Morning Reads and Evening Reads of Late

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The beginning of the day and the ending of the day are for me the two best reading times.  They call for different kinds of books, and I usually have a half dozen books going.  Some get more attention, others less.  Some fit the niche perfectly, while others are hard to adapt to.  Much always depends upon alertness and relevance, but some authors, as we all know, lure us more easily within their pages than others.

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I am currently working through a book titled Reading Acts by Joshua W. Jipp.  This book is published by Cascade Books, which is part of Wipf and Stock.  This study is not a commentary, but rather a thematic examination of Acts.  Luke, the author of both the Gospel account and Acts, was a superb stylist and writer.  Themes overlap both of  books in the Bible.  It is all too easy to be doing the daily Bible reading through Acts and not catch some of the recurring and developing ideas.

One might wonder at times why Paul repeats his own salvation story three times, or more particularly, why Luke records this.  Today, I read the part of the book detailing Paul’s Mediterranean journey to Rome, with a his side visit to the Island of Malta.  Jipp’s discussion of this was incredibly edifying and enjoyable.  Those chapters can create a panic for the preacher who is suddenly faced with a long narrative and is puzzled by this seeming detour from the story.  Far from being an unnecessary rabbit trail, this story is rich in metaphor and meaning.

Delightful book that should precede and then be used within a study of Acts.  Joshua Jipp is Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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The Essential Karl Barth: Reader and Commentary is compiled and edited by Keith L. Johnson and is published by Baker Academic.

Karl Barth is one of the biggest names in Twentieth Century theology.  For me, he was a name that quickly showed up on the enemies lists based on who I was reading when I first started reading theologians.  Two of my theological heroes, Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, wrote books examining, critiquing, and arguing against Barth and those who were embracing his theology.  Quite often his name showed up in a list consisting of Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.

Being focused on studying history and literature, but reading theology on the side, I was too busy trying to get grounded in the basics of Reformed theology and thought to read the Germans and other theologians of varying positions.  That was not a bad approach.  Over the years, however, I continued to read quotes from Barth that were, without question, really good.  No surprise since many bad thinkers have turned apt phrases.

In the past several years, I have slowly lurked into the corpus of Barth’s writings.  His sermons on World War I, titled A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s World War I Sermons, was a very useful account of a man who went against many of his peers and who opposed the German actions and entry into war.  Also, his Epstle to the Ephesians was a rich study.

This book begins with a useful biographical sketch of the man and his theological development.  He lived in the midst of peril and was strong in condemning the social and theological evils of his time.  He first made an impact on the world when he published his commentary on Romans.  The second chapter of this book is a lengthy selection from that work.

I seek to read with discernment and with a willingness to be instructed.  That should be the goal whether it is Barth or Calvin or Spurgeon that we are reading or our local pastor who we are hearing.

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The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Times by Will Durant is simply fun.  This short book contains Durant’s picks for the greatest thinkers, poets, books, civilizational achievements, and dates for all time.  Whether we agree with him often or rarely does not matter, this is a delightful excursion through the thinking of a man who had an encyclopedic knowledge of history without any taint of dullness.

Durant was an optimistic Humanist.  That optimism along with his barbs against Christianity (wherein he sees Calvin and others as having skewered the teachings of Christ) is more amusing than irritating.  And it is offset by the enthusiasm of his lists and his assumption that we all love to know, just as he did.

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Venice Saved by Simone Weil is published by Bloomsbury Academic.  This work, appearing in English for the first time, was translated by Silvia Panizza and Phillip Wilson.

Simone Weil is one of the many voices from the Twentieth Century who spoke prophetically and wisely about the times and cultural challenges of her day.  Her days on this earth were short–1909-1943.  Her life was difficult for she was in France when it was conquered by the Nazis.  Although she was of Jewish heritage, she moved toward the Christian faith.

She is one of the subjects of Alan Jacobs’ remarkable book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.  Reading about her there and also reading an essay she wrote about education all led me to wanting to know more about her and her writings.  She was not a playwright, but she did work on a play that was never finished.

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Venice Saved deals slightly with history, but is better seen as a commentary on Weil’s own times–World War II.  The story is simple and the meanings of different statements are transparent in their application to her times.  Venice was a beautiful city that was on the verge of a takeover by its enemies.  But isn’t our culture always standing on that same precipice?

This delightful book has a lengthy and somewhat tedious series of introductory essays by the translators.  I plodded through them and found them helpful, but I think they may be better read after I finish the play in a couple of days.

Time and length fails me from being able to highlight my evening reads, but I will list them.

The Pioneers by David McCullough.  Good story by a great historian.

Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams.  Hefty and good reading.

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.  Rich in details about the ancient world.

Mustang by John Dwyer.  Sequel to Shortgrass.  Set in World War II.

The Other Woman by Daniel Silva.  Great spy novel by the master of that genre in our times.

Reason and Worldviews by Owen Anderson

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First, I must begin with a warning:  Do not attempt to read Reason and Worldviews with decaf or weak coffee.  Make it stronger than usual.  Avoid distractions.  Don’t confuse this book for a morning devotional.

Reason and Worldviews is by Owen Anderson, assistant professor of Integrative Studies at Arizona State University.  It is published by University Press of America.  It bears the very descriptive subtitle Warfield, Kuyper, Van Til and Plantiga on the Clarity of General Revelation and Function of Apologetics.  

Often my book reviews are tied to some experience I have had in my life.  In this case, I read a couple of essays around the years 2008 and 2009 that rekindled my interest in my first experiences in confronting Calvinistic or Reformed theology.  On the one hand, there were those many Bible flipping evenings where I was reading Boettner, Pink, Steele and Thomas, and others and looking up the proof texts for Calvinistic soteriology or views of salvation.  But prior to those experiences and subsequent to them as well were explorations into the Calvinistic worldview.

It was first introduced to me with the German word Weltanschauung.  That mouthful was explained as meaning a world and life view or a comprehensive view of all things from a particular viewpoint.  God grabbed me by the mind and did not let me go.  I had the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, but the life of the mind was pretty mushy, vague, and vulnerable.  A Fifth Column of Presbyterian and Reformed warriors, including Gregg Singer, R. J. Rushdoony, Gordon Clark, Francis Nigel Lee, H. Van Reissen, and Phillip Edgecombe Hughes sidetracked me and forever changed my way of thinking.

That was the 1970’s and it was, to repeat myself, the years 2007 and 2008 when I re-engaged with the thinking that had created this initial effect.  There were men, like those mentioned above, who were not exactly the public intellectuals because most of the world–both secular and religious–either did not know they existed or they ignored them.  But they reached a remnant of thinkers, and like a stone tossed in a pond, the ripple effect spread out widely.

I had the opportunity to give a series of talks in Newport Newes, Virginia and later in Alaska in 2008.  My series in Virginia was titled “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers During the Wilderness Years,” and in Alaska, my topic was “Dutch Worldview Thinkers.”  I loved the subject (if I may call it that) and have continued to read on the various influential Reformed theologians and philosophers who have grappled with the issues of modern thought.

When I first saw the title and subtitle of Reason and Worldviews, I was sold on the book.  Being a more specialized monograph, it bears a high, but not prohibited price.  So, it took me a while to get the book, and this past few weeks, I have been reading it.

The word “Apologetics,” which appears in the subtitle, is a rather broad word within Christian thought.  I have and have read dozens of books on apologetics, which is the field of defending the Christian faith.  Many books focus on the range of arguments Christians confront in the classroom, in conversations, and in our culture.  Hence, such books teach provide us foundations for believing the Bible, answering objections, and dealing with stumbling blocks to the faith.

This book, however, is dealing with much more difficult issues.  Christian theology has not merely brushed up against the field of philosophy, but has confronted and, we might say to some degree, converted it.  Or at least, it has taken thought captive–as Paul admonishes us to do in II Corinthians 10:5.  For many years, Princeton Theological Seminary was the center of Christian philosophical thought as well as theological thought.  Harvard had caved;  Harvard Divinity School hired Ralph Waldo Emerson to teach whatever it was that he believed.  Yale had waffled.  Princeton stood as the bulwark of Christian thought.

Truth doesn’t change, but the way we present the truth changes.  We teach our young children truths, but we expand and adapt these truths to fit their minds and lives as they grow up.  The issues confronting Princeton changed through the years, and sad to admit, but Princeton changed as well.  That is another story, but as long as the Hodges and later Benjamin Warfield occupied key positions, Princeton was a ruling force.

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield is the key Christian theologian/philosopher in this study.  He wrote on a wide range of theological topics, although many have lamented that he never compiled all of his thinking into a systematic theology.  To some degree, this has been remedied by Fred G. Zaspel’s book The Theology of B. B. Warfield.

In Anderson’s study, Warfield is examined for his approach to the issue of how we know God, how we interpret revelation of God, and to what degree man is excusable or inexcusable from life experiences.

Warfield had a beloved friend and fellow theologian across the pond named Abraham Kuyper.  Kuyper was a key figure in the theological and political world of the Netherlands.  He was invited by Warfield to give the Stone Lectures for the year 1898.  Those lectures were published and have been reprinted many times under the title Lectures on Calvinism. While Warfield and Kuyper could walk arm in arm on many issues, they had different approaches to apologetics and how unbelievers were to be confronted and held accountable.

 

In time, a young Dutchman and immigrant to America, attempted to bring the differences of Warfield and Kuyper together.  His name was Cornelius Van Til, and he is well known in Calvinistic circles for presuppositional apologetics.  For many, Van Til has provided the definitive and last word on apologetics and how the unbeliever thinks and/or suppresses the truth.  At the same time, in good old Calvinistic fashion, some fellow believers rank Van Til’s thinking somewhere below that of Joel Osteen.

Others have grappled with these issues as well.  Two of the big names in Christian philosophy in our day are Nicholas Wolterstorf and Alvin Plantinga.  Plantiga has promoted the position that Christian belief in God is warranted belief.  In other words, we Christians are just a bunch of simple minded crazies. (Okay, well some of us are, but not all.)

Each variety of thought–Warfield’s, Kuyper’s, Van Til’s, and Plantiga’s–has attempted to deal with some difficult issues, and each has its limitations.  As a way of bridging some of the gaps here, Anderson proposes that we seriously examine the much neglected idea of Natural Theology.  In his conclusion, he brings us back to Warfield who was, in many ways, closer to the answers found in Natural Theology, than some of the others.

“Ben,” you ask, “Do you even know what you are talking about?”  Okay, I admit it.  I walked out to the pool expecting to wade, but I got thrown into the deep end–again.  Owen Anderson is not teaching basic swimming lessons.  He had to pull me out of the water several times, in fact.  But he ends each chapter with a series of questions.  On my next reading, I want to have those questions in view as I read.  And he includes a really useful glossary of terms and key people mentioned in the book.

This is not, as I said above, a morning devotional.  Nor is it a fast, once through and then shelve, book.  Who needs it then?  First, people like my son Nick and many others I know who study philosophy, but who have a theological grounding.  Second, pastors and teachers who need to branch out beyond their sermon helps.  Third, Christians who have been given the blessings and gifts of the enjoying the life of themind.  Fourth, me.

I deeply love Warfield, Kuyper, and Van Til.  I suspect that the more read of Plantiga, the more I will love him.  But this is more than just hero worship (of which I am often guilty).  There is the great concept of “Glorifying God and Enjoying Him Forever.”  Forever doesn’t begin when we arrive in heaven.  Enjoying God–even to the extent that it means examing the heights and depths of philosophy and theology–begins now.

 

Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education

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As I was reading through this book, I kept putting what I was reading back into a different time and historical situation.  This book, in other words, reminds me of the time before the Protestant Reformation.  I am thinking specifically of the pre-Reformers like Erasmus who called the Roman Catholic Church to account for its many errors and deviations.  Even Luther’s beloved 95 Theses were not a Protestant systematic theology.  He was arguing as a Catholic against Catholics. It is a story that can be found in many places and circumstances.  Huge entities develop huge mechanisms containing huge faulty practices.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower:  The Moral Mess of Higher Education by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness is published by Oxford University Press.

Both authors are scholars and academics.  While I think they may be of a more conservative bent than many academics, this book is a not a diatribe against ideological Leftists in the universities.  Nor is it an indictment against moral problems that so often dominate campus life.  Nor is it an attack on any specific university.

Instead, the authors examine several matters that appear in the world of universities across the land.  There are problems relating to the numbers and influences of the administrative side of university life in contrast to the number of faculty and students.  Administration, like government bureaucracy, always finds a need to expand.  Much of the cost of college is related to paying those who are far removed from the classroom.

But faculty are not exempt from the process of growing the numbers.  Required courses, general education requirements (gen ed classes), and other means are used to add course upon course and requirement upon requirement.  It hurt to read it, but the gist of these concerns related to English and composition courses in the colleges.  Of course, we always want to think that college produces well rounded people with appreciation for a wide range of learning and with much needed skills in writing.  And, we want to think that college training is pre-job training so that the graduate leaves the classroom for the workplace with scarcely a bobble.  The authors dissent from these assumptions.

Why?  Students graduate, but still have to be trained for their specific jobs.  Much of what is learned is forgotten within a few years.  And college students cheat, and they cheat a lot.  The thinking and reasoning skills of even most college educated people are still deficient.  Prior to this problem, those who write the materials promoting their particular colleges inflate the effects that college will have upon the students.

It was interesting to me to listen to my older son comment upon this book.  He read through it with hardly a pause and then pronounced it good.  So good, in fact, that he wished he had read it, he said, before he ever went to college.  It didn’t poison his attitude because he is entering graduate school this coming fall. I read through the book at a slower pace and wondered how applicable much of it was.  It has been too many years since I was a real college student. (I did take a graduate course this past spring.)

The solution is not the abolition of the university.  Reforms are always difficult and are usually rejected.  Think again of the comparison to those who tried to instigate reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.  But criticisms must be made.  This posting of some dozen or so theses on the door of the modern university will hopefully lead to some serious dialogues and, after much angst, change.

The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

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How did it happen?  Even more important, how did it turn out the way it did?

Thirteen colonies with a few other colonial settlements banded together to take on the world’s most powerful military, naval, and economic power.  Even within the colonies, there were enough Loyalists to prevent a victory from occuring.  Sometimes, deep reading into the history of an event reveals so many flaws, faulty assumptions, and bursting of myths as to damage the story overall.  But in this case, with the brush strokes revealing the darker and uglier hues, the overall story is still one that astounds and amazes.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson is the first of a projected three volume Revolution Trilogy.  This first volume has raised a high bar, but based on Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (based on the American experience in World War II in Europe), this series should be definitive.

The big challenge for the Patriots was creating a military adequate to take on the British.  There were many untried men who rose through the ranks. Some achieved success, some failed, and some perished before they could fulfill their potential.  Even George Washington was a newcomer to the kind of leadership that was expected of him.  It is difficult for us to grasp that the position that George Washington holds in our nation’s memory could have been held by Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, or even Benedict Arnold.  However, it is hard to imagine how any of those three could have risen to the level that Washington did.

As time and circumstances caused Washington to develop the cat and mouse strategy, he had to learn while on the job.  The Americans were often dealing with short enlistments, lack of equipment, poor organization, and no money.  The military career of Washington is one of many defeats and near disasters punctuated by one set of major victories in the middle of the war before his climactic win at Yorktown.

Another aspect of the war that is often overlooked is that there were far more than a mere thirteen colonies in the New World.  Some of the colonial outposts joined alongside the 13, such as Vermont and Franklin (eastern Tennessee).  Other colonial settlements, such as Canada resisted.  Had Canada joined the lower coastal colonies or had those colonies conquered Canada, the outcome would have looked drastically different.

The campaign to capture Canada is one of the great ventures in the war.  It turned out to be a disaster, but such a fate was in the balance for much of that campaign.  Richard Montgomery is among the names of the forgotten from that campaign.  Had he won, he would be heralded as one of our great founders. His death cost the Patriots a key leader.  But another strong fighter, Benedict Arnold, proved himself a scrappy field commander in that campaign.  It is astounding how close he came through his exploits for the Patriots to being one of our most revered heroes.

As a history teacher, I know how the story that this book tells progresses.  Admittedly, I learned lots of names that I had either never noticed or had overlooked. Certainly, I found many pages of material that refreshed my understanding of what happened in the battles for New York and New Jersey. Surprisingly, I learned quite a bit about our adversary–King George III.  But something happens when I am reading a book like this.  It becomes like a mystery novel, and I find myself wondering how it will end.  Surely, I thought many times while reading this book, the Americans are going to lose this whole war.  Knowing the end didn’t keep me from suspending disbelief in the events as they were unfolding in the narrative.

Another aspect of the book that was very enjoyable and typical of Atkinson’s writing was the inclusion of many eye-witness accounts.  Many heart-rending excerpts were included from letters of those who died in the battles.  Attitudes and perspectives of the soldiers bring the war the war home in a way that the broad overview cannot.  This was a war that pitted men of honor and principle on both sides against each other.  That does not negate the fact that being war, some ugly things happened that go beyond the already awful nature of warfare.

Of course, all my fellow history teachers and serious students will want to read this book.  But I think that those who simply like a good story that is non-fictional would like it as well.  Let’s just get to the point:  This is a book for Americans.  With all of my attraction to books on the Civil War Between the States and the World Wars, this is the war that made America.  The heritage is a not pure and faultless, but it is still amazing.  More important than the evening news is the story of our founding.  Here it is, or at least, here is the first third of it.

Congratulations to Rick Atkinson on completing this first volume and on (I am predicting) winning yet another well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

The British are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

 

 

A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin by David S. Steele

When a book ministers to us is as important as how it ministers to us.  Just as some sermons strike some of us as adequate but are life changing to others.  So it is with books.  At this age and stage of life, I read many books that are merely affirming what I have long since believed.  Of course, the reminders are good, and every book will reveal some aspect of a truth or event that I did not know.

This brings us to my discussion of a new, brief book titled A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin by David S. Steele.  

My knowledge of John Calvin began in the fall of 1974 when I was taking an American history course.  The professor, who was both a well read history teacher and pastor, lectured on the role Calvin and Calvinism played in the settlement of the American colonies.  He also assigned a book for us to read titled John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits by C. Gregg Singer.

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This book changed my life in numerous ways.  It humbled and, in fact, humiliated me as a pseudo-reader and history student.  It reworked the way my mind handled thought and reading material.  And it challenged my whole way of thinking about religion.  My initial conclusions were that Calvinism impacted early American history and that it was wrong.

I remember finding a book in the college library that brought me great consolation.  I don’t remember the title, but it assured me that the God of Calvin was not at all like Jesus.  I found peace, but only for a season.  In short, by the summer of 1975, I was in full scale retreat from Calvinism, and before the summer was over, I had been defeated and enlisted in the other side.

Singer’s book was a study of the impact of Calvin on various areas of life and thought and on various nations and cultures.  I had never thought of Christianity being anything beyond religious and heart practices and moral values.  Book after book followed, but mainly what happened was that I became a Berean without knowing it.  Let’s just say that if you are going to be a Calvinist, you better be a Berean first and foremost.

It was another David Steele, along with co-author Curtis Thomas, who helped cement some life-changing doctrines into my life and mind through their compendium of Scriptures and historic testimonies of the Calvinistic doctrines.  Their book was titled The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Defended, and Documented.  It is still in print in a much expanded edition.

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What I needed then and what David S. Steele has provided now is a look at another and very indispensable part of theology:  Holiness and Christian living.  My main criticism of A Godward Gaze is that it appeared some 45 plus years later than it should have.  I needed this book in 1974 and 1975, while I was struggling with finding the proof texts of the Five Points or trying to answer this or that objection.

A Godward Gaze is not a biography of John Calvin.  It does contain many biographical details, beginning with a sketch of his life and conversion.  Nor is this book a defining, defending, or documenting account of the major teachings of Calvinism.  It does contain many points that are built upon Calvinistic, and we believe, Scriptural presuppositions.  This book is what is says:  A look at how Calvin the man, among others, looked to God for personal sustenance and faith.

Let’s emphasize what is vital for both John Calvin and others who are Christians:  John Calvin loved the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yes, Calvin was logical, theologically rigorous, strong-armed when dealing with heretics, moody on occasion, afflicted in personality especially when overwhelmed by physical ailments and physical enemies, and fallible.  He was a sinner saved by grace.  He was also a man that God raised up and equipped to teach others.

The story of Calvinism is sometimes thought of as having three branches:  Docts, Kuyps, and Piets.  The Docts are those who gravitate toward theological doctrines; the Kuyps are those who follow Abraham Kuyper and seek to think in terms of a Christian worldview; and the Piets are those who emphasize Christian piety.  (I think D. H. Hart may be the one who devised this way of viewing Reformed folk.)  There need not be a decision made as to which we should choose.  All three are part of the full-orbed Christian life.

The focus, however, of A Godward Gaze is on the life of holy, dedicated pursuit of God.  The many people who are approvingly quoted in this book, including John Bunyan, John Newton, Steven Lawson, John Frame, and others, are in sync on the need for Christians to have a Godward and God-centered gaze and pursuit in their lives.

So, I needed this book 45 years ago.  Thankfully, I did get enough exposure from preaching and reading to offset some of my Calvinistic cage-stage zeal.  I suspect that the holiness centered thrust of this book would have been as puzzling to me for a time as was other theological revolutions I was experiencing.

Even today, people who define themselves or who are defined by others as Calvinists need this book.  I certainly do wish to better understand and explain the extent of the atonement to people around me, but it is more important that I am focused on the unlimited grace that God shows sinners and has shown me. Calvinistic youth can be snotty, if they work a bit on doctrine.  Calvinistic churches can be a bit stuffy.  Calvinist thinkers can be condescending.  It is not that such behavior reflects badly on John Calvin, but rather that it reflects badly on Calvin’s Savior.

Maybe the book is both 45 years late and just right in time for me.  I heartily recommend this to you.

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Political Visions and Illusions by David Koyzis

Political Visions & Illusions

Political Visions and Illusions, Second Edition, by David T. Koyzis is published by IVP Academic.

I first got to know David Koyzis about ten years ago through an e-mail discussion group.  That group was made up of many intellectual scholars with deep ties to the writings and thought of Herman Dooyeweerd.  By being in the group for several years, I learned an incredible amount about the width and scope of Christian scholarship, philosophy, and discussion.  Most of the time, I was simply sitting on the sidelines, often not even understanding the thread of the current discussions.

Prior to that experience, most Christians I knew were divided up into two camps:  Calvinists and Arminians.  That is an oversimplification; on the one hand, few Christians consciously describe themselves as Arminians; on the other hand, there is more to the Body of Christ than just those of us who side one way or the other on “The Five Points of Calvinism.”

The impact of the Reformation is enormous.  But it was just one wave in a series of waves over the course of many centuries and continueing to this day.  One of the most dynamic and powerful Reformation-induced waves relates to events that happened in the Netherlands in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  It was there that a large number of Christian thinkers expanded and applied the Christian faith to all areas of life.  I could write page upon page about these men and their times, and in fact, I have lectured and written on them on numerous occasions.  To be brief, Abraham Kuyper came to the United States in 1898 and gave a series of lectures that were titled The Stone Lectures and were put in book form with the title Lectures on Calvinism.

The impact of those lectures and that book is enormous.  Among others, it help shape the thinking of a brilliant law and philosophy scholar named Herman Dooyeweerd.  Right up front, I will tell you that when I go to the Herman Dooyeweerd Olympic-size Swimming Pool, I can neither do laps in the pool nor even climb the ladder to the high diving boards.  Instead, you will find me in the shallow end of the wading pool.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t admire and stand in awe of Dooyeweerd and those who have mastered his thought.

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Among the many scholars and students that I got to know (via e-mails) David Koyzis was one of the most accessible, friendly, and encouraging of all.  I, therefore, bought his book Political Visions and Illusions.  Even though I pulled the book out on several occasions and dipped here and there into it, I did not read it.  It was there with the hundreds of other books that I intend to read, but have not gotten to.

Then the second edition came out.  I received a copy and became determined to read the book.  And it does require determination to read.

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One of the blessings of a democratic republic is the freedom of political expression.  One of the curses of a democratic republic is the freedom of political expression.  Since President Trump took office, political discourse has worsened, but don’t be fooled.  Political talk was crazy in the days of Presidents Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, and others.  Political talk may actually be more civil than it was during the age of Andrew Jackson.  But it is more pervasive and invasive today.

When I first got interested in politics (circa 1972), I had to catch the evening news from 5:30 to 6:00.  The daily paper also had a few political articles.  On occasion, I would come across a Time Magazine, U. S. News and World Report, or Newsweek.  Now the news business is big business.  At every moment of every day, there are dozens of radio talk show hosts talking politics, along with non-stop news channels.  Add to that all the internet sources.  If someone in Congress sneezes today, I can watch a hundred replays of that sneeze, but listen to hours of commentary on it.

All of this political bombardment can make us think that we are well informed on politics.  The issues are pretty simple, right?  It’s Trump versus the Democrats, or its Liberals versus Republicans, or its some other group of bad guys versus us good guys, right?

The subtitle to Koyzis’s book is A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies.  He covers Lberalism, Conservatism, Nationalism, Democracy, and Socialism.  These are in-depth looks at the root ideologies or worldviews connected to these ways of thinking politically.  A prime ingredient in each survey is to see what good and truthful insights are there and to see what idols the ideology tends toward.  Liberalism is not merely what many of us like me (a Reagan Republican) thinks of when we use the term or label a person or idea with it.  In terms of a historic philosophy, Reagan, Obama, both Clintons, both Bushes, Trump, Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower, Goldwater, and many others fit into the overall liberal perspective.

Nor is conservatism an easy label to fit on to most people or situations.  As an example, were our Founding Fathers being liberals or conservatives when they sought to break away from Britain?

There is so much more that could be added to the discussion of this book.  Hey, it even has discussion questions at the end of the book pertaining to each section.  The last third of the book focuses on a Christian approach to the political sphere.

Obviously, those of us who teach government and history need to read and study this book,  But I really think that pastors and elders need some serious study here as well.  Again, this book is challenging.  I don’t mean that it is too difficult to read, but it does require some time and attention.  I finished it today, but I seriously need to read it again…and again.

Post Script:  I counted over 60 books in the outstanding bibliography that I already own.  There are at least that many more that I would like to have.

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James Matthew Wilson’s Some Permanent Things, and Other Poets and Poetry

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Poetry is difficult to teach.   Sure, I can assign the poems to be read, or we can read them in class.  I can generate a few questions about the poem in terms of author, subject, and particular details.  But poetry is not easily subjected to a factual set of accomplishments; meaning, I cannot say that I understand T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” because I have learned who he was, when he wrote it, and what images it contains.  Poetry has to be felt to a large degree, but this too leads to problems.  Often, when we read a poem in class, the students respond with “I liked it” or indications that they didn’t like it.  As a teacher, I feel like I am dishing out samples of ice cream flavors at Baskin and Robbins.

The emotional impact of a poem is not something that races straight to the heart, bypassing the brain or reason.  In fact, I may not at all like the emotional punch that a poem delivers, but still recognize the power of the poem.  “Don’t Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas disturbs me, but it is a great poem.  I think that it is odd that we recognize the depth of some types of mathematics and hard sciences, but poetry still gets kicked back into the realm of rhyming words that really serve no purpose.

To admit the next problem is difficult:  In spite of having shelves of poetry collections, both anthologies and works by individual authors, I am prone to not read poetry.  For the thousandth time, I am seeking to correct this vice, and vice it is for me.  My tendency is to start a book with the goal of reading it from beginning to end.  I am not a speed reader, but I do want to cover the ground in a reasonably short time.  Poetry reading throws all my normal reading patterns off.

Many years ago, I asked my students if they had read the homework assignment, which was to read some poems.  A rather good student (who is now a lawyer) said that he scanned over the poems.  Technically, scanning a poem is a technique that involves a very close and careful reading.  What he meant was that he glanced at the poems and speed-read through–to get the main idea.  Imagine applying that to Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.”  Instead of listening for a half hour or so, a person just hears a few notes here and there.

Yet another problem with poetry is the tricky word “interpretation.”  I hear it from students:  “I don’t know how to interpret poetry.”  Once when we were reading The Iliad, a student made this as an objection. And remember that The Iliad and The Odyssey are both poems.  This is really nonsense.  When Homer says that Achilles thrusts a spear through some hapless Trojan, there is not extraordinary or hidden or veiled or metaphorical meaning.  Often we think of poetry as though it consists of riddles.  We read over a poem numerous times with puzzlement, and then the light comes on!  “Oh, it’s talking about a hippopotamus!”

Granted, poems contain the veiled, mysterious, metaphorical, and obscure, but the goal is not figuring out the riddle.  There are so many wrong ways to read poetry.  I confess that I am still struggling to read poetry better.  Some of my struggles, which have been more successful, are highlighted in the brief reviews to follow.

 

I read Some Permanent Things by James Matthew Wilson last spring and read it all wrong.  I thought the poems to be fine, but had run through them far too hastily.  Let’s just call that misadventure a pre-reading.

I then began–in late May–to read through his poems again.  This time I read slowly.  I kept my cell phone handy so I could look up words that were a bit off my vocabulary chart (and there were several) and places that I was unfamiliar with and people, usually other poets, that he referenced.  The richness of his poems opened quite a bit more.  Being that it is a book of poety, I can say that I have read it–twice–but I cannot say that I am through with it.

A big part of my appreciation for this book is knowing that the author is a Christian.  But these are not simple ditties designed to affirm our faith.  Such things are nice, I’m sure, but trite commonplaces are not what the Christian who wants to really read poetry wants to experience.  The faith undergirds the poems.  Wilson’s word-experiences contain troublesome thoughts, even unchaste thoughts, memories, questions, and various angles on a host of life experiences.  That resembles my own life, rather than a series of faith-platitudes.  Again, I am not criticizing encouraging words from believers, but I don’t want my mechanic or dentist to simply exhort me to look to God, and neither should my poet.

Lest I make Wilson’s poetry sound like a “Where’s Waldo” kind of works where the Christian message is hidden in there somewhere, I will share this verse:

“For, while You shroud Yourself in speaking darkness or withdraw,
The world You fashioned coruscates with stars that overawe,
And the abyss in which You set them terrifies my soul.
From those abyssal depths, I cry to You, My God, my goal.
From “De Profundis”

Part of the bigger challenge of poetry is the battle between poetry with rhyme and meter and that which is often called Free Verse.  In the world of poetry today, anything goes in all too many cases.  In spite of Robert Frost’s complaint that writing free verse was like playing tennis without the net,  most of the moderns play poetry without the net.

Wilson describes his labors to work within the parameters of the older forms where rhyme and meter counted.  This book, Some Permanent Things, is a second edition.  I will add that it is published by Wiseblood Books.

It is really far more than a reprinting of the first book, for Wilson says, “This second edition of Some Permanent Things contains all the poems of the first, but each of them has been rewritten to come closer to that ease and fluency that belongs to the classics of our prosody.”  That sentence alone reveals so much about the man and his craft that it alone sold me on the book.

 

On to a couple of other books:

I am nearly finished with reading The Old Life: New Poems by Donald Hall.  I learned of Hall’s death some months back from Remy Wilkins, a most literary friend of mine.  My first thought was that I had never heard of Hall, but then discovered that I owned one of his books, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes:  Remembering Poets and More Poets.  Hall was acquainted with, even more than that, friends with many of the great poets of the twentieth century.  Men like Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and others were among his peers and mentors.

Having learned who he was, I was then delighted when I found The Old Life in a used book quarry for a couple of bucks.  I have been reading it over the past week or two.  Let’s just say that his poems in this collection are strongly autobiographical in a narrative style.  At times, I ask myself what makes his poems poetry?  I ask that quietly, by the way, so as to not look foolish.  There is much that is sad, delightful, whimsical, and homey (home-like) in this work.  Yup, I reckon I will need to read it again after I finish.  And I need to read som more of his books.

The beautiful book in the collection is Collected Sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I love the beauty and design of that old hardback volume, which was another bargain find.  But I do have a bit of concern when poetry is dressed in such finery, lest we think that such poetry is just pretty words for pretty people on pretty occasions.

And I love Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I cannot say her name without feeling like it is poetry.  Why she is not as popular as Robert Frost is a mystery to me.  She was a modern, but her style was very much rooted in the traditions of the past.  I may never read this book from cover to cover, but may, instead, open it to a sonnet or there and read randomly.  Such is the nature of poetry.  And life.