Playful, Pius or Remembered Stuff

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Van Til and Me

Cornelius Van Til was at least one of the most important thinkers in the field of Christian apologetics of the twentieth century.  He was part of the original faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.  And I had the privilege, in God's providence, of sitting at his feet from 1959-1961.  In those days I was somewhat aware of the historic blessing that was mine, but only years since then have I fully realized just how blessed I am.  There were other great names among these men, but this post is about Dr. Van Til.

I was overwhelmingly intimidated by the prospect of attending Westminster in the first place.  I, the kid who was told in the ninth grade that he wasn't college material, was actually entering my first year of seminary work.  I had flunked my English entrance exam in college.  I was reminded by my pastor, and even professors at college, just how demanding the work would be at Westminster.

When we drove old route 66 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike into Philadelphia back in September of '59 I was certain I would flunk out of Seminary if I didn't experience a miracle.  What was I thinking?

The day before classes began I drove to the campus to look around, and behind Machen Hall many trees had been felled in preparation for the installation of a major highway, so I was to learn.  As I strolled around I spotted a tall, greying and distinguished gentleman, his long coat flapping in the breeze, just standing there contemplating the fallen grove.  When we were near enough to speak Dr. Van Til remarked, "Isn't it a shame that all these beautiful trees had to go?"  We exchanged names, although I think the faculty was already familiar with the names of all the entering class before now.  I was sufficiently in awe of my professor that we only exchanged small talk pleasantries.  But I was to discover that this brilliant mind belonged to a Dutch farm boy whom the Lord called and gifted to be here.  The comfortable presence of the farm boy was inviting.

Dr. Van Til had friends in California, and he often referred to Ripon in his homey illustrations.  When he would stop me in the hallway to make a comment about this California boy, wearing brick red trousers, it was always with playful appreciation.

During my middle year, actually the day after finals, I underwent an emergency appendectomy, and became a ward patient in the local hospital.  Two professors came to visit me in bed there, and one of them was Dr. Van Til.  Later I was to learn that it was customary for him to visit patients at any one of the nearby hospitals.  He would approach the bedside of a patient and say, "Hello, I'm a Christian clergyman, and if I may, I would like to read a little scripture for you."

I heard Dr. Van Til lecture on the foibles of secular philosophy, leaving my head spinning.  And I heard him preach the gospel simply and clearly.  Since his apologetic was legendary and academically challenging, I read his book, "Defence of the Faith" before I got to Westminster.  I thought I got it, but there was always something big that seemed distant.  I mostly got "2"s from him (corresponding to "B" in most grading systems).  I was quite content with that.

When we were invited to the Van Tils for dinner one time, the first thing I noticed was a set of Karl Barth's "Kirchliche Dogmatik" (Church Dogmatics) in the original German, with worn and dog-eared pages, prominently displayed on an end table.  His lovely wife was wonderfully hospitable, and this night he had invited a contingent of California boys and their wives.

During lectures Dr. Van Til was likely to pick up his podium, still building profound sentences, then pump the podium up and down above his head as though he were doing push ups.  While fielding questions, he might lie on the table and listen with rapt attention, encouraging the distracted questioner to "go on."  More than once we saw him toss small pieces of chalk over his shoulder randomly as others might handle what they wanted to call "brute facts".

Voluminous papers earned higher grades so regularly that urban myth claimed that he threw the papers down the stairs, assigning the higher grades to the ones that drifted farthest down.  Confirmation of this myth was claimed when he returned all the papers in such a short time.  Some of the boys tested him.  They might staple two pages together to see if Van Til pulled them apart in order to read them.  Of course when the paper came back the staple was still intact.  One boy wrote in a bracketed sentence, "Dr. Van Til, if you are reading this, I owe you a coke."  He would never mention the offer.  The surprise came when he quoted some of the papers during his lectures.  "As Albert said in his paper...."

A long standing yearning of Dr. Van Til's was realized when Bill Krispin set up an academy opportunity for Westminster faculty members to teach inner city pastors with whom Bill was working in south Philadelphia.

His zeal for evangelism was also seen in the photo of him with Jack Miller preaching the gospel in the heart of Wall Street in New York City.

Here was a brilliant man whose presuppositionalism still challenges those who try to explain it.  He simply refused to give up any biblical truth for the sake of making a point of contact with an unbeliever.  He knew the unbeliever already knows God is there, but he is denying the truth to sidetrack his responsibility to believe the gospel.  Epistemology is actually that simple.

For all the erudite argumentation Van Til generated, he was at heart a sweet farmer's boy who intensely loved Jesus.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Music Appreciation

If you're old enough to remember listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio, I have a question for you.  Yes, there was a time when we sat, or laid on the floor, in front of a large radio, staring into the speaker as intently as kids stare at their TV programs today.  Even though we didn't see anything but this curve-topped Philco radio, we stared at it like it was going to move any second.

If you were especially good at observation, you might notice the decorative sheet of cloth which covered the speaker vibrate ever so slightly.  It may have been especially noticeable when the music was climactic and fortissimo.  But other than that tiny vibration, the radio didn't move.  There was a lot of action, but it was flashed onto the screen of your mind by the drama in the words spoken, rather than the actual sight of figures moving on a screen before you.  Those of us who had the most vivid imaginations saw the most action.

Citizens who were rescued by this hero were often heard to ask at the end of the episode, "Who was that masked man?"  He may have been given a silver bullet as a calling card, and likely a more informed citizen standing near him would identify "the Lone Ranger!"  But our shy hero was already on his way, urging speed to his mount by calling out, "Hi ho Silver...away!"

Now, my question is this: What was the music background for this program?  Of course even those who never actually heard a broadcast of this show can identify, The William Tell Overture.  Okay, but that is not the music to which I refer.  The William Tell Overture was the trademark theme of the Lone Ranger,  but there was another piece of classical music that was used as incidental music in the middle of the program.

I never did identify it until much later in my life when my wife introduced me to a wider repertoire of classical music.  I'm thinking about this now because it has become one of my favorite pieces to hear while riding my stationary bike.  It is Les Preludes by Franz Liszt.  Pull out the CD sometime (or seek it on YouTube) and see if you don't remember it during the narrative portion which followed the commercial in the middle of each episode.

Now I love that piece.  All the musical preparations are strategically leading to the final crescendo of the major theme.  This time that theme is played with all the stops pulled out, so to speak.  The symbols crash and the horns cut the air with a pleasing and effective conclusion.

Then that made me think of the fact that I learned parts of many pieces of classical music in all the cartoons that were shown between double features at the local theater.  Buggs Bunny taught us to appreciate Hungarian Rhapsodies or the Can Can.  Someone must have researched and catalogued the many classics that we heard in cartoon sound tracks.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Don't let me have a gun!  I am afraid of guns.  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, about 9 years old, my uncle gave me a 20 gauge shotgun and took me hunting for rabbits.  He taught me to respect the gun, and how to handle it carefully.  We went hunting several times, and I always handled the gun responsibly.  So how did I get from there to where I am now?

I read the paper and have had about 70 years of experience with people since those days.

When the subject of protection is the context, guns seem so deadly a solution.  So often it is a family argument over something very unimportant that has been settled so permanently by a bullet.  It was the heat of uncontrolled anger that pulled the trigger, but there are no do-overs.  It's too late to say, "Sorry".

We have always had the problem of "road rage" since the invention of the horseless carriage.  But today, if I accidentally cut off a driver, I may well expect a bullet riddled car (or head?) as a result of that rage.

Then there is the joy riding shooter who just thinks its fun.

If I had a gun for self protection, I can imagine several frightening scenarios that reinforce my resolve not to have a gun in my house.  I can imagine me confronting an intruder in the dim light of my living room with my gun.  Since I am reluctant to take the life of another human being (life is a sacred gift from God) I know I will hesitate long enough for the intruder to see my gun, consider me a threat, and shoot me first.  In this scenario the gun has been the cause of my wound or death.  Had I no gun, my intruder might have only bound me and robbed me of mere possessions.

Or (less likely for me) I might learn to "shoot first and ask questions later" and find out the "intruder" was really was my son who needed help but lost his phone.  Probably even more terrifying than the first scenario.

I realize that it is far too late to ban guns.  Everyone knows in that case only criminals would have guns, and indeed they would have them.

I realize that our founding fathers wished to protect themselves from an oppressive government, and were they alive today might argue for state of the art weapons for that purpose.  This would likely be repeating assault rifles with multi-bulleted cartridges.  The very instrument that is at the top of the list for elimination by vocal advocates of gun control.

Many years ago we borrowed my dad's little RV to take a trip.  It was just my wife and I.  As my wife lie in bed, I found my dad's 22 hand gun.  I didn't know this gun, but looked at it and thought it was without ammo.  I wasn't certain, but I was stupid enough to squeeze the trigger.  Barbara was shocked and said, "What was that!"  I was shocked even more than she was when I realized what I had done, and what might have taken place.  Then I began to worry that I might have struck something vital for the operation of the vehicle.  I was relieved to discover the bullet had pierced the pillow of the couch and smashed itself on the metal framework.  I am still embarrassed to tell that story, as you can well imagine.  But I am old enough to realize that this experience cannot be unique.  Accidental shootings appear in the newspaper almost weekly.

So whatever side you find yourself arguing concerning gun control, by all means, don't let me have a gun!