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Adult non-fiction, Book Reviews

3 ways of confronting the problem of diminishing attention spans through the Great Books

How many books do you finish? How many blog posts do you really read? I am guessing that you, like me, are busy and are tempted to skim just about everything. In a world of touch screens and endless entertainment, our attention spans atrophy into something that might look like childishness to our ancestors. But how can we build up the attention spans that we need for sustained thought in the modern age. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay said that the audience that they contemplated while writing their masterful defense of the new US Constitution in The Federalist Papers was a farmer in Upstate New York. In our day, it seems that most every time a politician opens his mouth, we find that he could not match that 19th-century dirt farmer. Our attention spans are diminished and might, it seems, be extinguished completely, but I want to recommend a course of treatment. It is simple: read the Great Books [editor’s note: “Great Books” is a term for the classics of Western Literature – for more see the endnote below]. Here are three ways reading these books helps us confront the problem of diminishing attention spans. 1. The Great Books are a mirror that helps us see the problem The Great Books hold up a mirror that helps us see the extent of the problem (which is the diminishment of our capacity for sustained thought). Reading the Great Books is challenging. The first book I teach to our seniors each year is Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is a challenge! Deep concepts, archaic language, demanding expectations (because Milton expects that you have read the other Great Books written before his – particularly the Bible). This is difficult, but we need to understand one powerful fact: people in every generation prior to ours have mastered these books because they are so important! What is the mirror saying about our generation? 2. The Great Books reward sustained contemplation The Great Books reward sustained contemplation where the reading of “chapters” is necessary. Have you ever read a page or two, or a paragraph or two, of a book only to get distracted? You retain almost nothing. Emily and I had an embarrassing situation like this early in our marriage. We decided to read The Lord of the Rings together. So far, so good, right? Wrong! We decided that we would read it to each other when we went to bed. Our first daughter, Maddy, had just arrived. I was working hard at the school. We were both exhausted. It did not go well. We actually dreaded the elf poetry and songs that Tolkien inserts. That knocked us out every time. Because of the brokenness of the reading, we missed so much. The Great Books reward sustained concentration and punish flighty drifting. Each year when I teach Paradise Lost, I tell the students that reading this book is like weightlifting. Reading it grows you. You leave it stronger than you began, but unless you devote yourself to reading a section, book, canto, or chapter your reward is diminished. This means that these books challenge their reader to make them a priority. They grow our attention span and by this they grow us toward fuller humanity. Very few people do things just because they are difficult – and most of those people need help. Hard things should be hard for a reason. They should eventually result in happiness or the hope of happiness. The Great Books can be challenging, but they reward those who discipline both their tastes and abilities. The experience of the Great Books makes everything else better and sweeter. Every time I am watching a movie where a husband stands between his wife and evil men, my mind starts drifting off to Odysseus stringing the bow and restoring order to Ithaca. Your life is richer for reading The Odyssey. So, the discipline that reading the Great Books rewards actually makes life sweeter and better. 3. The Great Books measure us  The Great Books measure us. We need to grow up to read them. We need to do this thoughtfully and with a sense of the frame of our students, but we should celebrate with them when they become men and women who complete the Iliad or the Aeneid or Moby Dick. As they accomplish this, they become a member of a community that stretches back in time to the beginnings of this civilization. They begin to love the same words that their grandparents and great-great-great (etc.) grandparents loved. Of course, the Scriptures are at the core of this “way of viewing the world.” In them, we find the stories that encompass our lives. A number of years ago, Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio was speaking at a conference and he made this point in a profound way talking about music, he said, “Tradition is something we have to live up to.” His point is mine. The great music of the past, measures us. It is not that we cannot add to it, but to add to it, we should first master it. Mastering it prepares us to find our own voice and to find that we have a voice worth heeding. The Great Books are a tradition like this. We speak best when we are disciplined enough to master the tradition. My hope is that you kept reading this post and that, hopefully, this post will encourage you to set aside some time to devote yourself to reading the Great Books. Start by doing the reading. It will stretch you and grow you, but you will find yourself stronger and wiser as you devote yourself to this worthy task.

Ty Fischer's article first appeared on the Veritas Press blog and is reprinted here with permission. Veritas Press has a number of homeschooling resources built around a Great Books curriculum. 

Editor's endnote What are the "Great Books"? There is no one list, but the term is meant to describe a compilation of classics from Western Literature. Some lists are very long, topping hundreds of books, while others limit themselves to as little as 50, but the idea behind all of them is that these are foundational books – read these and you will have a better understanding of some of the key ideas shaping the world today. A Christian list would look different than a non-Christian, though a Christian list should contain non-Christian books. Placement is as much or more about a book’s influence as it is about its genuine insight, so pivotal infamous books do make their appearances. So what exactly might be on such a list? Here is an example: The Unaborted Socrates by Peter Kreeft The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis Chosen by God by R.C. Sproul Macbeth by Shakespeare Beowulf The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom The Heidelberg Catechism Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther The Epic of Gilgamesh Divine Comedy by Dante The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien Animal Farm by George Orwell The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen Christianity and Liberalism by John Gresham Machen Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift Gilead by Marilynne Robinson Lord of the Flies by William Golding Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer Desiring God by John Piper Aesop’s Fables by, well, Aesop Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie City of God by Augustine Here I Stand by Roland Bainton The Prince by Machiavelli 1984 by George Orwell Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne 95 Theses by Martin Luther Knowing God by J.I. Packer The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain The Republic by Plato The Koran by Mohammad The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith Brave New World by Aldous Huxley Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn The Odyssey by Homer Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe The Westminster Confession of Faith Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis John Adams by David McCullough Hamlet by Shakespeare A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift Ivanhoe by Walter Scott Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin

Church history

Jenny Geddes: the Reformer who let fly…

You can download or listen to the podcast version (5 minutes) here.

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Our story is about what should have been a small thing. It wasn’t such an unusual thing. You hear about it from time to time. Someone got upset and threw their stool. Someone got excited, got a little rowdy, and that was the end of it, right? Not quite. The stool thrower was a certain Jenny Geddes, She wasn’t a notable woman, merely running a fruit stall just outside the Tron Kirk, the main church in Edinburgh. Her stall was the 1600s equivalent of a hot dog stand. She wasn’t the sort of person that you would expect to appear in the history books. She was average. Not unusual. Much like you or me. But maybe that goes to show you that if the cause is important enough, the small can rise to do big things. In 1635, Charles I, king of England and Scotland, had declared himself to be the head of the Scottish church. Not all the Scots were terribly happy about this. In the spirit of the Reformation, the Scottish church had gone a good ways toward removing Catholic influences and developing its own, distinctive, Protestant style of worshipping. There was quite a bit of fear that Charles would change all that. Charles wanted the Scottish church to be more like the English one, uniting religion in his kingdom. Catholic subterfuge? Charles and the unpopular English Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, appointed a committee of, admittedly, Scottish bishops to develop a prayer book for use in the Scottish church. The Scots saw this prayer book as a way to make the Scottish church Catholic again by subterfuge. A lot of the more conservative Scots, the more Puritan leaning members of the church, were not impressed. So when it came time to debut the new Book of Common Prayer in an actual worship service, tensions were running high. Sunday, July 23, 1637 saw Deacon John Hanna nervously ascend the pulpit at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Sitting in the back of the cathedral was Jenny Geddes. Interestingly, the women were required to sit at the back, and bring their own stools to sit on which undoubtedly has a fascinating story behind it. For our purposes, it’s enough to realize that any stool light enough to be brought from home is also light enough to be thrown across the room. At some point Geddes had had enough. She rose and colorfully accused Hanna of being a Catholic priest in disguise. She yelled “Devil cause you severe pain and flatulent distension of your abdomen, false thief: dare you say the Mass in my ear?” and then flung her stool across the room and at Hanna’s head. Cursing flatulence on someone and flinging your stool seems to have been the trigger for chaos. A riot started in the church – possibly involving more flying stools – with the service ending up more like a barroom brawl than a place of worship.  One worshipper who dutifully used the appropriate responses from the new Prayer Book was soundly thumped with Bibles. The riot spread out onto the street, even the city council chambers were besieged, and in time the authorities were called in to break up the chaos. The ruling authorities in Edinburgh appealed to the capital in London to withdraw the new Book of Common Prayer, but the government of Charles I refused. The Scots responded by signing a National Covenant in February 1638, to make the Scottish church more Presbyterian and less Anglican, and later that same year tossed out the Scottish bishops who had written the new Prayer Book. King Charles treated this as rebellion, and in 1639 launched the First Bishops War, the first in a series of wars with the Scots known as the Wars of the Covenant. These wars would tax his treasury, and, ultimately, lead to the confrontations with Parliament which would eventually cost him his head. Conclusion All this came about because one woman threw a stool. The funny part is that historians aren’t even sure if Jenny Geddes was a real person, or just a wonderful element to throw into a pretty crazy story about religious and political reform. Whatever the case, the riot was real, and it goes a long way towards showing that at the right moment, real, average, even boring, people can make a spectacular difference. Sometimes it’s not where you take your stand that matters, but where you take your seat.

This article is taken from an episode of James Dykstra’s History.icu podcast, where history is never boring. You can check out other episodes at History.icu or on Spotify, Google podcasts, or wherever you find your podcasts.

For some further digging… Wikipedia on "Jenny Geddes" Undiscovered Scotland on "Jenny Geddes" Reformation History on "Jenny Geddes" Scot Clans on "Jenny Geddes" InAmidst.com on "Lo and Behold"

Internet

Do we "like" sin?

Welcome to the Information Age. With apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we now have a window into the lives of our friends, family, acquaintances and even complete strangers. Business owners can now Google prospective employees, parents can check Instagram to vet new friends of their children, and a woman can search Facebook about a potential boyfriend. We can track down long lost friends from high school and keep in touch with family around the world. The benefits are evident in our churches too, in how we can share information about prayer requests, children’s illnesses, bus routes being late, weather conditions, and new study groups. Via these social media forums, users are connected together in an online virtual world where our interests and ideas can be shared at the speed of light to our online peers. We can share articles that we deem interesting or important, and we can take political stands on issues. With a click of the button, we can friend and follow almost anyone we want. We like or dislike our way through thousands of gigabytes of information, telling everyone our favorite TV shows, games, authors, preachers, speakers and much more. But how does our online presence reflect our allegiance? Do our likes match up with God’s own? Many brothers and sisters seem to disconnect the online version of themselves from the real (or maybe their social media presence is their true self?). Christians will watch horrific godless shows and discuss them and like them on Facebook. Some may share photos of themselves in provocative poses with minimal clothing, or share pictures of drunken partying. We’ll fight with others online, speaking wrathfully, and assume the worst of whomever we’re arguing with. Disputes with our consistory, or our spouse, will be aired publicly and captured for all eternity. We’ll speak derisively about our employers, or our minister, family members, or friends. Online Christians will use filthy language, or casually take God’s name in vain in ways that they would not in the offline world. The Bible calls this disconnect an unstable “double-mindedness” (James 1:8, 22-25) – we are trying to be two people, each serving a different master (Matthew 6:24). Not only are we responsible for how we present ourselves online, we’re responsible for what we like and follow. When we see pictures of brothers and sisters sinning and like them, when we click thumbs up to a godless show, or blasphemous musician do we understand what we are telling everyone? Though it may take little thought – just a quick click of the mouse and a friendly like or thumbs up – what we are saying is I agree, I like this, I love this, this is good. Though it seems harmless, this is encouragement. When I sin and someone says good job,they are enabling me. That is not love. That is sinful. It is wicked. We should not condone sin whether online or off. In fact, we should love one another enough to be willing to privately approach and hold our brothers and sisters accountable. Maybe we think this a task better suited to elders. But not all consistory members are on these online forums. They don’t always know what is happening on Facebook or Instagram. And it is not their job to follow every one of us everywhere we go. As brothers and sisters in the Lord, we need to hold each other accountable out of love for each other (Eccl. 4:9-12). And we need to do so out of love for our Lord – the world will get their ideas of Who He is based in large part on how we, his ambassadors, act. Finally, whether we sin in daily life or online, God sees. In a world of both hate and tolerance, filth and fanaticism, we need to be careful not only in how we behave online, but also in what we like, share and post and therefore condone, as well.

News

F.R.E.E.D. – an acronym to help us defend and use our religious freedom

If you're pro-life, you know the value of a good acronym. For years S.L.E.D. has helped us remember there are just four differences between the unborn and us, and none of them would justify killing the unborn. Size – They are smaller but so what? Smaller adults aren't seen as less human. Level of development – The unborn are less developed than adults, true, but so are prepubescent children. Why would that make either of them less human? Environment – The unborn are in a different environment but since when does where we are determine who we are? Degree of dependency - They are highly dependent, but so are people who need dialysis and that doesn’t make them any less human. For years John Stonestreet has wished there was a similarly useful acronym to help Christians remember what to say when it comes to defending our religious freedom. In his May 16 Breakpoint column, he shared how his colleague Shane Morris has done just that with the acronym F.R.E.E. with each letter representing one point in a compelling argument for religious freedom. Forcing – Many in the world still recognize that “forcing people to go against their beliefs for no good reason is a bad thing.” Reason – “Is there a good reason to force a religious person to go against his or her belief in the case you’re discussing? And are there less burdensome alternatives to squashing this freedom, like using a bakery down the street or an adoption agency across town?” Examples – Offer examples that make your point. “Should a Muslim t-shirt designer be forced to create shirts mocking the prophet Muhammad? Should an Orthodox Jewish club at a university be forced to admit Christians as officers?” Equality – Complete the argument by asking, why shouldn’t Christians get the same freedoms we’d give to the Muslim t-shirt maker or the Orthodox Jewish club? It’s a helpful tool, made even better with one addition. Underpinning these four points is the idea that we should do to others as we would want done to us. That’s from the Bible (Matt. 7:12) and that worth noting because, as much as defending our freedom of religion is important, it’s even more important to actually use it. So let’s give God the glory with a fifth point that we can call “D, as in Divine.” That’ll be a reminder for us to show how the core of our argument rests on a solid biblical principle. And in explaining that this is not our insight, but God’s, we can point our listeners to Him. Let's never forget to use our liberty to tell people how they too can be freed.

AA
News
Tagged: electoral reform, electronic voting machines, featured

Canada’s conspiracy-proof elections

Controversy over Scheer’s leadership win highlights just how blessed we are to have our unimpeachable federal electoral system

Days after Andrew Scheer won a close, final-ballot victory for the leadership of Canada’s Conservatives, questions were raised about the vote total. The Conservative Party reported that 141,362 ballots were counted, but in a list sent out to the different leadership candidates’ campaigns, it showed only 133,896 votes. Some from second-place finisher Maxime Bernier’s camp wanted to know, why the big difference? They were troubled because the two vote totals differed by 7,466, which was greater than the 7,049 votes that separated Scheer from Bernier.

Then came news that party director Dustin van Vugt has ordered, right after the votes were tallied, that all ballots be destroyed. It was becoming the stuff of conspiracy theories.

Fortunately, the answers that were demanded came quickly. Yes, the ballots had been destroyed, but a snapshot of each one still existed. The lower total on the list sent out to the campaigns was due, in part, to a block of about 3,000 votes from polls around Toronto not being entered into the Party database. The remaining difference, of about 4,000, was attributed to human error, as volunteers had to process 140,000 ballots in a very short time.

While these answers satisfied most, the Party’s reliance on an electronic record – retaining only a digital snapshot of each ballot instead of keeping the paper ballot itself – was a problem to some. As iPolitics columnist Michael Harris noted,

“Have you ever photo-shopped a snapshot? Let’s just say digital images aren’t necessarily the last word in reality.”

Harris doesn’t seem to like the Conservative Party, so he may be looking for ways to cast doubt on the results. But it’s important to note, it’s the Conservative’s reliance on electronic records that allowed Harris to stir up doubt.

The need for accountability

On June 6 Maxime Bernier tweeted his “unconditional” support for “our new leader Andrew Scheer,” which seems to have quieted the questions. But this controversy highlights how important it is for voters to be able to trust the reported results. An electoral system needs to be as transparent and accountable as possible. Why? Because, everyone, even unbelievers, know that Man is fallen, prone not only to sin, but also to make mistakes. Therefore, how very dangerous it would be to leave the vote counting up to a select unaccountable few. To protect from fraud, and from mistakes, there needs to be accountability.

Now, one reason questions about the Conservative leadership election came up is because the party used a complicated means of running the election – their ballot included 14 names. With that complexity came more opportunities for human error. The use of voting machines to count the ballots also raises questions as to transparency – how do we know the machines were working right?

One reason some of the questions were quickly answered was because the Conservatives tried to make their system accountable. They involved scrutineers – representatives from all of the campaigns – to monitor the ballot count. While there were some questions from the Bernier camp, other losing candidates were quick to say they had no such doubts.

Electronic voting requires us to trust blindly

This incident also highlights the strength of Canada’s federal electoral system. Some want to change it, and move to online voting, or electronic voting machines, because these methods are supposed to be easier and faster. But these counting computers also come with a complete lack of transparency. Did the computer count your ballot the right way? Or might there have been some sort of bug or error? How can anyone know?

While we can’t be certain as to how many errors occur, we do know they happen. In the US, where these machines are put to regular use it’s easy to find stories of voters who cast a ballot for one candidate but saw it being recorded for the other. There’s also the famous example of a precinct in the 2000 election that gave Al Gore negative 16,022 vote total. This was caught, quickly, but what of the errors that aren’t so obvious?

A vote total is only as accurate as the counter, but these electronic counting machines are not open to scrutiny – their computer code is a proprietary secret. So when we make use of them we have to accept, on the basis of trust, that the programmers are both honest and completely error-free.

Canada’s system doesn’t require trust

Contrast that with our federal, incredibly simple, entirely transparent, system. No need for trust because everyone is held accountable. You arrive at the poll, you mark your ballot in secret, cast it in front of two witnesses, and then know that it will be counted in front of scrutineers from the competing parties. With that simplicity comes the confidence that your ballot, as it was cast, has been counted.

Our system allows us to do what few other countries can: we can verify the official government vote count independently. Because each ballot is counted by hand, in front of scrutineers from the Conservatives, Liberals, and often times the NDP too, that leaves us with as many as four different counts for each riding: the official one, and one from each party. And should there be any notable discrepancy between a party’s total and the government total, we can be sure they will let us know!

Around the world elections are plagued with accusations of ballot tampering and other shenanigans. Before the latest US presidential election Donald Trump was complaining that the system was rigged. The Democratic Party was accused of rigging their presidential nomination in favor of Hillary Clinton (and against second place finisher Bernie Sanders). It doesn’t matter if accusations are justified or completely unfounded – voters’ trust will be undermined if there is no way of proving the results reliable. We can see that in the Conservative leadership campaign too; despite all their efforts at transparency, they still had questions raised about the totals.

What a blessing it is, then, for Canada to have a federal electoral system that it is so simple, transparent, and accountable, that such accusations are simply unthinkable.


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