Death of an Icon

I can’t remember the first time I heard Merle Haggard; it was unquestionably at a very young age, as the Hag was one of my grandfather’s favorite artists (along with Hank Williams, Sr. and Johnny Cash). Haggard was one of those old-time country singers and songwriters that didn’t have to look far for the inspiration to his working-class ruminations on life. Born into crushing poverty, his mother turned him over to the authorities as incorrigible when he was just eleven-years-old. He spent most of the next few years in and out of reform school and jail, until his luck ran out in 1957 when he tried to rob a joint and got caught. He was sentenced to two years in San Quentin, which turned out to be a double stroke of providence. The time he spend in San Quentin lead to two of his best songs: “Sing Me Back Home,” which was penned after a conversation with a fellow convict through and airvent, and “Mama Tried,” a reflection on his father’s death. The other stroke of providence was Johnny Cash’s 1958 concert at San Quentin. From that point on, he was star bound.

Along with Buck Owens, he would pioneer the hard-edged Bakersfield sound that was a slap in the face to Nashville’s countrypolitan movement, and go on to have 38 number 1 singles in his career. George Jones once called Merle Haggard, “my favorite country music singer.”

Country music lost an icon today, and we’re all a little poorer for it.


Grabbed By the Throat

I guess it would have been mid-2003 when I wandered into Manifest Discs in Charlotte (which might be the best record store in the South) and discovered the Drive-By Truckers. To this day I have no idea what sort of baked mental process led the sales associate from Little Feat to Wilco to DBT, but I’m grateful for it no matter how it came about. I wound up buying a copy of Southern Rock Opera and what was then their latest album, Decoration Day. Not long after I got word that DBT was going to be playing a show at the Visulite Theater and I got tickets for my best friend; as I recall, it cost $20 or $25 a head, and the show started at 8:30 p.m. We got treated to one of the most epic rock and roll shows I’ve ever seen; Marsh and I left at 1 or 2 a.m. and the Truckers were still playing. We got right at six hours of music for $50 total.

What struck me the first time I listened to Decoration Day was the singing and songwriting of the newest and youngest member of the band, Jason Isbell. With Isbell in the band, DBT went on one hell of a run, pumping out some of the best deep-fried southern-style rock and roll I’ve ever heard. Then, in an exit that was carefully stage managed, Isbell left the band in 2007. His marriage to the bass player was over, he was drinking so much that his dad was resigned to getting a phone call that his son had died on the road, and the band was done with him. He went solo and started his own band (the 400 Unit), and got sober a couple of years ago, and has gone on a hell of a tear himself; Southeastern (2013) and Something More than Free (2015) have gone a long way towards cementing him in the public consciousness as the best songwriter to come along in a very, very long time.

But the title track to Decoration Day was the first Isbell song that I heard; in it the songwriting skill that’s become so celebrated in the last few years was already on full display. “Decoration Day” was one of those tunes that grabs you by the throat and practically screams, “Listen to me! I have important things to say!” So here’s your dose of a young Isbell singing about his family’s involvement (Hollan Hill was his maternal great-uncle) in an Alabama feud.


Review of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus, by L. Michael Morales

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. By L. Michael Morales. New Studies in Biblical Theology 37. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 347pp. ISBN 9780830826384 $27.00 (paperback)

Every once in a long while, a book comes along that changes the way your read and approach Scripture. One such book is Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus. Building on the hermeneutical tradition of Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin, and G. K. Beale, this biblico-theological examination of Leviticus seeks to set before the pastor-scholar and studious layperson a proper understanding of the centrality of Leviticus within the structure of the Pentateuch.[1] Morales’ book is comprised of a prologue and eight chapters that argue for understanding Leviticus to be the throbbing heart, not just of the Pentateuch, but of the entire Old Testament.

Morales begin the Prologue with an examination of a seemingly odd passage found in Num. 8:1-4 focusing on Aaron’s high priestly duty to tend the lampstands in the tabernacle:

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Speak to Aaron and tell him, ‘When you set up the lamps, the seven lamps are to give light in front of the lampstand.’” And Aaron did so; he set up the lamps to face toward the front of the lampstand, as the Lord commanded Moses. This is how the lampstand was made: It was beaten work in gold; from its shaft to its flowers it was beaten work. According to the pattern which the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.[2]

Following Gordon Wenham, Morales notes that the emphasis of the text falls on “Aaron’s duty to direct the menorah’s seven lampstands forward, ensuring they give light in front of the lampstand” (15).[3] This strange passage makes sense only once you understand what was “in front of the lampstand”: the twelve loaves of showbread, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a powerful illustration of the goal of Leviticus: “…the light of the lampstand represents the life-giving presence of God, his blessed glory…Aaron’s role of regularly arranging the lamps so that they shone upon the loaves summarizes the role and function of the priesthood to mediate God’s blessings to his people” (17). This encapsulates the telos of creation as well as the ultimate goal of redemption, namely, “Life with God in the house of God” (ibid.). In Morales’ view, all of the OT, and Leviticus especially, can be summed up as the God-given answer to the repeated question of Ps. 15:1 and 24:3: “Who is allowed to ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may go up to his holy dwelling place?”

Before answering this question, Morales’ begins by placing Leviticus within the theological structure of the Pentateuch in chapter one. Herein the theme of Morales’ work is plainly explained: “The primary theme and theology of Leviticus (and of the Pentateuch as a whole) is YHWH’s opening a way for humanity to dwell in the divine Presence” (23). This chapter is a sustained argument in favor of viewing Leviticus as the narrative center of the Pentateuch, with Lev. 16 and the Day of Atonement as its dramatic climax. Morales effectively describes all of the movement leading up to Leviticus as a sacred journey to the abode of YHWH.

Chapters Two and Three examine Genesis and Exodus, with each book placed in relation to Leviticus, and their respective themes explained as a longing for Eden (Genesis) and a return to Eden (Exodus). Morales argues that the Genesis narrative reveals Adam as a high priest figure who was created to dwell in God’s house, and that the narrative subsequent to the Fall demonstrates humanity experiencing an ever-deepening exile from the presence of God. Exodus reveals how Israel is redeemed through the waters (Ex. 1:1-15:21), and brought to the mountain of God (Ex. 15:22-24:18), for worship. Chapter Three closes with an extended discussion of the role of the tabernacle in the life of Israel (Ex. 25-40) showing how the tabernacle functions as the cultic mountain of God (95-100), a return to Eden (101–102), and as the heart of the covenant between God and his people, Israel (103-107).[4]

Chapters Four, Five, and Six focus more narrowly on the book of Leviticus proper, dividing the book into three parts, with the first (109-143) dealing with Leviticus 1-10 describing Israel’s approach to the tabernacle, the house of God, the second (145-184) focused on cleansing the house of God in Leviticus 17-27, and the final section examines how the tabernacle function not only as a “dwelling-place” but also as a “tent of meeting,” the house of God where Israel could meet with God (195-207).

Chapter Seven provides and examination of how the theology of Leviticus, with the cultus at its center, is expanded and explained in the rest of Scripture. This chapter gives an overview of how Numbers and Deuteronomy fit into the pattern which Morales has already described. Herein we see Zion as the Edenic mountain of God as YHWH’s chosen dwelling place. Finally, in chapter eight moves us from Zion in Israel, the earthly house of God, to the true Zion—that is, the heavenly Zion—of which the earthly house of God was merely a copy.

Dr. Michael Morales is a professor of biblical studies at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Taylors, SC. He holds the Master of Divinity (with awards in Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, church history, Christianity and culture, and pastoral promise) from Knox Theological Seminary, and the Doctor of Philosophy from Trinity College, University of Bristol, where he studied under Gordon J. Wenham. He has previously published The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis and Exodus.

Morales’ contribution to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series is a masterwork of titanic proportions. Here we have a work marked by patient, painstaking exegesis that is a model of biblical fidelity. One of the most commendable features of the work are those places where Morales provides his understanding of disputed passages without being overly dogmatic, yet providing a solid case for his position (e.g., 56). Here we have an excellent example of gracious, Christian disagreement that never becomes rancorous. This work is also highly admirable for its strongly experiential nature. There are moments herein that practically compel the reader to fall on their face in worship (e.g. 21-22, 304-306). The prose is lucid and punchy, with even difficult topics handled with great clarity.

My only note of disappointment is that in his discussion of Noah and the Noahic covenant, Morales doesn’t provide any guidance for navigating the dispute over whether there is one covenant made with Noah or two; the inclusion of such a discussion, even in a footnote, would have been highly beneficial.[5] Nevertheless, this is a very minor flaw that doesn’t begin to outweigh the overwhelming benefits of reading this volume, which compares favorably with The Temple and the Church’s Mission, by G. K. Beale.

What begins as a work focused on the biblical theology of Leviticus, by its end has become a book that takes the entirety of Scripture within its sweep, and helps the reader understand how the theology of Leviticus ties all of Scripture together. With its publication, Morales has shown himself to be an erudite scholar, and perhaps the best young exegete of his generation. This work is highly recommended.

[1] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Edinburgh ; Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975); The Pauline Eschatology (1953; reprint, Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 1994); Herman N. Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1962); Richard B. Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1987); G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).

[2] While Dr. Morales provides his own translations throughout the work, for this review, I will be using the New English Translation, as it is the closest to the translations given by Dr. Morales.

[3] Cf. Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC (1981; reprint, Downers’ Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 106–107.

[4] Much of the material in chapters two and three is a summary of the material found in L. Michael Morales, The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis and Exodus, Biblical Tools and Studies 15 (Leuven: Peeters, 2013).

[5] Cf. David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2010), 80 n. 2.



Promises Kept

I had hoped that I might have heard from the Puritan Reformed Journal by now as to whether or not they had accepted my review of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? Unfortunately, I haven’t heard anything from them, and thus I’ll be posting my review here on Monday morning.

Review of The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition, and Interpretation, by John H. Sailhamer

The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation. By John Sailhamer. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009. 632pp. ISBN 9780830838677 $45.00 (paper).

After nearly thirty-five years of teaching, in 2009 John H. Sailhamer offered his magnum opus to the world: The Meaning of the Pentateuch. Sailhamer is a respected Old Testament scholar, who has taught at a number of well-regarded evangelical seminaries, such as Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society (2000). He is also the author of a number of influential Old Testament studies, such as The Pentateuch as Narrative.[1]

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Review of The Truth About New Calvinism by Paul M. Dohse.

The Truth about New Calvinism: Its History, Doctrine, and Character. 2nd edition. By Paul M. Dohse, Sr. Xenia, Ohio: TANC Publishing, 2011. 146 pp. ASIN B005U5K9W4 $14.95 (spiral).

Beginning with the dawn of the new millennium, a theological movement commonly referred to as new Calvinism began to grow and gather momentum; eventually its popularity would be noted by Christianity Today in 2006,[1] and Time magazine would call it one of the “Ten Ideas Changing the World Right Now” in 2009.[2] It is this resurgent Calvinism that is scrutinized in The Truth About New Calvinism, by Paul M. Dohse, Sr. In the estimation of Mr. Dohse, the new Calvinism has had a “tsunami-like impact” and could “totally rewrite orthodox Christianity” (7). In The Truth about New Calvinism, the author sets out to examine the new movement in three stages (which correspond to the three sections of the book): historically, doctrinally, and, finally, an assessment of its character.

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Breaking My Own Rules

While I’m waiting for a response from the author’s organization, I should inform you that I’ll be publishing a review of a work before the end of the week that breaks my own rules. Because I wanted to ensure that I’ve accurately represented the author’s position, this review is about 500 words longer than I would normally recommend. Thus I have a 2,300 word review in the pipeline for this week, and  if you have any interest at all in “new Calvinism” or Reformed theology in general, you’re going to want to swing by and read it.

Dr. Cornelius Van Til: or, How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Presuppositionalism

Van Til monochromeYesterday I offered some suggestions that were meant to help narrow Van Til’s prodigious catalog down to something managable for those who desire an introduction to Van Til’s thought directly from his own works, rather than via one of his better known students, such as Bahnsen, Frame, or Oliphint. One can obviously find there way into Van Til’s thought via any of the published works of those three men, but from a pedagogical point of view, doing so produces a host of complications. For instance, how accurately have Bahnsen, Frame, or Oliphint represented Van Til’s thought? By becoming acquainted with Van Til via one of his students, an unnecessary layer is added to the process; better to follow the Reformation cry of ad fontes and imbibe the draught of presuppositionalism directly from the source, at least in my opinion.

As promised, today I want to return to the books I recommended yesterday and explain why I recommended those volumes in particular, and why I recommend reading them in the order I provided.

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