented in a safe environment, like opinions shared around a coffee table, not an ambush I needed to stay on guard for. It was simply refreshing to sit, read, and reason through this material, not only to be strengthened, but also to be challenged and confronted on a world of topics, some I knew little about.
The book is laid out essentially chronologically, with three blocks (sections) of eleven to fifteen year periods. But within these sections articles are separated by topic, including issues like the Church and Theology, Education, Race and Rights, Politics, Gender, Sports, and the Arts. As a twenty-five year old youth pastor, some (if not many) of these topics were unfamiliar, and a few may even have been seemingly irrelevant to my situation today. And yet, as history has a great tendency to repeat itself, I have learned that by reading and learning through issues and topics that may not affect me now, there is wisdom in seeing men more Godly and more mature than me work through problems and interact with their surroundings in Biblical, healthy, and intellectually astute ways.
It would be impossible to outline the ninety articles included in this collection or even summarize the context, as many of the pieces are as diverse as the authors are varied. Instead, I will attempt to outline a few of the chapters that particularly stood out to me, and will leave you the benefit of reading the rest of the book on your own.
On interacting with the world
Early in the book, one of the most powerful articles I read was a piece by Ernest Van Vugt published in December of 1961, titled “Pitch Your Tents Toward Sodom.” Van Vugt spends his time recounting the story of Lot disassociating with his Uncle and “pitching his tent toward Sodom,” and analyzing the typical conclusion that “living near the world spells destruction.”
The issue with that notion, the author argues, is Scripture, the example of Paul, and the error of the mindset that “truth must always be on the defensive, and fight a losing battle at that” (pg. 34). Is it only Christians who should live in a secular setting, Van Vugt asks? Certainly not! His conclusion is that it was not Lot’s mistake that he pitched his tent toward Sodom, but that he was drawn in to the wealth and ways of the town. He states, “Lot erred then in forgetting that the believer has here ‘no abiding city,’ and that though riches increase we are not to set our heart upon them” (pg. 35).
The point of the story of Lot is not to:
(Provide us) an excuse to isolate ourselves in fear as though what God has given us is merely to be preserved by us and not shared with others. It does, however, serve to point out the dangers involved in our encounters with wickedness, and illustrates the high price that one who leaves the safety of the Christian community can pay for his failure to be adequately prepared and wholly committed to advance the cause of truth. (pg. 35)
Writing to soon-to-be Calvin College graduates, Van Vugt declares that the graduate of the Christian liberal arts college has a unique opportunity to live in that world, and has been particularly trained to defend the truth in a fallen world; perhaps, to pitch his tent toward Sodom. Yet, he reminds the reader of the weight of his call, and the dangers that lie within if one is careless. The article both challenged my own views on my interaction with the world, as well as reminded me of the dangers we can become so accustomed to, that we feel inoculated to their danger.
One other article that particularly stood out was Cornelius Plantinga Jr.’s “Like a Shot to the Heart” published in January of 1988. Plantinga spends several pages analyzing popular preaching techniques and critiquing the damage they do. Not only do cheap oratory tricks like emphasizing each word in passage individually (what Plantinga calls “the homilist’s hamburger helper”) promote poor hermeneutics among the laity, it distorts Scripture and hides the glory and character of God from the pulpit. Or, said another way:
Pulpit language undisciplined by apt reading, good models, and careful preparation tends to become flat or puffy. In either case it may suffer from terminal banality. Given how much preaching matters, the struggle for cure is worth trying. (pg. 202)
Plantinga summarizes his point by echoing C.S. Lewis, when he said, “Any fool can write learned jargon; the test is the vernacular.” The author continues on to quote Mere Christianity, but then notes that while Lewis’ mastery of his words in Mere Christianity is noteworthy, perhaps a better illustration of his ability to communicate ideas is found in Lewis’ children’s literature. The image painted of God through Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia can leave the reader frustrated when his own words fail to express his emotions Lewis evokes. A far cry, Plantinga argues, from what can be found in churches across the country—in 1988 and today.
There are two suggestions Plantinga puts forward to combat this issue. The first argument he builds is for all preachers to “steep” themselves in good children’s literature (pg. 204). Not the dollar store variety, but Lewis, Tolkien, and many more. The other suggestion is that:
Church councils take quality control of their pulpits by writing a reading requirement into their preacher’s job description. Then they ought to appoint a small, friendly committee (including, perhaps, a librarian and an English teacher) whose task is, twice a year, to furnish their preacher with a thoughtful list of recommended reading. (pg. 204)
As a youth pastor, I’ve been made to see how much the careful use of words is important, but Plantinga delivers a particularly powerful case for words and images that do more than remind a listener they need to catch up on sleep.
There were some articles I did not agree with or did not like, such as Richard Mouw’s “A Prayer to Mary.” And yet, there’s little to be said there. The best articles can be dissected, chewed on, wrestled with and remarked about for years to come, like a great insight from a friend. But in that same conversation you may hear an opinion you disagree with, you may argue your point, you may even go home mad. But if you really are true friends, you’ll meet again next week for coffee once again. And such it is with this book. I’m sure there will be something you disagree with in this book. But you’ll be the better for reading it, hearing it, and if you still disagree – moving on at the end of the chapter or the end of the day.
The Best of the Reformed Journal is full of articles like the two I highlighted—filled with applications for the pastor as well as the plumber. My initial reaction is to recommend and buy this book for everyone I know. With a little more thought, I realize that there are some people for whom this book is not for. Quite simply, some people simply will not care how faith impacts the death of JFK, or how to look at art from a Gospel-centered perspective. For some people this book and these articles will do more to turn people away from the Reformed faith than to entice them to it; and so some discretion should be used when deciding who to suggest this book to. But for those looking for a close friend with whom to discuss good, Reformed theology… I think I know a guy! If you’re looking for a book to argue and reason and laugh with, I whole-heartedly recommend The Best of the Reformed Journal.
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