I’m on a half-term break at the moment, which is an opportunity to recharge the batteries, be a tourist at home, read some good books and catch up with housework and ironing…….well ok, maybe not those last two! The tourism has been going well, involving two bracing walks in a nature reserve and along the white cliffs of Dover, and consequently I’m nearly at full charge on the battery front.
As to the reading, William Guthrie is still gathering dust on my bedside table, and I feel a twinge of guilt every time I look at him, but on the other hand, I’ve been keeping company with some excellent writers. I have basically read my way through the books acquired at a recent Grace Baptist Women’s Conference, which I attend every year, where there is always a good bookstall. Despite requesting my companions to strap me down in the pew, and not let me near the book tent, at coffee break, I had purchased two books by Rosaria Butterfield before they could dunk a Custard Cream in their tea! Sheepishly I stuffed the pink striped book bag of shame under my arm and slunk back to the balcony for the second session, only to be given C. J. Mahaney’s Living the Cross Centred Life by my friend Julia, as a thank-you for being the official driver for our church group. Total haul: three juicy books.
First up though was Steve Turner’s Popcultured, which has been idling on my shelves since I bought it from the bookstall at the first ever Equipped 317 bible conference, organised by my church. (www.equipped317.org) It had been recommended by the main speaker, Dr. Dan Strange, and seeing as this year’s conference is coming up fast, I determined to finish it before I heard the siren call of the bookstall once more! This book encourages Christians to engage with popular culture with their biblical eyes wide open. He maintains that “We make culture because we are made by God, and however defiant and atheistic people are they cannot shake off the divine image.” Although I’ve worked out that I must engage, I haven’t quite figured out how this would sit with my Puritan brethren, were they still alive and kicking. They have always been painted as kill-joys, who wouldn’t dance, and who shut down theatres, but probably painted as such by people who hated their guts.
In his section on a “Theology of Leisure”, Steve Turner refers to their critical stance of popular culture: “Many of the criticisms made by the Puritans about sports, fairs, card games and even novel reading were not because they were implicitly evil but because they wasted time that could have been better spent on spiritual improvement. Their maxim “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” acknowledged that it was when “at a loose end” that people were most susceptible to temptation.” Later on, in his chapter on “Ever-Greater Thrills”, he quotes John Owen and Russell Brand on the same page! “Until the eighteenth century the word amusement meant something that deceived or cheated. One of the reasons Puritans disapproved of many recreations was that they believed such things could be used to smother the work of the Holy Spirit in producing consciousness of sin. In A Practical Exposition of the 130th Psalm (1668) John Owen wrote, “There are also other ways whereby sinful souls destroy themselves by false reliefs. Diversions from their perplexing thoughtfulness pleases them. They will fix on something or other that cannot cure their disease, but shall only make them forget that they are sick.”
Turner makes a strong case for saying that: “not all relaxation is a waste of time. It can be taking stock, drinking in our environment or simply delighting in being alive. The word recreation, which we often associate with mindless abandon, was coined to mean putting ourselves back together – re-creating ourselves.” I’ve been busy doing just this during my week off, using my bible reading, meeting with God’s people, reading good books, watching great films and T.V. and drinking in the beauty of God’s creation on my cliff top walk. Turner reminds us that the key thing is always to be alert when consuming popular culture: “We should always consume thoughtfully with our minds alert to the text but also to the subtext, to the words but also to the signs and symbols. We should have the biblical worldview so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that it’s second nature for us to compare the way God looks at things with what we’re being presented with.” Popcultured is a brilliant book, and if you are someone who appreciates the Arts and the Media, I would urge you to read it, if only because someone who can quote John Owen and Russell Brand on the same page and get away with it, is worth anyone’s attention.
C. J. Mahaney also mentions the Puritans. In his chapter on assurance and joy on p105 he asks: “In your own times of severe distress, which are you more aware of – your suffering or your salvation? What the Puritan Thomas Watson recognised will always be true for us: “Your sufferings are not so great as your sins: Put these two in the balance, and see which weighs heaviest.” We can rejoice in our salvation even amid great affliction when we recognise how much worse we deserve because of our sins.” (Thomas Watson: The Art of Divine Contentment: An exposition of Philippians 4:11, reprinted by Soli Deo Gloria Minities (Orlando, FL.:2001) Any book that is as cross centred as Mahaney’s is bound to run up against the Puritans sooner or later – and so to Rosaria Champagne Butterfield’s two amazing books…
I started with her 2014 memoir: The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert:an English professor’s journey into Christian Faith, Crown & Covenant Publications, Pittsburgh, PA . It is the amazing story of how God brought a Lesbian, Feminist English professor to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and of the impact that knowing God has had on her life. It is honest and challenging, especially when dealing with some of the less than helpful reactions and comments she has received, particularly from her sisters in Christ. Most of all though, it is a deeply theological and spiritual book, and it is quite obvious that she is well-versed in the Puritans. (In her bibliography, she lists Jeremiah Burroughs The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and Thomas Watson The Doctrine of Repentance, both reprinted in The Banner of Truth Puritan Paperbacks series.) Also, in her open letters at the end, she recommends Richard Rushing, (Ed.) Voices from the Past: Puritan Devotional Readings, Banner of Truth Press, 2009, and says “Buy this book now and read it daily. You will thank me for this advice.”
I finished this memoir on Monday, and on Thursday started her second book, published in 2015: Openness Unhindered, which deals with sexual identity and union with Christ. I have never read such a clear and moving account of the process of repentance as that of her own conversion experience, which she describes at times as being like a “train wreck.” When she came across Thomas Watson’s The Doctrine of Repentance, she felt that she had “found a true friend, someone who also found joy and union in Christ through radical and constant repentance. This is how I first made friends with Puritan theology.” (P72) A glance through her recommended reading list reveals William Bridge A Lifting up for the Downcast; Thomas Brooks Precious Remedies Against Sin’s Devices, Jeremiah Burroughs The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment; Thomas Goodwin The Heart of Christ; Samuel Rutherford The Letters of Samuel Rutherford; Richard Sibbs The Bruised Reed; Ralph Venning The Sinfulness of Sin and Thomas Watson The Doctrine of Repentance, and The Ten Commandments. Plus she is constantly referring to Joel R Beeke and Mark Jones A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012. I suppose we could all benefit from that “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 12; not only the heroes of the faith in the bible, but those Christians, who by their lives and their writings, whether living or dead, inspire and encourage us to run the race marked out for us with perseverance.
So, it has been an illuminating half term, with plenty of Puritan company, even though I haven’t read a single Puritan book. I’ll get back on track with William Guthrie soon. I just don’t know when.
I’ll leave you with a picture from a book shop I visited recently whilst on a weekend break to Morecambe. I escaped lightly with two paperbacks, but then I don’t think the owner had much of a Puritan section, although he did have a whole box of books on cannibalism waiting to be catalogued!