Hymns for a Modern Reformation

Hymns for a Modern Reformation is the title for a small booklet of hymns that were written by James Montgomery Boice and the music by Paul S. Jones. A CD with the same title is also available. I received both the booklet and the CD this past Christmas and since then I’ve been able to read/listen to them several times. The music is traditional and conservative in it’s style and content. Most of the hymn texts are passages of Scripture which have been adapted so that they can be set to music appropriate for congregational singing. The texts are theologically rich and contain the key doctrines of the orthodox Protestant faith. Unlike many contemporary hymns and gospel songs these hymns were written by a theologian and the words actually have substance to them. There are thirteen hymns and five focus on the five Sola of the Reformation.

The CD is a decent recording of the hymns. A choir is accompanied mainly by an organ (no piano) and occasionally by a tympani and some brass instruments. The music is worshipful and causes the listener to focus on the words he is singing.

Unfortunately the booklet and CD are being put out by Tenth Presbyterian Church and so their availibility is limited. They can be ordered through the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and some churches may carry them in their bookstores (curiously mine were purchased at a Baptist church). Overall, if you’re tired of all the musical and doctrinal fluff that’s being passed off as Christian hymns and are looking for something meatier doctrinally and traditional muscially, than you might want to look into Hymns for a Modern Reformation.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I’ve long been intrigued by tales of the supernatural, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. There’s something strangely attractive about realms with which living humans have no familiarity. Yet it’s funny that while the average person enjoys occasionally indulging his preternatural curiosity, he really doesn’t like to dwell on it. As one such average person, it was with hesitant expectation that I began Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (Modern Library Classics). I found it very complex and artful for a short novel; much more than a terrifying ghost story.

The story doesn’t really scare you unless your mind is fully engaged on all levels. James builds this tale on the basic universal taboos of death and sex. Both are referenced ambiguously, but death is more prevalent as a motif than its counterpart. Both spread a thick curtain of obscurity over the events. For instance, sexual perversion is only implied; it’s not even part of the narrative (so you can rest easy about reading this), but it becomes the basis of the children’s entrapment. The Bly estate steeps in death, yet death is barely mentioned. I’ll illustrate this through summary.

Bly is cut off from the outside world: a source of life. The children’s uncle (who is guardian because the parents have died) has hired the narrator (unnamed) to be a governess on the condition that she will not contact him under any circumstances for he does not want to be bothered. The children are initially painted in very angelic terms; something people connect to the positive side of death. The governess soon understands that something is very wrong. She begins encountering a male and a female figure (usually separately) who she learns, through describing them to the head maid, are the spirits of the departed Peter Quint, a former servant, and Miss Jessel, the former governess. Discussion of their death is very sparse and it is not known how they died. They were, it is clear, perversely involved with each other and apparently with the children as well. Yet these are not your traditional ghosts. The governess often describes them in demonic terms and James himself said that they were supposed to flow more in the folklore vein of demons that lure victims to their demise. I got the impression that Quint and Jessel were formerly possessed and their death precipitated a transfer of the spirits to the children.

The governess realizes that these spirits are trying to capture her young charges, and she does what she can to protect them. Circumstances keep her hands tied. She finally realizes the children are too far-gone; that they are too heavily oppressed by these spirits. One of the most eerie things about this story is that these children always behave perfectly in front of others. But they are irresistibly miserably drawn to the beckoning of hellish death.

The conflict is almost multifaceted. Of course the governess and the spirits are always at odds, but the children consider them friends most times and see them as enemies intuitively. The conflict between children and governess becomes more and more prominent as the story progresses.

An interesting aspect of the story is that the spirits have power over the children only. I know that James clearly was not a Christian (and I’m not trying to spiritualize this), but the story provides some very startling truths about the relationship between believers and reprobates. The children have a celestial outward appearance, but inwardly James paints them as rotting and ugly. They are miserable, yet they do not want to give up their harmful connection to the spirits. The governess, in her own words, attempts to save these children. She is extremely limited in her power to help them because she is separated from the outside world. She is ultimately forced to watch the gruesome proceedings in a helpless manner and it is the implied terror of hopelessly lost souls that will grip you in horror. Regarding the narrators relationship to the children, I noted a remarkable occurrence of vocabulary regarding religious conversion. References to saving, confession, and being lost are prominent and weighted.

There is nothing overtly objectionable about this story, yet I’d hardly give it to a 15-year-old for pleasure reading. The material is mature and requires a lot of thought in order to sift and appreciate. It is not at all a hard story to read. It moves swiftly and suspensefully throughout and is extremely well written. James uses his command of language to contribute perfectly to the mood and build a scenario that must play out as he directs it.

This is a very thought-provoking work and I’ve only given you some of its most obvious aspects. My assessment of the story is that it is truly fascinating. Regardless of how you view supernatural stories, this one will entertain and engage you. It will pull you to its very end; much like the spirits do to the children.

Hitler’s Scientists by John Cornwell

Some questions need to be asked, but depending on who asks these questions and in what manner he asks these questions, the responses may be worlds apart. In Hitler’s Scientists : Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact, John Cornwell asks probing questions that the West specifically and the world community in general must consider. Fortunately, Cornwell asks these divisive questions in a manner that encourages introspection and self-examination.

Cornwell frames his questions against the backdrop of the scientific community over the last one hundred years. He focuses the book on the twenty years of German history that begins with the end of World War I and finishes with the fall of Germany in 1945. He covers the shift from a small academic science (mostly for pure research) to Big Science (funded by and inextricably bonded with governments and corporations). Beginning in the late 1800’s, German corporations led chemistry for the sake of advancing their commercial interests. By the time Hitler rose to power, German science (the most advanced science in the world) and research were being led by the government. The Allied governments were forced to follow suit and absorbed researchers into military installations in an effort to combat the Nazi war machine. After the Allied victory in 1945, science did not revert to the patterns of the past. Governments found the need to keep these wartime scientists and to develop continually new methods of destruction.

Specifically, Cornwell focuses on the scientists who worked for the Nazis and the political, economic, and social circumstances in which they operated. He delves into the pressures that shaped their choices. In the final chapters, Cornwell reveals that there were three types of scientists: Heroes, Villains, and Fellow Travelers. The Heroes resisted the Nazi rise to power and either fled Germany (i.e. Max von Laue) or were executed. The Villains worked very hard as party members and they swallowed completely the teachings of the Nazis (i.e. Philip Lenard). The book focuses on the lives and decisions of the Fellow Travelers. These Fellow Travelers argued that the research of a scientist was amoral and apolitical. They argued successfully before the world that they were not responsible for their deplorable actions. They “had” to use prisoners as guinea pigs. (As an aside, the book does not go into graphic details. It is more concerned with the larger picture and does not emphasize the gratuitous violence that occurred at the hand of the Nazis.) They claimed that they just did the research; they said that they had no control over how the research was used by the leaders.

Here are some of the questions Cornwell posed in the final chapters. Were the Fellow Travelers, those who worked for the Nazis, morally guilty for supporting the Nazi government? If so, are scientists who work for Western governments morally responsible when their science is used to kill? Who is morally responsible? The government? The scientist? The corporations who profit from the science of war?

Were the Allied forces right to use the Bomb? The others Allies would have used it on Germany had it been ready in time and there support of the research makes them culpable. Was it right to kill 300,000 Japanese civilians to save American soldiers? Was the bomb necessary? Were two bombs necessary? Should they have been built? Cornwell does not outright condemn the use of the bomb, but he does pose troubling questions about its continued development, its use, and the current nuclear programs. Ironically, it was German secrecy and bravado that spurred the allied forces forward in their research.

What about the scientific plunder of Germany? The Allied plundered the scientific achievements of Germany and forced the German Fellow Travelers to work on the bomb program (among other things) through the 1950’s and 1960’s. Where the Allies right in using technology built on and information learned through murder and torture? Was the Nazi researched forever tainted by its development? If so, what about the derivative science we have developed today?

These are some of the questions posed by Cornwell. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, he depicts a point of view that demands consideration. In his evaluation of the moral culpability of scientists, Cornwell makes a fantastic statement: “Resolving moral dilemmas in science, however, involves not merely isolated choices but a committed pattern of behavior, long-term resistance to compromise leading to feelings of self-respect: integrity (Page 462).” He unintentionally takes this subject back full-circle to the Bible. In Psalm 15:2, David writes that the man who will dwell in the tent of God “walks with integrity, works righteousness, and speaks truth in his heart.” Man is moral and therefore every action of man has a moral character to it.

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

When reading the latest bestseller, you’re sure to notice whether it possesses fresh perspective, condensed description, and swift plot. If the pages don’t turn themselves, the book must compel you with something worth your while. Oliver Goldsmith’s classic The Vicar of Wakefield isn’t a nightstand thriller but offers wisdom and delight for a short investment of your time.

The story’s roughly 160 pages present the trials of an 18th century English pastor and his family through the pastor’s eyes. Parson Primrose serves as a sort of assistant pastor in his parish. He is well off for a vicar of his time due to financial investments he has made. When those investments are lost, the Primroses move to another parish where they fail to mentally adapt to an impoverished life. The family continues to live as closely to their former life as possible. When a wealthy young gentleman notices their eldest daughter, they encourage her relationship with him in order to better their social standing.
The gentleman’s intentions are not honorable and when Parson Primrose crosses the gentleman, the family is cruelly wakened from its vain dreams as it begins to face one calamity after another.

Throughout the story the parson shows kindness and concern to all the people he meets. His love for his family is exemplary. Most importantly he stands by his convictions no matter what the cost and never loses hope that all will turn out right. So much so that he is able to convert a prison full of ruffians.

At its base, Vicar gives a strong case for standing up for what you believe in. The parson not only tells us what he believes but attempts to do it as well. Of course he makes some very human mistakes and falls short of his own admonitions, yet he continues trying to do what he knows is right. On a deeper level, the book is filled with the irony of vain thoughts and actions. The Primroses obtain their prize gentleman, but pay dearly for him. In a charming ending, justice is served all around and almost everyone one is happy.