Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fool's Talk: Smart Talk on Christian Persuasion

If you enjoy thinking about the faith and how to defend it, I highly recommend Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion, by Os Guinness (InterVarsity Press, 2015).

I picked up the book because of its focus on persuasion, a subject that’s near and dear to my rhetorical heart. I think I would have liked the book even without that bias, and I’m betting that many of you would like it, too.

That’s especially the case if you meet any or all of the following criteria:

1. You’re curious about how to defend the faith, and not just in an academic way.

Guinness opens his book with a bold claim, saying,
Our age is quite simply the greatest opportunity for Christian witness since the time of Jesus and the apostles, and our response should be to seize the opportunity with bold and imaginative enterprise. If ever the “wide and effective door” that St. Paul wrote of has been reopened for the gospel, it is now. (p. 16)
The problem, according to Guinness, is that we’ve lost the art of Christian persuasion, and we need to recover it. In Fool’s Talk, Guinness takes a closer look at the nature of that persuasion and how it works. You’ll enjoy the journey if you’re curious about questions like these:
  • Is apologetics—the art of defending the faith—just for intellectuals?
  • What’s does the “anatomy of unbelief” look like?
  • What’s the relationship between apologetics and evangelism?
  • When interacting with unbelievers, what strategies of persuasion are useful?
  • Speaking of persuasion, does that art have any place in discussions of faith? Isn’t persuasion manipulative?
  • How can we answer the charge that Christians are hypocrites?
  • How should we respond to revisionists—theologians within the church who are revising doctrine to stay in step with cultural trends?
  • And what does this all have to do with the “Fool’s Talk” in the title? (I could spill the beans here, but where’s the fun in that?)
2. You’d be excited to go to a dinner party with people like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Saint Augustine.

Lewis, Chesterton, and Augustine, along with an array of other interesting thinkers (e.g., Old Testament prophets, the apostle Paul, Blaise Pascal, Peter Berger) show up frequently in the Oxford-educated Guinness’s book. Big thoughts, memorable words. (Prepare to do lots of underlining.)

If that’s your kind of crowd, this book’s for you.

3. You appreciate authors who can “talk Iowa” when dealing with challenging topics.

A book on apologetics could be complicated and deadly dull. Fool’s Talk isn’t that book. Guinness insists that apologetics is NOT just for intellectuals (so there you go . . . an answer to at least one of the questions above), and he proves it by speaking plainly and memorably about the process of advocating for the faith.

He tells stories. He includes myriad examples (e.g., Nathan’s creative persuasion with King David). He quotes liberally from others. And he makes a lot of common sense observations like the following:
True to the cross of Jesus, Christian persuasion has to be cross-shaped in its manner just as it is cross-centered in its message. (p. 28)
There is no McTheory when it comes to apologetics. (p. 32)
All unbelieving worldviews are not only a shrine to those who hold them but a shelter from God and his truth. (p. 85)
Words matter because we worship the Word himself, and our words used on His behalf should be spring-loaded with the truth and power of his Word—especially to those who are closed. (p. 167)
God is his own best apologist. At our best, we are humble junior counsels for the defense, and no more. (p. 51, emphasis added) 
The ideas are stated plainly enough, but they’re not lightweight. There’s a lot to think about in Fool’s Talk, which makes it a smart choice for curious readers.

It may even work for a book group, especially if the members smile at the mention of C. S. Lewis.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Third Annual Holiday Food Adventure: Kolacky

It’s time once again for the annual holiday food post on Ninth and Fillmore. This year, I’m going Czech.

We’re making kolacky, my friends, just like my grandma used to do every Christmas Eve (and every other week of the year).

Wondering how to pronounce kolacky? Don’t take your cues this YouTube video, at least not if you want to pronounce it the southern Minnesota way.

It’s kuh-LAHTCH-key, not kuh-LACK-ee.

But if you grew up saying it like the robo-YouTube voice AND you learned that from your Czech or Polish grandma, okay.

Come to think of it, I may have to cut you some slack, as well, if you have a different picture in your head when I say “kolacky.”

If you’re seeing a little square yeast bun like the picture above, filled with prune, poppy seed, or apricot filling, you and I are on the same page. That’s the Minnesota kolacky of my youth, popular in Montgomery, MN, the “Kolacky Capital of the World.” (For more details, check out the ladies from Franke’s Bakery in Montgomery cranking out the “real thing” here.)

But maybe you’re picturing something else, something you call kolaches (ku-LAH-cheez). Your kolache might be a round bun with an open-faced fruit dollop in the center. Or maybe it’s a fruit-filled cookie with cream cheese dough. Or how about one of those savory “pig-in-a-blanket” Hot Pockets delights? (In my lexicon, these are Nebraska, Iowa, and Texas kolaches, respectively—named for the states where I first encountered the variations).

They’re all good, and as luck would have it, I can now get the Nebraska and Texas kinds here in town at Josey Baking Co., which just opened. (If you’re in Topeka, make a beeline for this place!) Take a look:

Savory "Texas" kolacky at Josey Baking Co.
The "Nebraska" version with mixed fruit filling
As for the Minnesota kind, well, I’ll just have to make those myself.

Degree of difficulty: High, particularly when trying to replicate my grandma’s version, for which there was no recorded recipe. It was just one of those “pinch of this, some of that, and NO, NOT THAT MUCH FLOUR!!!” type of things.

So I’ve scanned my memory banks from back in the day when we helped my grandma make kolacky. I’ve checked my Czech cookbook. (You know, the one with “Jellied Pork Hocks” and “Squirrel and Gravy?”) I’ve scoured the Internet. And I’ve practiced.

Finally, I think they’re pretty close.

Minnesota Kolacky
Adapted from the recipe of Mrs. Skluzacek in 75 Years of Good Cooking (Immaculate Conception Parish, Lonsdale, MN)
Makes about 28


1 pkg. yeast
½ C water
½ C sugar
1 ½ tsp. salt
¼ C lard
1 C scalded milk
2 eggs, beaten
5 to 5 ½ C flour
1 can Solo fruit filling (apricot, prune, poppy seed, etc.)

Major points to remember: Don’t overdo the flour. Form with perfectly square dough pieces.

1. Soften yeast in warm water. Scald milk. Remove milk from heat, and add lard, sugar, and salt. Cool to lukewarm. Mix yeast, eggs, and 2 cups flour in mixer. Add scalded milk mixture and another cup of flour and mix. Add another 2 cups of flour and mix.

2. Turn dough out onto a well-floured board. The dough will be pretty sticky and limp at this point. Let it sit for 10 minutes, then knead the dough for 5-8 minutes, adding more flour as needed (as little as possible). Put dough in a greased bowl, and turn once. Cover and let rise in a warm place (e.g., inside an oven with a pan of hot water underneath) until double (about an hour or hour and a half for reg. rise yeast). Punch down dough and let rise again for an hour or so.

3. Divide dough into four pieces. Roll each piece until it’s about 1/8 inch thick and roughly 6 x 9 or 6 x 12 in size. (You want a nice rectangle here; cut off edges if need be.) Cut the dough into 3 x 3 squares. Perfect squares are important, or you’ll get lopsided kolacky! Fill each square with a little spoonful of filling. Bring opposite corners of the square together over the filling. Pinch. Do the same with the remaining corners. Place formed kolacky close together on a greased jelly roll pan. Repeat with remaining sections of dough. Let rise again (about 30-40 mins).

4. Heat oven to 375. Brush tops of kolacky with a mixture of one egg yolk and 1 tsp water. Bake for about 15 minutes; tops should be golden brown. The finishing touch, according to my grandma: brushing the tops with melted lard.

I know, lard. Ugh. But that’s the way she did it, so I’m following suit. Would butter work, too?

Guess you’ll have to test it and see. The worst that can happen is you have to make another batch of kolacky.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The "No Tears" Baby Jesus

Cue up this tune in your head: “Away in a Manger.”

Now, fast forward to the second verse:
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes / But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
That line always gives me pause. What baby doesn’t cry?

Then again, I think about the infants who are labeled “good babies,” and who are they? They’re the non-fussy ones. (Parent: “She hardly ever cries. Onlooker: “You’re lucky to have such a good baby. My daughter cried all the time.”)

Jesus definitely wasn’t a “bad baby”; ergo, no crying. Or so the logic seems to work.

The Bible itself provides no evidence of crying or not crying in the nativity scenes. From the Luke 2 account (one of the passages at the heart of “Away in a Manger”), we have only these comments:
Luke 2:7: And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Luke 2:16: And they [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
If that scene included crying, it wasn’t worth mentioning.

So what was Martin Luther thinking when he penned “Away in a Manger?”

Just kidding. (You can now erase your furrowed brows, all you hymn lovers and Luther fans.)

Some of you have probably heard that at one time, Luther was thought to be the author of “Away in a Manger.” If that’s news to you, you can find more details about the history of the song, complete with details about the spurious Luther attribution, in this blog post.

Here’s what we do know. If you search in modern Lutheran hymnals, including the Lutheran Service Book (LCMS), Christian Worship (WELS), and the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS), you’ll see that the text is simply credited to Little Children’s Book (1885, verses 1 and 2) and Vineyard Songs (1892, verse 3). LSB includes two different tunes, one by James Murray (click to listen) and the other by William Kirkpatrick (listen); ELH and CW include only the Kirkpatrick version.

"Away in a Manger," attributed to Martin Luther (1887)

The actual author, though, is anonymous. We’ll thus likely never know what he or she was thinking when writing about a non-crying Jesus.

Maybe the writer was a parent of an infant, tired of all the crying.

Or maybe the line was simply poetic, adding to the lullaby-like quality of the song.

Or maybe the writer was a big fan of Saint Augustine, who in his Confessions associates infant crying with sin.

Have you heard that one? In book one, Augustine reflects on his babyhood, saying,
Gradually I became aware of my surroundings, and wished to express my demands to those who could comply with them, but I could not, since the demands were inside me, and outside were their fulfillers, who had no faculty for entering my mind. So I worked my limbs and voice energetically, trying to signal out something like my demands, to the best of my little (and little availing) ability. Then, when I was frustrated—because I was not understood or was demanding something harmful—I threw a tantrum because adults did not obey a child, free people were not my slaves. So I inflicted on them my revenge of wailing. (Garry Wills translation; emphasis added) 
Cue “evil mastermind” music.

If I were reading this passage at the same time I was writing a song about baby Jesus, I might be inclined to make our tiny Savior a non-crier, too.

Second image:

First publication of James R. Murray's melody for "Away in a Manger,” in Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses (1887). By James R. Murray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Thou Shalt Be Biblically Illiterate: NOT One of the Ten Commandments

Jacob and Leah. Do you know their story?

Or maybe it was Jacob and Rachel. Which was the beautiful sister Jacob loved, and which one did he get stuck marrying initially? And one more question: where can I find that story in the Bible?

If you’d been sitting with me a few months back in Bible study when I was trying to find the story, maybe you could have helped me out. Instead, I fumbled through the pages of my Bible, hoping to see a familiar story header in bold. (In Judges? No. Exodus? No. What? Genesis? Really?)

Sheesh. Good thing I know my Bible so well, right?

I suppose it could be worse. According to recent research (e.g., Barna; Lifeway), there are a whole lot of people in this country who don’t engage much with the Bible. That’s understandable if we’re talking about the unchurched, the dechurched, and people of non-Christian faith traditions. But for Christians? Not so much. 

According to a 2014 Barna survey, 88% of American households own a Bible, with an average of 4.7 Bibles per household, but only 37% report reading the Bible once a week or more.

That trend has given rise to alarming sounding articles like these:

Click just one of these links, and you’ll read about all sorts of misperceptions and errors regarding the Bible.

Sodom and Gomorrah? A married couple. 

Joan of Arc? The wife of Noah, right? 

The Ten Commandments? Ummm . . . I can name a few.

Think you’d fare better? You can test yourself with this 20-question Biblical literacy quiz. My result: 14 out of 20, which makes me “moderately Biblically literate.” (Incidentally, had I not been writing this blog for the past 2 years, my score would have been closer to 7 out of 20, and that’s with some good guesses in the mix.)

Some of you might have issues with the quiz. It does address some minute details—less prominent and central as, say, the Ten Commandments. And it focuses more on stories than doctrine.

The lesson is still worth thinking about, though. God tells us to abide in His Word (John 8:31) and to search the Scriptures (John 5:39). It’s important for our faith, and important for talking about the faith—to ourselves, our family, and others.

I remember a time in college when I was approached by some missionaries—Jehovah’s Witnesses, maybe, or Mormons. I thought I knew my Bible pretty well by then, but it wasn’t enough to deal with them effectively. They pointed out passages I hadn’t seen or really studied (“It says right here…”), and I had no good responses. All I could say was, “Well, I’ll have to take a look at that.”

We need good responses. Apologetics training would help, but simply knowing the Bible—inside and out—is important.

The words of the apostle Peter come to mind here: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as Holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).

That might not demand remembering the name of Leah and Rachel’s father, but it does demand that we take the time to know our Bible.

Image of Jacob and Rachel from The Bible and Its Story (1908). By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.