July 2018 Summer Morning Reads

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The greatest consolation prize for having little or no retirement accounts is getting to have some summer stretches with loose, undefined, unrestricting schedules.  As I say, “Summer–when mornings begin and end when I want them to.”

This morning, after Bible reading plus the day’s selection from Tim and Kathie Keller’s Songs from Jesus (which covers the Book of Psalms), I turned to a stack of books, including two that I had not yet started.  My goal and method is to read a chapter or at least ten pages in a book.  At some point, I usually get well into the book enough to let it–the book–dictate how much I read.

First up this morning was Knowing Christ by Mark Jones.  Published by Banner of Truth and with a foreword by J. I. Packer (whose classic work is Knowing God), I knew this would be a good book.  The first chapter is titled “Christ’s Declaration.”  While there are many quotable lines, I will on cite one:  “There is for Christ something lovely, enticing, and satisfying in loving poor, sinful creatures such as we are, who have nothing in us to commend ourselves, except that we belong to him.”

Second book today was Atheism on Trial: Refuting the Modern Arguments Against God by Louis Markos.  This book is published by Harvest House Publishers.  I thought highly of Dr. Markos back when I had only read portions of his books and heard him on a lecture CD.  After seeing and hearing him live and meeting and talking with him, I have become a fan–in the sense of fanatic.  Markos is brilliant and exciting, wide-ranging and applicable.  After the introduction, this book begins the march across time by looking at how the ancients viewed God or gods and the origins of the world and man.  I meet few atheists, but I find books like this powerfully uplifting to the heart and mind.

The Sum Total of Human Happiness is published by St. Augustine Press.  Father James V. Schall is on the top tier of my “must have all books/must read) authors.  I have been wading into this book for the past couple of weeks.  Today, I read chapter 6, titled “On the Will to Know the Truth: Why Men of Learning Often Do Not Believe.”  Great chapter, highlighting the work of John Henry Newman, that reminds me of many learned men who have believed and what goes on in the minds of brilliant men who suppress knowledge of God.  Certainly, Schall the Jesuit priest, and me, a Calvinist evangelical, have different angles on this topic, but there was much to think about in this chapter.  As Schall says, “Men of learning often do not believe because they do not will to know the truth that makes us free.  The academic problem is, more than anything else, a spiritual problem–the struggle of pride, grace, and reason.”

The lifting got a bit heavier when I picked up God of Our Fathers: Classical Theism for the Contemporary Church.  This book, edited by Bradford Littlejohn, is published by the Davenant Institute.  I am still in the process of getting acquainted with this Christian think-tank.  Its goal is “the renewal of Christian wisdom for the contemporary church.”  The articles in this book are scholarly, heavily documented, and yet irenic in approach.  Today, I finished the second chapter, titled “Natural Theology and Protestant Orthodoxy.”

Getting started into The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor was dessert–yes, dessert even before breakfast.  Jonathan Rogers wrote the book, and it is published by Thomas Nelson.  Dr. Ralph Wood, professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, commends the book, and he is an expert of Flannery O’Connor.  WhIle I have quite a few books by and about Flannery O’Connor, the brevity of this book is quite appealing.

One selection from this biography:  “…Flannery sat down at the typewriter in the front room that used to be the parlor.  There–every morning including Sundays–she spent four hours writing stories about street preachers, prostitutes, juvenile deliquents, backwater prophets, hardscrabble farmers, sideshow freaks, murderers, charlatans, and amputees while her mother tended to the business of the house and farm.”

Flannery O’Connor–who Dr. Ralph Wood calls “the most important Christian writer this country has produced”–what a delight!

 

 

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Christian Leaders of the 18th Century by J. C. Ryle

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Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century by J. C. Ryle is published by Banner of Truth.  This book is one of the many Ryle volumes that Banner has reprinted.  These reprints include Holiness, Knots Untied, and Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels.  It would probably not hurt your pastor’s feelings if you bought him the “Ryle Clothbound Set” .  (If anyone buys me the set, I will reimburse you with the copies of several of the volumes I already have in either Banner or other editions.) Iain H. Murray’s biographical work J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is also a delightful book (along with everything else that Murray has written.)

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I might have titled the book under review a bit differently.  I would suggest it be called Eleven Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century along with One from the Nineteenth Century.  That title is too long, but it reflects the fact that the reader gets lots of insights into the Christian mind and character of the author, Bishop J. C. Ryle.

Let me begin my review with a different approach.  These are Augustus Toplady’s four main points about preaching.  Most of us know Toplady primarily for his hymn “Rock of Ages.  The following is from page 352 of the book.

  1.  Preach Christ crucified, and dwell chiefly on the blessings resulting from his righteousness, atonement, and intercession.

  2.  Avoid all needless controversies in the pulpit; except it be when your subject necessarily requires it, or when the truths of God are likely to suffer by your silence.

  3. When you ascend the pulpit, leave your learning behind you; endeavour to preach more to the hearts of the people than to their heads.

  4. Do not affect much oratory.  Seek rather to profit than to be admired.

These four points were not only at the heart of Toplady’s preaching, but were central to all the leaders who were the subjects of this biographical study.  The past was no more totally Christian than the present is totally non-Christian.  The Eighteenth Century, the 1700’s, began as a time of Christian and evangelical drought and deprivation.  Scarcely a century after the waves of Puritan revivals, the faith had largely stagnated into Deism, formalities, and works righteousness for the churched folks.  For the unchurched, many of whom were poor, ignorant laborers, gin and immorality were dominant.

God sent revival to the British Islands.  The book begins with two chapters describing the cultural and religious conditions before and when the revival movement came.  The first two leaders in this book are also the best known:  George Whitefield and John Wesley.  Each man’s story is a fascinating portrait of how God works to save sinners and raise up preachers.  How odd that Whitefield was first lead by the Wesleys while at college, but then became the first of those three (John and Charles Wesley and himself) to be awakened to real, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and of the new birth.  Whitefield was the first to do something utterly shocking:  Preach outside the walls of a church building.  He ruffled lots of clerical feathers in the process.

Of course, he and his dear friends, the Wesleys, parted and sparred over Calvinism.  I first became aware of this while in my freshman and sophomore years of college.  Actually, what I became aware of was that there was a man named Whitefield (too often ignored in Methodist circles where I grew up) and Calvinism.  I read Wesley’s sermon on Free Will and then Whitefield’s answer.  Whitefield drove Wesley off the field in that battle.  Wesley’s greater skills at organization and administration enabled the Wesleyan branch of Methodism to trump the Whitefield branch.

To a large degree, Whitefield was buried in church history until Arnold Dallimore penned the first volume of The Life and Times of George Whitefield.  During those same decades, books like Ryle’s Christian Leaders were not handily available either.

Lest my proclivities make this a Whitefield versus Wesley/Calvinist versus Arminian post, Ryle always stated his commitment to a Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture while commending men who differed.  His chapters on Wesley and John Fletcher, another Arminian, were included to highlight great preaching and the godly lives of these men.  In regard to Augustus Toplady, who could often be the John Robbins of his day, Ryle notes that he was sometimes a bit too caustic in his attacks on Arminianism.

Whitefield, Wesley, and Toplady were the only three of the eleven that I was familiar with.  The other men covered are William Grimshaw, William Romaine, Daniel Rowland (I think I had heard of these three a few times), John Berridge, Henry Venn, Samuel Walker, James Hervey (not the scientist), and John Fletcher.  They were all great preachers and/or solid writers in their day.  They were all Church of England men, as was Ryle.  Most were highly educated.

Perhaps the most fascinating common trait was that most entered the ministry without a clear grasp of essential, evangelical, and Biblical doctrines. In their early sermons and ministries, we can say that, at best, they were muddled in their thinking.  Did they even know God at those times?  Were they saved, to use more contemporary language?  Were their doctrines sound and orthodox?  These questions involve some heart issues we cannot determine.  But in their early days, their beliefs were incomplete and defective.  It is utterly astounding how God reached each of these men (and no doubt, many others) in divers times and places and awakened their minds to the beauty and power of the saving grace of God.

For certain, these were not men to hide their lights under bushels.  Quite the contrary, in each of the eleven stories these men pastored congregations, parishes, or whole lands (as in the case of Whitefield and Wesley) where they preached and preached and preached.  In several cases, if they did not literally die in the pulpit, they preached themselves and worked themselves into early graves.  Zeal for God’s House, Name, and Saving Grace consumed them.

Let me slip on my history teacher’s mantle for a moment:  This type of biography is often called Hagiography.  Hagiography (and I don’t like the sound of the word) is biography that describes the life of a saint or that idealizes the subject.  Modern biographies written by authors aptly trained in historical studies tends to be more realistic, gritty, psychological, and objective.  For some particular cases in point, compare Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield with Thomas Kidd’s George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father or compare Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards with George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards.  (I like and have read all four works mentioned there.)

Sometimes, I found myself wishing that Ryle’s subjects could say or write something that didn’t sound overly stilted or spiritual.  It seems as though none of these men said things like, “It has been a rough day and I have a headache.”  Instead, they said things like, “I am been buffeted hither and yon by the storms of life, yea even by Satan himself, and I feel pain in my head reminding me of my own unworthiness and weakness in the flesh.” I like the heart of that last statement and subscribe to the need to think more Christianly, but sometimes feel that these men are too marble-like and ideal to have been flesh and blood folks like me, my pastor, my friends and brethren.

C. S. Lewis gives us the best reason for reading this book I can think of (and it makes me wonder if he read any of his fellow churchman of an earlier generation, Bishop Ryle).  It is from his oft quoted and reprinted essay “On the Reading of Old Books.”  He writes,

Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

Reading this book–Christian Leaders in the Eighteenth Century–did not leave me thinking, “This is how it (Christianity) should be done.”  It did leave me with lots of convictions, reminders, a few laughs, and a desire to see ongoing revival and reformation in our day.  When and as God sends revival into 21st century North America, Brazil, England, Africa, etc.,  it will not look like the world Ryle described.  But there is so very much found in this book that will be found whenever and wherever God pours out waves of revival and raises up Christian leaders.

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Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River

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Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865 by Thomas W. Cutrer is published by the University of North Carolina Press.  It was awarded the Douglas Southall Freeman Award, Military Order of the Stars and Bars.  Dr. Curtrer is professor emeritus of history at Arizona State University.  He has previously authored a number of books, including Ben McCullough and the Frontier Miliary Tradition, Parnasus on the Mississippi: The Southern Review and the Baton Rouge Literary Community 1935-1942 (which is a book I thoroughly loved when I read it years ago), and most recently, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor, and the Birth of the Civil Rights Movement.

Two preliminary thoughts about Theater of a Separate War (TSW):

First, I hope Dr. Cutrer doesn’t count off much for late assignments.  I began reading this book back in January, but it got brushed aside by a torrent of school readings, other review books, and other matters.  I picked it back up a few weeks ago and read to the end.

Second, I found myself feeling ashamed while reading this book.  After years of reading and teaching history, I have no idea how a mere mortal undertakes to write an account like this.

Now, on to the vast expanse of land west of the Mississippi, commonly called the Trans-Mississippi Theater.

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Each time I teach on “the War,” also known as the War Between the States, the Civil War, the War of the Rebellion, the War for Southern Independence, or what southerners often just called “the Wawh,” I try to explain the three theaters–or major areas of operation–in the war.  The map above is perfect, and it will show up in future classes.  For many students–at all levels–the War took place in those places in Virginia and a few points north where such men as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, and James Longstreet duked it out with wave upon wave of Northern invaders who finally wore down the beleagured Confederacy.

Besides being the subject of most of the books, studies, national park battlefields, and colorful leaders, the eastern theater was the location of both capitals.  Many defining books, such as Brace Catton’s many works, Kenneth Stamp’s Lincoln Finds a General, and the historical/fictional trilogy by Michael and Jeff Shaara, are focused on events in the east.

For me, personally, it was around 1991, on my honeymoon vacation no less, when I was able to visit battlefields at Shiloh, Stones’ River, Chickamagua, and other western battlegrounds that I began seeing beyond just the battle of Vicksburg (which we toured around 1994).  It was Andrew Nelson Lytle’s fun biography Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company that made me a student of that phase of the war.

Only when I began teaching Arkansas history and also participated in a re-enactment group for a short time did I begin giving any attention to the Trans-Mississippi.  In the 1960’s, a small press in Little Rock, called Pioneer Press, published a number of books about the war in Arkansas with some dealing with adjacent areas.  Those books are largely out-of-print and high priced in the used book world.  (Lots of them were given to public school libraries throughout the state.)  I think I paid about $60 for a copy of Rebels Valiant: Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles (Dismounted) by Wesley Thurman Leeper.  I have a couple of ancestors who were in that unit, hence my willingness to pay such a hefty price back some 20 plus years ago.

Rebels Valiant Second Arkansas Mounted Rifles (Dismounted): Leeper, Wesley Thurman

Over the years, I have managed to acquire (to no one’s surprise) quite a few books about the War in Arkansas, a few more about Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri, and a biography of the Cherokee Indian and Confederate General Stand Watie.  I am still, however, struggling through first or second grade in terms of having a good grasp of the Trans-Mississippi part of the War.

This new book, Theater of a Separate War, is and will be continue to be the defining work on this part of the war.  This part of the war was a separate (in some senses) war from what was happening in the nearby western theater and from the eastern theater.  In some ways, the Trans-Mississippi was a series of separate wars.  There were battles for control of the western territories of New Mexico and Colorado.  Control of the coast of Texas was another phase of the war.  The civil wars within the Civil War as found in Missouri and which spilled over into Kansas and northern Arkansas was another series of events.  Louisiana, the richest state in the Confederacy, had battles ranging from New Orleans in the south to the outskirts of Shreveport in the north, and being on the west side of Vicksburg, it played a small, but indecisive role in that pivotal battle.  If all that isn’t enough, the various tribes of Native Americans, located mainly in the Indian Territory or present day Oklahoma, fought largely for the south, with some exceptions.

As Dr. Cutrer points out in the conclusion, if there had been no war in the rest of the United States, the events in this wide theater would still be a fascinating and important study in military history.  “What difference does it make now?” to use the question posed by some politician of the past.  The war was neither won nor lost in the Trans-Mississippi.  It was, to quote Albert Castel as Cutrer did, “the garbage dump of the Confederate army.” It was, often enough, a distraction and side show to the Union generals and leadership.

In the fun category of “What If” history, or Alternative History, made famous by the scholarly works of such men as Robert Cowley or fictional works by such men as Harry Turtledove (Guns of the South) or McKinley Cantor (If the South Had Won the Civil War), one can speculate a Southern strategy that would have captured Missouri (particularly St. Louis) for the South and carried the war to the North with an invasion sweeping across Illinois.

A more likely scenario, at least it seemed more likely at the time, would have been for the Confederacy to have sealed an alliance with France through the Trans-Mississippi connection.  Remember that at this time, France had bypassed the Monroe Doctrine to set up a puppet government in Mexico under the ill-fated Maximillian.  (I thought “ill-fated” seemed a bit cliched, but just had to be in that sentence.  Getting shot by a firing squad doesn’t conjure up words like “lucky.”)

Another aspect of this war that contributes to its lack of notice is the casualty figures.  I must admit that after years of teaching the war, I find myself more and more queasy and disturbed by the numbers of men killed and maimed in battle after battle in Tennessee, Virginia, Mississippi, and Georgia.  The novel The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks reminded me of what I had read about and watched in movies too many times:  Even those soldiers who survived the wounds of war endured some horrible hospital experiences.

In contrast to the thousands and tens of thousands killed, maimed, or captured, many of the battles in the Trans-Mississippi resulted in anywhere from a few hundred to “only” a few thousand casualties.  The numbers of what constituted battles in the Trans-Mississippi pales in comparison to the huge numbers in other parts of the war.  But part of the greater purpose of this book is to get our attention off the glory/horrors images of the other campaigns and to focus on this part of the war.

Now for two criticisms of the book:

  1.   The first one falls under this title “blame the reader.”  I often found myself lost or confused as to who was who and who was on what side in this book.  It doesn’t help that there was a General Frederick Steele who fought for the Union and a General William Steele who fought for the Confederacy.  I think I need some device that color codes the text so that Confederates’ names appear in gray and Union names in blue.              At the same time, this reminded me of why so many of my students would give lame-brain answers on my tests.  “What kind of idiot would think that Stonewall Jackson led the Army of the Potomac?” I would think.  The same kind that would think that William Steele was a Union officer, I now realize.
  2.  The second criticism will go the publisher.  That being said, I have and love many books published by the University of North Carolina Press.  But why is there only one map in this book?  The one map is useful and is a two page spread showing the theater in its entirety.  But I was constantly lost and confused because I didn’t know where particular rivers, towns, and battlefields were located in the western states and territories.  The Arkansas portions were a little easier to navigate because of having traveled to most of them.  But a book of 588 pages and a book of this incredible caliber needed another dozen or more pages showing battlefield maps.

There is, somewhere, a listing of the 100 most important books on the Civil War.  I am sure that it is out-of-date.  I am equally sure that I have made up my own versions of such a list.  But in any reckoning on this war, this book will have to be in the line-up.  This work doesn’t have the fire and passion found in Bruce Catton’s books or Shelby Foote’s works.  It is scholarly military history with a penchant for giving lots of details.  But it is a worthy study and a powerful unveiling of a whole angle on the most neglected part of the Civil War.

 

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Thomas Cutrer seems to live a Hemingway-type of outdoor life without Hemingway’s penchant for doing overly reckless things.

 

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The author and his book.

 

 

 

 

John Fea’s Books on History and Politics

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There is just never enough time and energy to read all the books we want and need to read.  For those of us for whom reading is a passion, we are utterly unable to understand people who are content with never or rarely reading.  None of this is said to demean other worthwhile activities ranging from church work to sports to watching movies to visiting friends.  But reading, for me and maybe you, ranks right up there really close with eating and drinking.

History, to no one’s surprise, is the closest and most long-term delight that I have as a subject for reading, writing, and teaching.  There are several periods of history that are more consuming than others, and high on the list is political history.  Just last night while visiting a bookstore, I gazed longingly on a book about the 1968 Presidential election and another about the 2012 Presidential election.  In a fit of showing off, I walked my students through all the Presidential elections in American history by naming and describing a bit about both the winners and the losers.  (For about ten minutes, I could not remember Horatio Seymour of New York who lost to Gen. Grant in 1868.)

So far, I have read only one book about the amazing, weird, quirky, disgusting, and yet thoroughly enjoyable 2016 election.  The book I read was P. J. O’Rourke’s How the H*^# Did This Happen?  I thought the title explained a lot even for those of us who seek to guard our language more that PJO.  That book, as is typical of O’Rourke, was incredibly funny, sneakily brilliant, and very timely.  While whole tables full of books have appeared both celebrating and bemoaning the results, I am restraining from even looking at most of them.  (Sad to say, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened?  will probably never appear on my reading list.)

But I have now purchased a book on the election with the intent of reading it very soon.  Pictured above, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump is by historian John Fea and is published by Eerdmans.  Dr. Fea is a professor of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Because of his reputation as a Christian and a historian, I bought the book.  Because of my puzzlement at the marriage of convenience between evangelicals and then candidate Trump, I bought the book.  Byron Borger, owner, operator, and book reviewer at Hearts and Minds bookstore, tipped the already leaning scales in favor of me buying the book and buying it from his store.  (More about that later.)

Something went far awry in the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a bench full of incredibly apt and experienced Presidential candidates.  Some very fine men proved to be inept candidates, such as Jeb Bush (who seemed hollow and plastic), Lindsay Graham (who was totally unconvincing), Rick Perry (who missed his chances in 2012), and others.  But there were some really worthy men running.  My favorite was and still is Sen. Marco Rubio.  Sen. Ted Cruz, minus his awkward facial expressions and irritatingly preaching speaking style, was also top rate.  John Kasich, who eventually became a bore, was very gifted.  Even Dr. Ben Carson was appealing if one could accept having a President who knew nothing about the job.  (Note the hint of irony there.)

The shocks of the primary season were unending.  But for me, the biggest sign that something was crazy amiss was when the so-called Christian right, the old voting groups that used to be called the Moral Majority, and the faction within the Republican Party that was labeled as evangelicals completely ignored evangelical heroes of the past, like Huckaby and Santorum (who appealed to evangelicals even though he is Catholic) and of the present like Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, and others.  Donald Trump stated that he was Presbyterian, although he never demonstrated even the least bit of familiarity with any Presbyterian doctrines or practices. (One could digress into the Presbyterian/Calvinistic/Reformed teaching about total depravity, but will not.)  Mr. Trump even denied having any need to seek forgiveness.

It all still seems like a weird dream.  The party that welcomed the evangelicals and religious right into its ranks during the Reagan years, the party that was absolutely appalled at the moral degradation that Pres. Clinton brought to the office and name of the Presidency, the party that was extremely cautious about the moral and upright but Morman Mitt Romney, suddenly embraced and gushed over a man who had been twice divorced (for less than biblical reasons), who ran gambling casinos, who was rude, uncouth, and uninformed, and who seemed vacant minded about most moral issues.

Of course, the story is more complicated.  The Democrats borrowed the old and often failing Republican playbook.  That is, they nominated an old party worker who had tried and failed to capture the nomination once before.  (The last time that had happened was 1968 and it failed then as well.) And it nominated a person whose campaign skills were on the level of an accountant, whose personality was tree-like, whose energy level was sloth-like, whose debate skills were less than those of Dan Quayle.  And the Democrat candidate was so heavy laden with personal scandals, outright and bizarre lies, and her husband’s infidelites, that she stood almost no chance of winning anything beyond the millions of old time party machine votes.

2016 revealed some real and underlying currents of anger, unrest, econmic fears, and resignation among the American public.  Why did we not see this when Iowa was showing up in the Trump electoral camp in all the polling early on?  Of course, experts, news people, and (most important) political bookies (people who set betting odds) missed it.  I knew something was wrong or right and different when Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Virginia were still up in the air on election night.  Candidate Trump carried three of those four states that Pres. Obama won twice.

After Wisconsin got called for Trump at about midnight, I knew it was over.  Candidate Clinton would have had to win nearly all of the remaining states to clinch the victory.  As a spectator sport, election night 2016 was the superbowl plus.

Some disclosures are in order:  About a half hour before my wife and I went to vote, I finally made up my mind to vote for Candidate Trump.  Arkansas was nowhere near being a swing state, so my vote was not going to “make a difference,” as we often say.  I would have and could have never voted for Mrs. Clinton.  To put it nicely, I did not think her health or energy level would enable her to ever be anything but “the first woman elected President.”  I was constantly surprised that few reporters commented on how little campaigning she did.  The “most qualified person for the Presidency” (as then-Pres. Obama called her) spent days and days preparing for three debates that she lost or at least failed to gain ground from.

I debated the also-ran candidates.  The Libertarian candidate was a nut and a man operating on no information.  Evan McMullin who ran on the “I am a little like Mitt Romney” ticket was not worth taking time for. The parties that are only on four or five ballots across the nation are not even considered.  So, I decided to vote for Vice President Mike Pence and his running mate.

A year and a half later, I am thankful for many changes I see in the government and the country.  I am surprised at many good decisions that President Trump has made.  I would not be surprised if future decisions are not agreeable.  Many of his tweets and comments are embarrassing and shocking.  I no longer tell kids to study hard and learn because they might be President some day.

Whatever the case is after four to eight years of President Trump, the election of 2016 will remain a puzzle for lots of reasons.  One of the parts I hope to understand better is what created “the evangelical road to Donald Trump.”

Other books from my library by John Fea:

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Very good book that I am currently reading.

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Post Script:  A word or ten concerning Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania.

I buy lots of books from Amazon and Books-A-Million.  But those are companies, not people.  Independent bookstores struggle to survive, but they offer a product that cannot be found in the big operations.  Byron Borger posts reviews every month or so highlighting a number of books that thinking and reading Christians should consider.  These reviews appear under the section called Booknotes.  

Often I will read about a book that Byron likes that I would never ever ever ever want to read.  Then right after that, I will read about a book he is recommending that I suddenly cannot live without.  If he and I were neighbors (along with being Christian brothers), we would always be going from delightful shared ideas to mean-faced arguments about differences.  That’s what I like about him.

Support independent bookstores.  You may end up paying a bit more in some cases, but you get better services and personal attention.  The big chains will sell Bibles if Bibles are hot items, but they will just as readily sell pornography.  Books are a number in a warehouse to them.  Independent bookstore owners are finding matching orphaned books on the shelves with homes where they will be loved.

I bought Believe Me from Hearts and Minds.  The service is fast.  If ever I end up going into Byron’s store, I fear I will never come out.

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Byron Borger, bookseller: He sells them if he believes what they say is good, true, and beautiful.

 

Theological Preaching–Rich and Deep

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I still have not recovered from something my college student daughter TaraJane told me a few months back.  She said that theology majors in college that she knew were the most cynical students around.  By that, she went on to explain that they were critical, negative, and generally contrary in their views on church, the Bible, God, and life in general.

I think that theology students should be giddy most of the time.  That is not because the study of theology is light and breezy, but because it exposes the heart and mind to an incredible array of richness concerning God, the Bible, the Kingdom of God, salvation, truth, mankind, and all of life.

I am, at best, only one who dabbles in theology.  My training, college education, and main work experiences have not been in theology per se.  I am a history teacher, a literature teacher, an administrator in a Christian school, and a book reviewer.  But I have also been a pastor/teacher/elder for several decades.  I have no formal theological training, but have played on the scrub teams for years by reading lots of books, listening to sermons and lectures, and acquiring a working familiarity with theology.

One of the too often used descriptions of theology is that the study is dry and dusty.  Granted that is possible.  All fields involve some archived information that is a labor to wade through.  Some writers are technical and analytical in ways that prevent them from being readily readable.  Often theologians, like scholars in all fields, write for an audience of peers and develop a language that the insiders are familiar with but that stumps the novice or newcomer to the studies.  When you are reading and thinking, “I don’t know what this book is talking about,” you may simply not know enough of the background.  Be slow to condemn, but don’t be ashamed to be baffled.

But is theology just an academic, scholarly, intellectual pursuit?  Of course, it can be.  The same can be said for the Battle of Gettysburg.  At its best and in terms of its primary purpose, theology is designed not to equip brainy, intellectuals who are Christian with an outlet for their mental synapses.  Rather, theology is to minister to, teach and instruct, comfort and confirm the Christian sitting in the pew on Sunday and working at the factory, elementary classroom, hospital, or home on the weekdays.

We are all theologians, as has been often said.  That is, all people are invovled in the study of God, or if you prefer Dr. Roy Clouser’s term, a Divinity Belief.  By that, everyone has something they embrace that gives definition, meaning, and direction to all they do (or don’t do).  So the believer is a theologian and should be striving to be a better theologian.  Theology, by definition, is the study of God, and the the newest convert and the youngest child in the congregation should be embracing theology.  Think for a moment at how profound the song is that proclaims, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

I want to call attention to two books I read over the past several months that are made up of incredibly rich theological discourses.  The chapters in these books were given as sermons and talks.  I find myself feeling dizzy at the thought of giving a talk on the high level of the contents of these books.  Yes, there are some things hard to understand.  No, these are not the works for a new and unread Christian to pick up.  But everytime I think back on either of these works, I remember just how they were packed full of soul-nurturing, mind-pleasing, convincing and convicting truths.

These two books are pictured below.  The first one is High KIng of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus.  It is edited by John MacArthur.  Contributors include Albert Mohler, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, Michael Reeves, Mark Jones, Stephen Lawson, and many others.  These men are some of the foremost preachers and teachers in the various branches of Reformed and Evangelical Christianity.  Published by Moody Publishers and The Master’s Seminary, the book is hardbound and affordably priced.

The second book is Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting? Collected Sermons by John Murray.  It is published by Westminster Seminary Press.

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Let me begin the examination of these two books by discussing John Murray himself.  Murray was a Scotsman and was primarily a teacher of systematic theology.  He fits my favorite image of a true Scots Calvinist:  He was stern, serious, somber, and searching.  Add scholarly to that list.  His major works are Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics.  He also wrote a powerful commentary on Romans, and his various writings were collected together by Banner of Truth into a four volume set of the Collected Writings of John Murraywhich is temporarily (we hope) out of stock.

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On different occasions, Murray did do some pulpit supply.  In the case of these sermons, which were preached to small congregations in Canada and the Scottish Highlands, Murray was filling pulpits during his summer breaks from seminary.  Most of these sermons were transcribed from audio messages.  As is noted in the editor’s comments, a sermon read does not contain the emphases and style and passion of the spoken message.  Nevertheless, the the theological ground covered in this collection is vast.

The first seven sermons are from Romans.  They might serve as a helpful overview of Murray’s commentary, and one would wish we had a collection of sermons covering all of Romans.  Since Romans deals so intricately with salvation including justification, sanctification, election, and so on, Murray beautifully explains these doctrines.  The next eight sermons are from various texts, mostly from the New Testament.  The final selection is Murray’s charge to Edmund Clowney, who was taking on a theological chair at Westminster.

This book has been very beautifully crafted.  See the pictures connected to the link above.  It can be read in part or in whole, beginning with any one of the sermons.  It is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and hope to read from again and again.

High King of Heaven can be classified under the topic of Christology.  The various contributors, I believe, gave these messages at a conference.  (I am wondering how it would be humanly possible to get all these men together and have this many fine messages.)  The sections of this books are as follows:

Part 1: The Person of Christ

In this section, Michael Reeves begins with “The Eternal Word: God the Son in Eternity Past.”  Paul Twiss follows with “Son of God and Son of Man.” Mark Jones, author of Knowing Christ, speaks on Isaiah 50 and the topic of “The Son’s Relation with the Father.”  Subsequent chapters are the Virgin Birth, Christ as the Bread of Life, the Good Shepherd, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and Christ as head of the Church.

Part 2: The Work of Christ

Messages in this section are on the different phases of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascensioin, and second coming.

Part 3:  The Word of Christ

This portion includes a discourse called “No Other Gospel: The True Gospel of Christ” and another on the completion of the New Testament Canon.  Two subsequent portions cover the relation of Christ to the Old Testament.

Part 4: The Witness to Christ

Another look at Christ and in the Old Testament starts off this section.  It deals with the account of the Road to Emmaus and Jesus’ teaching about Himself “beginning with Moses.”  The message of Hebrews that Christ is better and is the final word is the subject of the second message here.  Albert Mohler deals with the believer’s witness in an ungodly world, and Paul Washer addresses suffering for Christ.  The 22nd message is “Around the Throne: the Heavenly Witness of the Redeemed in the Work of the Lamb.”  The final chapter is by John MacArthur and is called “Do You Love Me? The Essential Response to the High King of Heaven.”

Twenty three messages, all focusing on different Bible passages, with little of no repetition, differences, or diversions–this book is a gem for theological study, devotion, or sermon preparation.

High King of Heaven: Theological and Practical Perspectives on the Person and Work of Jesus

How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch by Michael Douma

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Here is how the book begins: “In 1849 Gerrit Baay wrote that his Dutch colony of Alto, Wisconsin, required only three things: more Bibles, more song books for the church, and more Dutch women.” It is hard to resist such a delightful introduction like that to a book.
I am slowly getting into this book as a total outsider. I am not Dutch and have only had a few connections with Dutch folk in the Americas. The part of the south (northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas) where I live doesn’t have connections with the Dutch-immigrant communities of the midwest. My initial interest in “all things Dutch” came from Reformed theology. Alongside the Scots Presbyterians and the New England Puritans, the strongest impetus for Calvinism in America came from the Dutch. There were some leading Dutch Calvinists who bridged the gap–in terms of language, community, and particular ecclesiastical matters–between the British Calvinists and the Continental Calvinists.
Geerhardus Vos, Louis Berkof, and Cornelius Van Til were three key Dutchmen whose influence reached way beyond their native communities. Perhaps the biggest influence in spreading Dutch Calvinist thought was from the old Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield. It was his influence that not only kept Princeton Theological Seminary firmly Reformed but that also worked to bring Abraham Kuyper to the United States to speak. (Look up the book Lectures on Calvinism for more on Kuyper.)
Back to this book: The Dutch settled in communities and sought to maintain their Dutchness. Church was central to much of this, but language and tradition played its part as well. As the Dutch Consul in Milwakee, named G. van Steenwijk, said in 1854, “Every now and then one meets a countryman who does not belong to a Dutch settlement….”
Ethnic studies has not usually been my forte or interest, but this case study is fascinating. It is easy and unavoidable to get lost in the WASP culture of America or to note more influential groups like Irish Catholics, African-Americans, or Hispanics. As well as being a melting pot, in the traditional explanation of American ethnicity, we as a people have maintained lots of cultural and ethnic identities.
I hope to write more as I continue on in the book.
Two additional notes:
First, I received my copy of this book as a review copy from the publisher and am not required to write gushy, glowing things about it.
Second, Dr. Michael Douma, the author, and I have become friends through Facebook and other digital exchanges over the past year. As his friend, I am required to write gushy, glowing things about this book. Michael is a serious, somber, searching academic historian confined to libraries, research centers and classrooms. As such, he might appear to be a bit stuffy, but he is also a real frontiersman and outsdoorsman who lives in the mountains, herds cats, listens to bluegrass music, and keeps his wit sharpened to a fine edge.

On Reading Difficult Books–Geerhardus Vos and Rosaria Butterfield

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All books are not created equal.  Nor are all readers.  Nor are all reading times and places equal.  For a reading experience to really work, there have to be several factors all combining.  In short, there has to be the right time, the right book, and the right place.  Years ago, I started reading Against All Hope by Armando Valladares.  This is a triumphant account of a man who survived the horrors of living under Casto’s regime in Cuba, but it is grim reading.  At the time I started reading it, now forgotten troubles in my life convinced me to put it aside for a season.  I can also remember a time when I was very down about a number of things and G. K. Chesterton stepped in to fortify my faith and Arthur Conan Doyle provided me a Sherlock Holmes story each night to boost my spirits.  At one time, I kept James Herriot’s books close by and only read them when my mind was exhausted.

Over the past few decades, I have become a morning person and a morning reader.  The more difficult books are the ones that demand strong coffee and an alert mind.  But sometimes the caffeine quota just doesn’t jump start the brain enough for the book to resonate.  I urge all readers to be constantly searching for the right book for the right time.  Evenings for me are times for histories, biographies, popular fiction, and classics that are not overly demanding.  Books with short chapters work well to carry along when faced with sitting in a waiting room or being idle for a long time (like 5 minutes).

Along with all of that advice, I will venture into another description of books that does not have a single and univocal meaning.  What does it mean to say that a book is hard or difficult?  With all my previous comments about finding the right times, places, and books, I must solemnly add that sometimes we have to read and often we need to read books that are not page-turners, not overly gripping or consuming, and not at all preferable to the mind that seeks some ease.  Some of these are books that are assigned to us in classes.  As a teacher, I often find that the assigned text is vexing to read.  Why do I read it?  Because I assigned it and it is there.  Sometimes, yea even often, the greatest benefit of a book comes in having completed it.  Sometimes, our greatest reaction to getting through a book is “Boy, I’m glad that is over with.”

Some difficult books need to be read or at least attempted because we need what they contain, including the mental stretching due to the contents.  I am not refering to nightstand books or beach reading, but those works of history, philosophy, theology, science, economics, literature, and so on that we should read because of our callings and duties.  Some difficult books need to be read because we need the change that the book’s contents will provide for us.

I will now discuss two very difficult books that I have read this year.  They are totally different kinds of books and the difficulty level in each of them is drastically different.

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In the spring, I read Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics Volume One: Theology Proper.  All four volumes of Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics are now in print, but I have only acquired and read the first one.  This set is published by Lexham Press.  The difficulty of it lies first in its format.  These works were put together from classes that the Dutch theologian (and later emigrant to the United States) taught in Dogmatic Theology.  The work is set up in a series of questions and answers. For example, chapter three begins a 38 page study of the doctrine of the Trinity.  It begins with this question: Why must we not seek a decisive proof for the Trinity in the Old Testament?  Vos follows with a three part answer and then moves on to the next question: What traces of the Trinity can we nevertheless discover in the Old Testament?  This questions gets a two paragraph answer.

Vos’ book ranges from detailed Bible supports for topics to short summaries of both inadequate and confirming theological sources.  I suspect that the Q & A format was what he expected his students to read through and think about, as well as research further.  It doesn’t seem to have been a lecture format. The format calls for time and attention to the Bible references and mastering the topics, terms, and theologians found in the content.  The difficulty of the book is that it calls for a slow and deliberate reading.  Of course, one can skip and skim to find the points of particular interest, but that is not the best use of the book.

Why read this book when other and more easily read books are available?  First, I will answer as a historian/history teacher.  Geerhardus Vos is a central figure in the story of 19th and 20th Century Dutch Calvinism that impacted both Europe and North America.  The pioneering figure in the movement was Abraham Kuyper, but Kuyper was not the first or the only key theologian or Christian worldview thinker from the Netherlands.  My historical studies have carried me from Arkansas to Amsterdam many times figuratively (although I can add that I once was in Amsterdam for a half hour on a plane flight).

Second, as a Christian teacher and one who has been involved in various ministry works, I need the challenge and first hand experience in reading the theological heavies.  Always balanced out with easier readings close at hand, reading the more challenging works is humbling and soul nurturing.

Third, as a Christian believer, I need to be reminded of the saints who have gone before, who labored long over an open Bible and the the theological classics, and who then left us things to read.  Biblical theology, be it deep and difficult, finally filters down into the most simple and basic of Bible truths.  For the simple “God is good, God is great” mealtime prayer or the children’s song “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” all contain incredibly deep, wide, profound, and world-changing theological assumptions and foundations.  I need to be reminded that the “faith once delivered to the saints” is adequate to answer any and all objections and is profitable for life.

And so, I have to tackle the books whose content is hard for the mind.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key

I finished a book today that will rank as one of the hardest I have ever had to read.  The Gospel Comes With a House Key is by Rosaria Butterfield and is published by Crossway.

This is the information about Dr. Butterfield from the publisher’s website:

Rosaria Butterfield (PhD, Ohio State University) is an author, speaker, pastor’s wife, homeschool mom, and former professor of English and women’s studies at Syracuse University. She is the author of The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered.

This book is a call for Christians to do more than simply share a bit of the Gospel with their neighbors.  It is a call for a radical embracing of neighbors, regardless of their beliefs and lifestyles, and share the Christian life and Gospel with them.  Much of the book centers around personal stories and accounts of the Butterfield’s neighbors and neighborhood.  This family has an open door, an invitation, a pot of soup, a cup of coffee, or even a spare room for any and every person who comes along.  The recurring story within this story is about a reclusive and odd neighbor called Mr. Hank.  In time, the Butterfields became friends with Hank, but after a time, he was arrested and imprisoned for running a meth lab.  That would have been experience enough to convince me to “build the wall ten feet higher,” to quote a Republican Presidential candidate from 2016.  Not so with this woman and her pastor husband and her homeschooled kids.  They did even more to share the Gospel with the man (who was converted after being imprisoned) and teach their neighbors to forgive a wicked neighbor.

As far as readability and narrative flow, this is an easy book.  The content is not hard, but it is the lesson that is still causing me pain.  At first, my reaction was “Stephanie and I just cannot do all of what this woman and her husband does.”  I was exhausted just reading about all the things she was doing.  It was like reading about Michael Phelps’ swimming practices.  “Nope, not me, all I can do is dog paddle.”

But slowly I am realizing that replicating the lifestyle and practices of this family is not what I need to do.  As is often said, “Do the next right step.” I suspect it may be many small steps along the way for my family–and especially the very introverted, reclusive me–to practice our own version of this.  But, my wife is already leading a small group of young ladies through the book Lies Young Women Believe by Nancy Demoss Wolgemuth.

Conviction hurts.  Hopefully it hurts long enough to result in a few changes.  The Gospel Comes With a House Key is not for the faint of heart or for the person who wants the Christian life to be segmented into a short two hours of minor inconvenience called church on Sunday mornings.  This book, unfortunately for staid and stubborn Christians like me, sounds a bit too much like Jesus of Nazareth.