Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark David Hall

 

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For me, the issue was settled back in 1975 when I first started reading about the Calvinistic influence on American history.  There was a history professor at our local community college who was the most scholarly teacher on staff and a thorough-going Calvinist.  A friend told me to take his class because “he teaches the Five Points of Calvinism, and you need to know that for American literature.”  She was right, for American literature is a tug of war between Calvinists (beginning with the Puritans) and those retreating from Calvinism (from Hawthorne to Twain to Crane to Hemingway).

Since 1975, the issue has been raised in a number of ways regarding the question of America’s founding.  Did America have a Christian founding?  By founding, do we mean colonial America or the independent American Republic?  What does it mean that America did or did not have a Christian founding?  And, what difference does it make now?

I am guessing that I have read or heard over 100 full length books, essays, and lectures on the topic of Christianity and America.  I even gave a few of those lectures and have written on it myself in my book.  So,  Mark David Hall’s newest book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, published by Nelson Books, is a welcome guest to the discussion.  But Dr. Hall is not a late arrival to the party.  He has written and contributed to more than a dozen books on the relationship between religion and politics.  These studies include a thorough study of Roger Sherman, who is often overlooked among the Founders and yet was a solid believer.  This book, therefore, is not an author’s exploration of new ground, but rather the scholarly contribution of one who has combed the sources repeatedly.

I will not at this time attempt a chapter by chapter survey of the book, but will instead focus just a bit on the opening chapter.  The issue is Deism.  I once heard someone say, “Whether history repeats itself is not clear, but historians repeat each other.”  Both specialized books and monographs and history textbooks assure us that by the time of the American War for Independence and the writing of the Constitution, Deism had supplanted Christianity as the prevailing religious and philosophical worldview.  And, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and a few other key figures were all basically card-carrying Deists.

This whole contention is problematic.  (I have long waited to use that stuffy word “problematic.”)  There was not a denomination or church group that adhered to the title Deist, but that is not the real issue.  The language attributed to Deism and that attributed to Christianity is identical at points.  I might say, “It is going to rain today.” One might interpret that to mean that I believe that the falling of rain is not the direct intervention and providential control of weather by God, but is the acting of laws of nature that God created, but doesn’t direct minutely.  Should I say, “God is going to send rain today”?  Nothing wrong with that.  As James 4:15 points out, we ought to couch all of our language in terms that indicate God’s present, active control.

I don’t think James is giving us a directive so that we have to be this mechanical.  But there should be an underlying presupposition, a worldview, a philosophy of life, that indicates and reinforces our conviction of God’s presence.  Yet, the Founders were not writing about an “it” or a force or laws of nature.  They used terms like Providence, Governor of the Universe, Architect of the world, and so on.  This language was no more denying orthodox Christianity than my saying “Jesus is Lord” denies the Trinity.

A few people of the time did prescribe to Deism.  These included such men as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine.  Allen, best known now for his name being attached to furniture, played a minimal role (heroic though it was) in the war.  Paine was a brilliant, quirky wordsmith with erratic tendencies.  The “best known” Deists, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were either the two worst Deistic hypocrites of all time or were personally inconsistent in their practice.  R. J. Rushdoony demolished the myth of Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Deism for me when I read the first of This Independent Republic decades ago.

Dr. Hall begins each chapter with a list of quotations from prominent historians and sources that go against his theses.  He provides more quotes and references in the ample endnotes to the book.  Then, he begins systematically answering and refuting the claims.  There are no strawmen here.  The best and most reputable scholars only are allowed in the ring in these matches.

I highly recommend this book.  If you are a history teacher or student, get it immediately.  If you are a pastor, get it quickly.  If you are a patriot, get it soon.  If you cannot buy it right now, ask your personal Santa Claus for the book.  Don’t end 2019 without this work in your hands and on your shelf.

 

October Book Ends

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October is such a beautiful month, but it was not the most successful month of reading and reviewing books for me.  With a combination of books that I am bound to review, readings for my college class, readings for the classes I teach, and readings that are just things I want to read, the overall results fell short.  But I will post a few details of some of the books that some of you might like.

Joseph Minich first showed up on my reading radar a year or so ago.  He is part of a coterie of mostly young, all brilliant, and terribly serious theology and philosophy scholars who make up the Davenant Institute.  They pour out a book or two or three a month, either indidually or as group efforts.  I have read and reviewed several of them, and I have a stack of others that I need to work through.

For a good while, I shied away from this book Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism.  I am more prone to run into someone who is a fan of Lyndon Johnson than I am to run into an atheist.  The intellectual arguments and the apologetics responses are of mild interest.  I slightly envy those who battled in their own hearts and minds over whether or not God exists and then found themselves “dragged kicking and screaming” (in C. S. Lewis fashion) into theism and from there to Christianity.

Even before my sister pointed to house after house and told me that God was there, I believed in God.  I was 5 or younger when that event occurred.  I reckon that I am not a very deep, critical, or philosophical thinker.  I just don’t doubt God.  So, the challenge of atheism is not a primary issue.  But then along comes Joseph Minich.  He and I had been “friends” on Facebook for a good while.  He was, to me, one of those Davenant smarties who was working on a dissertation on something, somewhere.

He never “liked” or commented on any of my Facebook posts, and I rarely acknowledged his.  Then one day, I caught him in a grammar error.  It was the old “him and I–objective pronouns” problem.  I messaged him, rebuked him thoroughly, and pronounced that there was little hope for him unless he changed.  He repented of his grammar sins, and we became, in my opinion, fast friends.  Now, I count him among my favorite chums.

But what about the book?  This book is a short read, but it is not a breezy read.  Among other favorable attributes, Minich references a number of serious Christian scholars who deal with topics relatings to atheism, belief, secularism, the buffered self, and more.  Along with that, he also references other authors and books, such as John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.  And in what is the ultimate test in our day and time, Minich quotes and references Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the books of James K. A. Smith amply.

Bottom line:  Belief is reasonable.  The challenge of modern atheism is more than matched by the response of modern belief.  The generation of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is passing away, and a new age of Christian thinkers is emerging.

Further note:  This is a book of a short enough length to get through quickly, but it does call for slowing down and re-reading.  Also, it is very affordably priced.

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The River of Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books.

As a collection of poetry,  The River of the Immaculate Conception by James Matthew Wilson, has one major flaw.  The book is really short.  The poems, however, are rich.  Reading modern poetry is a challenge because of the abandonment of the traditional forms along with the abandonment of the foundational truths that underlay poetry and poets of the past.

James Matthew Wilson goes against the tide.  These poems have historical and theological connections, and they are rooted in Wilson’s faith and vision.  “The Agnus Dei of Jacques Marquette” is a lengthy and beautiful work about the French Catholic explorer.  Usually, Marquette is paired with Louis Joliet, and together they explored and mapped much of the Mississippi River.  On the national level, the French were looking for the Northwest Passage as well as lands to claim and colonize.  In the broader providence of God, Marquette was bringing the Christian faith to the Native Americans.

Narrative and heroic poems have tended to be a thing of the past.  If an historical figure is the subject of a poem, he or she is an object of irony with subtle undertones dismissing their accomplishments.  Maybe the old type of Longfellow poetry hailing a Paul Revere does not need reviving, but then, maybe it does. I opt for the latter.

As is the case with many short collections of poems, one can read through these seven poems in one sitting and mark the book as read.  But in reality, these poems call for re-reading, ponderous reading, slow, aloud reading, and faith-filled reading.

Key quote to remember:  “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/  That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”

If you haven’t already discovered the poetry and essays of James Matthew Wilson, there is still time to be on the ground floors of his rise to literary fame.

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One of my recent night-time readings was Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It is at night, from a dangerously high stack of bedside reads, that I usually read histories and biographies.  I have acquired several of Goodwin’s biographical and historical books over the past several years.  She is a very popular and successful historian, although one who is also very conventional according to the tastes of our times.

In this book, she deals with four of our past Presidents and shows how they led the country during difficult times.  The subjects were Abraham Lincoln during the War Between the States and particularly the events related to the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt upon his sudden ascension to the Presidency and his handling of the coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt and the First Hundred Days, and Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act.

The book consisted of three parts, each of which devoted a chapter to the four Presidents.  The first part was their childhoods, which were radically different due to Lincoln’s and Johnson’s humble and poor beginnings contrasted with the two Roosevelts who were born to wealth and prominence.  The second set of chapters dealt with early setbacks for the leaders.  The most fascinating account here was that of FDR’s battle with polio which crippled him and could have ended his political career.

The last section of the book dealt with how each leader handled a major crisis or two after they became Presidents.

I am certain that many would rush in to tell me a few or a lot of things wrong with each of these men.  I think I started studying them a good while ago, so I am not unaware of their faults or bad views or bad actions.  I wanted to see how they exercised leadership.  The book was helpful here.

A personally troubling thing about this book was my realization that none of these four men lived past age 64.  As I approach that age, I am increasingly aware of how little I have accomplished.

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Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times by Os Guinness is published by IVP.  

Carpe Diem begins with 14 pages of great quotes from all manner of past and recent thinkers from a wide variety of countries and cultures.  This is a book about time.  The concept of time itself is a philosophical and theological idea.  And then there is our use of it and our limited amount of it.

Os Guinness has written a number of books.  His best books include Dust of Death, The Call, and Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.  If I stumble across a book by him, I buy it and read it.

His writing is full of good references and stories.  In this book, a few of those stories are from his own dangerous background in China during World War II.  He is not overly theological or not exegetical at all in dealing with topics, but he is always unmistakably Christian.

This is a fine read for both devotional studies and serious thought.

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Previews of Current and Upcoming Readings–Or Justifying Book Hoarding

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There are always more books to buy, acquire, read, start, review, re-read, shelve, stack, and hoard.  It is a hopeless quest.  And I continue to persevere and continue to fall behind.  Let me give out some comments on a few books that are on my book stacks and have book marks somewhere near the beginning pages.

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I love biographies and biographical studies.  These two books cover aspects of the lives and ministries of two very different servants of God.

The Pastor of Kilsyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by Banner of Truth.

Banner of Truth has long been known for publishing or reprinting biographies of pastors, theologians, and other Christian figures.  There is a predictability to their works of this sort.  Book collectors and hunters who are generally in the British Isles continue to comb the old libraries and collections and find long forgotten gems.  W. H. Burns is not a well known figure like George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon or other men in pastoral history.  His obscurity is a selling point.

Even in our day, there are many fine, faithful, and gifted publicly known pastors and teachers.  Thank God for these men who are in the limelight and who are preaching weekly and teaching even more often to faithful and large groups of people.  But how many pastors are there out there who are speaking to congregations of less than 100 people?  Or, in some cases, less than 50 people?  The work of God’s Kingdom depends on the faithful local pastor even more than it depends on the man whose name is well known in the Christian world.

Iain Murray, a man responsible for so many good books he wrote and more that he got published, says that this book is “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  His endorsement alone is enough for me.

Never Doubt Thomas:  The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant by Francis J. Beckwith is published by Baylor University Press.

We learn by small increments.  Names, key facts, descriptive phrases, and a few other mental bullet points make up much of the foundations for learning.  Learning begins by simplifying, and simplification is, by its very nature, distortion.  The name of Thomas Aquinas appears in virtually every study of European history or theology.  He was and is the linchpin for much of Catholic theology, but he is also reckoned to be one of the biggest names in philosophy, especially Medieval philosophy.  While philosophers come and go, there are still many who self identify as Thomistic scholars.

The simplification says that Aquinas took Aristotle’s writings and fitted them within Christian doctrines, thus creating a syncretism of sorts that was both Catholic theology and Greek philosophy.  The problem with such simplifications is that the largest work of Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologica, runs into multiple volumes, and there are other books as well that he did.  He was a profound and vast thinker.

Many of the authors I have read over the years gave short shrift to Aquinas.  Granted, they were not writing about him specifically or in depth, but I picked up the mode of dismissing Aquinas and anyone who claimed to be in his camp.  “Fools rush in…” as the saying goes.

There are a number of respected Protestant theologians and philosophers who hold Aquinas in great esteem.  The list includes Alvin Plantiga, J. P. Moreland, Carl Trueman, and most notably, the late R. C. Sproul.  Sproul listed Aquinas as one of his five favorite theologians, with the others being Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.

I welcome this book and this study.  I am too little informed in Aquinas to give a sound yea or nay.  I figure he said plenty to serve as grist for the anti-Thomistic mill, but I suspect he was solid in many areas.

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As a further effort to understand Aquinas, I am looking forward to reading Scott Oliphint’s short study Thomas Aquinas from the Great Thinkers series now being published by P & R Publishing. I suspect that this book may not be as favorable to Aquinas as Beckwith’s study.  I will comment later on how thrilled I am that there is a new Great Thinkers series being done by P & R.  I have read some of Oliphint’s works.  He is an apologetics professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and is considered to be an expert on Cornelius Van Til.

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Enduring Divine Absence: Modern Atheism by Joseph Minich is published by The Davenant Institute.

I have gotten to know Joseph Minich a bit better over the past few months through Facebook connections and messages back and forth.  I was impressed with him as a young, dedicated, and sharp philosophy teacher and Christian man.  Now I am reading his engaging and short work on atheism.  I always approach these books with a bit of hesitation.  For whatever reason, I have always been too simple minded to be an atheist.  Lots of sins are attractive, but denying God has just never been a vulnerability for me.

Nevertheless, there are many who grapple with this issue personally, academically, socially, and evangelistically.  The issue is not as simple as “You are stupid if you don’t believe in God.”  (Although, I admit that is my basic presupposition.)  Minich gleans from a number of scholars, both believers and unbelievers, is setting for his case.  I especially enjoyed reading his comments today on John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies.  I am trying to reappraise my negative feelings about that book after reading Minich.

This book is published by The Davenant Institute.  I hope, soon, to post a whole article on their flooding the market with powerful and weighty books.

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Cresap’s Rifles: The Untold Story of the Riflemen Who Helped Save George Washington’s Army was written by Robert L. Bantz, Karen E. Cresap, Nina Cresap, and Champ Zumbrun.

I am continually going back and studying the American War for Independence.  That war competes with both the World Wars and the War Between the States for attention in my mind, but it does attract a share of my reading.  One of the things I realize continually is how little I know of the lesser known details of that war.  As this book’s title says, it is an “untold story.”

The American riflemen were one of the main reasons why the small and struggling Patriot army was able to survive year and year and finally witness the defeat of the British.  The British army, and the mercenary Hessian forces as well, were outstanding on the battlefields of America (and Europe).  In certain types of set fighting, their skills, discipline, and methods were superb.  To back that up, one only needs to look at such books as Matthew Dziennik’s The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in North America  and Matthew H. Springs’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America.

The Kentucky Long Rifles, as they were sometimes called, were game changers.  The rifled barrels, especially when used by able frontiersman, had a range that exceeded the traditional muskets.  Small numbers of these riflemen were able to offset the balance in between the European and home-grown American armies.

This book is filled with pictures and personal details as well.  Michael Cresap was not well when he got called to raise up riflemen and trek across the country to join Washington’s troops.  Our freedom was not easily won, and this book chronicles some of the cost.

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A Guitar and a Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters is edited by Robert Hicks.  I am delighted by this book for two reasons.  First, I like…make that love country music, especially the older versions that are without question truly country.  Second, I read Widow of the South by Robert Hicks of Franklin, Tennessee several years ago and have gathered up every book I can find that he has written.

Thanks to Phyllis Buckman for thinking of me and giving me this book.

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Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence by Jessica Hooten Wilson is published by The Ohio State University Press.

This book is going to simply be too good.  I know that because it combines two of my greatest loves–Southern literature and Dostoevsky.  Add to that that is was written by Jessica Hooten Wilson.  I first heard of Dr. Wilson from my daughter, TaraJane, who was attending John Brown University.  As TaraJane kept describing the style and intellectual challenge of this teacher, I kept thinking that it was a reincarnation.  Only the late Louise Cowan from the University of Dallas could be that incredible.

Sure enough, Dr. Wilson studied under Dr. Cowan and imbibed the same approach to literature and love for many of the same authors.  Earlier this year, I read Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  That was a great study of two Christian authors from different times and circumstances.

I say this too many times about too many authors, but it must be said again of this author:  I want to buy and read everything that Jessica Hooten Wilson writes.

New Titles from InterVarsity Press

 

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There is a down side to being a book reviewer.  “Time’s winged chariots” are rarely allow me the privilege of merely enjoying a book.  I need to get it finished. I need to post a review.  I need to share that review on Amazon and Goodreads.  I need to assure the publisher that I am worth their efforts to supply me with the goods.

In days past, there was a world where time could sometimes stand still while I dug deeper and deeper into the books at hand.  There were always more to read and stacks of unreads, but there was a time carved out for the book in front of me, a conversation with the author, and a slipping away from the constraints of time and time’s tyrannies.

That idyllic memory aside, I must highlight a few reads from recent weeks and months from InterVarsity Press.

Disruptive Witness

Just this morning, I finished reading Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.  (Published by IVP.)

One of my favorite things about IVP books is that so many of them are aimed at middle-level serious readers.  Some, alas way too many, Christian books are fluff.  I despise their large print, double spacing between lines, and easy, sweetened, and calorie free content.  On the other hand, there are tomes and monographs where Christian scholars and academics toss boulders back and forth, laden with footnotes, foreign sources, and theological underpinnings that leave me quaking on the sidelines.  Many of IVP’s titles are academic, scholarly, serious, and yet very readable by laymen and non-academic folk.  They are challenging, but accessible.  This book is one such case.

Do I need to argue the case that we live in a “distracted age”?  I have no assurance that you will even finish reading this blog post (in spite of its brilliance) because it is so easy to click to something else.  Digital things, the cyber world, and gadgets have compounded the distractions in a world already inhabited by machines, schedules, and pressures that prevent us from engaging ourselves with our Creator, His Creation, and our fellow men and women.  Even in sitting still long enough each morning for a week or two to listen to Alan Noble’s case, I found myself wanting the easy list of bullet points.  “Write the chapters, Alan, and then give me a list of 5 simple things to do.”  Although Noble gave plenty of suggestions and exhortations, he did not give me the Cliff’s Notes version of applications.

In what should not surprise us, one of the key emphases of his book was on worship.  Without slipping over between the trenches of the worship wars, I will summarize his arguments by saying that he calls for us to have real, participatory worship that is not geared toward imitating the world.  He also calls us to observe the creation.  I own five acres of God’s earth.  Of course, I am really only a steward of it, but even with land, I am all too prone to slip right past the wonders and awe of God’s creation that surrounds me.

One final note:  For at least the 10th time (maybe 20th time or more), I find an author who borrows heavily from Christian philosopher Charles Taylor’s work A Secular Age.  Glad I have that book; wish I could get serious about reading it.

In Search of the Common Good

A few weeks ago, I read In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador.

Both Meador and Noble are young authors and thinkers.  Their youth has not prevented them from thinking of some issues and concerns that call for wisdom and discernment.  Meador’s book is a call for community.  His discussion of the “fractured world” is not all that different from Noble’s discussion of a “distracted age.”  My problem with community and connectedness is that it sounds like something that was just fine back in the days of slower moving automobiles, party-line telephones, and long established neighborhoods.  But the fact that that world changed doesn’t mean that we as people have changed.  Christians are often as rootless and clueless as the worldlings next door.

We are also often as lonely and fractured as those outside of Christ.  There is always that nagging concern that we are getting more and more things, and that the things we are getting are better and better, and yet, we are more isolated, more unconnected, more fractured than ever.

Just make this easy on yourself:  Get both of these books and read them one after the other.  The hard part will be making the life-style changes and implementing a different outlook.  These are not two old men remembering the good old days.  These are young Christian men with young children who are seeking to find those practices rooted in Scripture and tradition that will enrich our lives.

On the other hand, Eugene Peterson was an old man and is now home with God.  The term paralleling with “fractured world” and “distracted age” that shows up in his book is “instant society.”  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society has been reprinted in a finely done hardback “Commemorative Edition” by IVP.

I first read this book several years ago and was delighted to see it reprinted.  Re-reading it was a joy as well.  Peterson’s book is actually a running commentary on the Psalms of Ascent, those being Psalms 120 through 134.  He presents each psalm through a discussion of its meaning and application.  This is not an in-depth Bible study, nor is it a quick devotional.  Once again, it fulfills that middling operation.  Each discussion is filled with typical bits of Peterson’s allusions to literature, personal anecdotes, and insights into the meanings of the passages.

The amazing thing is that the remarkable title comes from an unlikely source–Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”  As Peterson notes with a chuckle, no doubt, Nietzsche was probably turning over in his grave to see his very used being used by a Christian pastor and author and being read by Christians for over forty years now.

 

 

 

 

Fiction: Some Fun Reads

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I was completely distressed recently when I heard a literature teacher in a graduate level college class say that she could not remember when she last read a novel.  My working assumption is that the only reason to be a literature teacher at any level is to enjoy reading the novels, short stories, poems, and plays that we love over and over again.  Along with that, reading new or unread classic works is great because one can be sitting down reading and all the while contending that one is working.

My reading tastes range a bit widely, and I wish the ranger were even wider.  One area of particular delight is in reading novels.  For many years, I distanced myself from almost anything that was recent and certainly anything that hit the best seller lists.  That is not a fatal error, but there is a problem in assuming that because so many things of our age are bad that, therefore, everything current is bad.  Good novels are still being written.  Are they great? Are they destined to be classics?  I don’t know.  Few books make the cut of being classics, and even the most respected lists contain some howlers and omit some worthies.

A few years back, I was lured by George Grant into the deep recesses of the intelligence agency of the Israeli government.  Since that time, I have found myself locked into more and more intrigues, conspiracies, thwarting of terrorist attacks, and rescuing of victims of bad cartels, drug and weapon lords, and other international bad guys.  Thankfully, all of this stressful activity was confined to reading the novels of Daniel Silva and his series of Gabriel Allon books.

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My most recent Silva read was The Other Woman.  I feel like I could be one of the reviewers who always says someting like “Silva’s Best” or “He keeps getting better and better.”  Some of this stems from being more and more familiar with the whole story of Gabriel Allon, his wife and children, his co-workers, the foreign operatives among both allies and enemies, and especially such regulars as Ari Shamron (and his stinking cigarettes and Zippo lighter), Uzi Navot, and Eli Lavon.  The good news is that I have the next Silva novel, The New Girl, waiting on the bedside table to be started during the next mental crisis in my life.  (Word of caution to married Silva readers:  Be careful of someone hearing you talk out of context when you are speaking of The Other Woman and The New Girl.)

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When the dangers of international espionage are too much, I prefer to get away from it all.  I then head off to Wyoming, to Twelve Sleep County, and enjoy the scenery and the hunting seasons there.  Of course, Joe Pickett always shows up, and Joe seems to be a magnet for trouble.  I speak here of the Joe Pickett novels of C. J. Box.  I would love it if Joe Pickett and Gabriel Allon ever teamed up to deal with international terrorists who left some dead bodies on the hunting trails of Wyoming.

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I was coaxed into a hunting trip by John Pendergraft who subsequently got me hooked on C. J. Box.  From the first page of the first book I read, I was totally enthralled by his writing, characters, plots, and descriptions.  Joe is a family man with a host of normal family problems and concerns.  Joe is also a game warden who would be well served if he only issued citations to folks who were fishing without licenses (excepting the former governor of his state).   But Joe always gets tangled up in some horrible crime that exceeds merely shooting an elk out of season.

My most recent Box read was Wolf Pack.  That book was a chilling read.  I began to wonder who, if anyone, would survive from Joe’s world.  As amazed as I am by Box’s Pickett novels, he has also done quite a few other books in the same murder mystery/hunt down a criminal genre with other characters, who are also living in the American West.  Before I read Wolf Pack, I read Back of Beyond.  I wonder now if it may just be Box’s best book.  And, I think I have one more book by him that I have not read.

CJ Box speaks at at the Douglas County (Colorado) Library on THE BITTERROOTS tour in 2019

I have managed to get hardback copies of all of the Joe Pickett novels minus one.  And I have even got an autographed book or two, but I will not be satisfied until I am standing in front of the man himself, cowboy hat and all, and getting some of my copies signed.  His latest book, Bitterroots, is on my wish list, but I don’t have it yet.

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The distinctions between literary novels and escape reading can be helpful, but limited in usefulness.  I read, along with the spy and murder novels, some novels that are more “literary” and which have more thought-filled development.  Those last four words terrify me, because a novel absolutely must have an element of enjoyment to it.

Bradley Birzer mentioned a few months ago how much he enjoyed the novel Armstrong by H. W. Crocker III.  This book was published by Regnery Fiction, which is a branch of Regnery Publishing, one of the most solid publishers of conservative books.  I got the book and started reading, little by little, during my short, sleepy afternoon reading break.  After the second chapter, the book got put aside for other pressing matters and because I was not very interested.

Then one night, a few weeks ago, I picked it back up.  Started the second chapter again and was somewhat interested.  Then I went all the way back to the beginning and read–over the next week or so–the whole book.  It was delightful and a hoot.  I am not normally attracted to a novel that is described as “delightfully funny,” but I got drawn in.

To retell the story a bit, General Custer actually survives the Battle of Little Big Horn in this novel.  He then escapes from an Indian tribe and begins a series of adventures that entail a wide array of wily characters, outlaws, and odd fellows.  The story gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.  On the cover it says, “The Custer of the West Series,” so I hope that it is the first of many.

More recently, I read Lief Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander.  Several years ago, I stumbled upon a copy of his first novel Peace Like a River.  I thought it was probably a western since the cover featured a man on horseback.  Shortly after that, I was unable to sleep one night, and I picked up that book and started reading.  I love it.  Gave away copies of it.  Told people about it.  When So Brave, Young, and Handsome came out, I picked up a copy, read it, and like it, although I was not as moved as by the first book.

Last Christmas, Virgil Wander was on my want list, and it found its way under our Christmas tree.  But I held on to it for months before reading it.  When I started it, just a few weeks ago, I kept thinking that maybe Enger had bottomed out on this one.  But slowly, I began getting involved in the weird, quirky, but loveable ways of the main character Virgil Wander and his host of friends.  They are an odd bunch, just like all the rest of us.  Before I was half way through the book, I was longing each day to catch up with what was going on.  All in all, a very good and perceptive read.

I picked up the novel Fallen Land by Taylor Brown last week and read it this week.  It had two chief appealing attributes:  It was priced for a dollar at a Dollar Store and it is set in the Civil War.  I knew nothing of the book or author prior to this.  This is Brown’s first novel, and for a firster, it was very engaging.  Once again, I found my life caught up in the characters.  But this time, I was not in the Israeli intelligence community, or on the hunting trails of the west, or alongside Sheriff Armstrong (George Custer) or watching old films with Virgil Wander.  I was trying to escape from bounty hunters (who were ex-Confederate guerrilla fighters) along with a young man named Callum and a woman named Ava.  The flight was across the barrens of the lower Appalachian area and into and across the swath of burned out territory left by Sherman’s Army.  This was a good book.

I guess I will never be a real literature professor or teacher because I am still reading.  Hope to start reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The New Girl by Daniel Silva, and some books by the recently deceased Herman Wouk soon.

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A Christian and a Democrat–Franklin D. Roosevelt

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A Christian and a Democrat:  A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F.  Woolerton and James D. Bratt is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Merely mentioning the names of Franklin D. Roosevelt in many of the circles where I am involved raises immediate irritation, ire, and objections.  Although he has been gone for nearly 70 years, even people who were not alive during his time are roused to disgust when he is mentioned.  For some, the opposition is due to his New Deal Programs.  Others are suspicious of his handling of World War II from our entry into the war to conduct of the war and on to FDR’s actions regarding the conclusion of the war.  Then there are others who have great concerns over the idea that he was a near dictator, that he was in office to long, that he was conniving, and that he was reckless in his disregard of the Constitution.  Finally, there are plenty of concerns about Roosevelt the man in his private life, especially regarding his unfaithfulness to his wife Eleanor.

Every facet of FDR’s life and Presidency is up for discussion, subject to examination, and open for strong passions.  In my own case, I find that very few Democrats seem to be interested in FDR in any sense.  For them, Democrat Party history reaches all the way back to maybe Bill Clinton.  Perhaps, I simply don’t know or hear from enough Democrats.  But for conservatives–ranging from Reaganites (like me) to more Libertarian types to Christians with political interests–FDR is much more a topic of interest and opposition.

Here is my own autobiography:  I developed an interest in Presidential politics in my young age and quickly adopted FDR as my favorite President.  I was raised in a Southern Democrat home where politics was rarely a topic of conversation.  For most of their years, my parents voted straight Democrat.  (My Dad strongly disliked Hubert Humphrey, but he still voted for him.) I began straying from the old ways when I gravitated toward Richard Nixon in 1972.  It was when I entered college that my whole perspective changed.  Calvinism took a huge chunk out of my previously held and unexamined political thoughts.  One of Johnny Carson’s guests on the Tonight Show helped seal my political fate.  That guest was William F. Buckley, Jr.  A few days after watching that part of the Tonight Show, I checked out Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  

Much of my understanding and teaching was critical of FDR on several fronts.  Yet I never got past a certain admiration for his considerable political skills and for his personal triumph over polio.  As an orator, he was first rate.  As a radio speaker, he was the man of the hour.  As a skillful executive, he was among the best.  None of his gifts diminished his flaws and failings.

An important truth for a history student (or scholar) is that we are not being called upon to vote for, approve, condemn, or justify historical figures.  We are called upon to first understand them.  From a vast factual base, we can try to interpret what they did and why.  Admittedly, we will often have an agreement with their actions or a sympathy for them or a personal liking for them.  Writing hagiolatry (the worship of saints) or writing hit jobs are not the work of serious historians.

When I first saw the book A Christian and a Democrat, I knew this was a book I wanted to read.  It is a part of a fine series Eerdsmans publishes called The Library of Religious Biography.  I have several of the volumes of that series and previously reviewed Damning Words: The Life and Times of H. L. Mencken by D. G. Hart.  The biographies range from the expected religious leaders, like Cotton Mather and Billy Sunday, to unexpected and often political figures, like Thomas Jefferson and William E. Gladstone.

FDR was raised in the Episcopal Church where he remained an active member all his life.  The Book of Common Prayer was always at his bedside, and his copy was well worn.  He was schooled at Groton and was heavily influenced by Endicott Peabody who drilled his charges in academic and spiritual exercises.  FDR sang hymns, even played the piano at services, labored to help the needy and the young, served on the board of his local church, and always included worship services before his taking oaths of office.

One of my favorite pictures is of FDR and Churchill onboard a ship at the Atlantic Conference in mid-1941.  They are in a worship service together and are singing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Whatever else one might think of these two men and their staffs and military joined in worship, this much is true:  Never would there have been a picture of Hitler and Mussolini worshiping together.

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Roosevelt’s faith was pronounced and public.  Perhaps more than any other President, he spoke of faith in his addresses and quoted Scripture.  He even led the nation in prayer via a radio address on the occasion of the Normandy invasion.  His was not merely a public and for political gain faith, but was a part of the essential man himself.

Theologically, what was he?  FDR’s faith was shaped by the traditional cadences, prayers, and services of the Episcopal Church.  His instruction was infused with lots of Social Gospel content.  In some ways, the Social Gospel that he absorbed was of the better sort.  By that, I mean that he had a strong commitment to acts of service in the community, among the poor, and help to people in need.  He read quite a bit through the years, but was not a serious reader of theology or of Christian doctrine.  He was active in church as a participant and a lay leader, but said little that could contribute to a statement of faith.  From the book, one picks up little or nothing about his take on theological issues of his day or upon the details of his beliefs.

I suspect that he heard many sermons that were tinged by liberal theology, Social Gospel teachings, then-modern deviations from orthodoxy, and Neo-Orthodoxy.  I never got the sense from the book that FDR absorbed or embraced those teachings.  While relatively well read and well educated, he was not a deep thinker.  Did he believe the fundamentals of the faith?  Did he accept the historic teachings of the faith?  He seemed to be a faithful follower of his church’s teachings and traditions without any comments on them.

The historian cannot probe the heart.  Even the man in the pew or pulpit has to be careful when doing that.  I have trouble probing my own heart, much less that of anyone else.  Of course, we can evaluate what a person professes and how he lives.  That assumes that we can know and hear and see enough of the person’s life and words.

Roosevelt was, at least for one period of his life, unfaithful in his marriage to Eleanor.  Theirs was not a model marriage, although politically they were extremely helpful to one another.  Dr. Woolverton says that FDR was remorseful over his adultery which occurred early in the marriage.  He never mentions or alludes to other cases of unfaithfulness.  One can add FDR’s  other sins to the list, if he wishes.  FDR was notorious for lying, but again one has to look carefully to see when he was outright falsifying the truth or when he was concealing things or being canny for political purposes.  I am not trying to give him or any other politician a free pass to distort truth, but am referring to cases where FDR was compelled to mislead or not answer completely when asked about matters that were sensitive due to the war.

A later chapter in the book deals with FDR’s fascination with Soren Kierkegaard.  An Episcopal minister was invited to dine with the Roosevelts.  At that time, Kierkegaard was not widely read or known, but the evils of World War II had awakened an interest in him by more people, including this minister, named Howard Johnson.  Johnson explained Kierkegaard’s views of sin and evil to FDR who found it all fascinating.  It appears that FDR basically accepted a Cliff-notes-like understanding of the Danish philosopher, but that he found it all helpful in understanding the evil of the Nazis.

To sum up, what difference does it make?  This is far from a summary question, for the relationship of an individual with God is the most important question of all.  And the relationship between a national leader and God is vital.  How FDR responded to both domestic crises (the Great Depression) and international crises (World War II) were shaped by his faith commitments.  What a man believes and how he acts or governs are connected.  None of this means that believers are better leaders or that faith leads to perfect policy positions.

All in all, this book is a fascinating study of a complex and religious man.  This book needs to be supplemented by other more broad biographies of Roosevelt, but it does have a useful focus on a part of his life that will not likely get adequate coverage in the standard biography.

 

The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson

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Every pastor, teacher, and serious Christian should have a healthy dose of Puritan theology.  Over and over again, I have heard it:  Read the Puritans.  Whole volumes have been written on the value of the Puritans.

But there is a problem.  It is not as though someone said to read the works of this author or that one.  But the call is to read “the Puritans.”  The Puritans of England, along with some of their heirs who paddled over the pond to New England, were among the more prolific, and sometimes wordy, writers that ever lived.  Sometimes their styles are dense, archaic, and too formal for easy reading.  But sometimes they are clear, crisp, and as pointed as a sharp knife.  But still there is the immensity of the task of even plodding through particular volumes, much less through whole sets, of Puritan works.

I suspect that there are more Puritan writings available today than at any time in history.  One of the main publishers of Puritan works has been the Banner of Truth Trust.

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The Banner, however, has no monopoly on Puritan reprints.  As a point to consider, you should be able to quickly judge the depth of a pastor by how many books he has on his shelves by Puritans and their direct theological descendants.  And you can make it a point to see how many Banner of Truth works he has. If his shelves are sagging from the weight of so many Puritan works, you can either buy him more or get him more bookshelves.  If his book collection makes you think of the wimpy guy on the beach before he embraced the Charles Atlas body-building program, you will know what to get him for Christmas, his birthday, and Pastor Appreciation month.

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The relentless accumulation of Puritan tomes doesn’t really solve the problem, however, of the immensity of the task of reading the Puritans.  For that reason, I want to strongly recommend The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson.  Yes, this is a Banner of Truth book.

Terry L. Johnson has read, gleaned, and cherry picked the Puritans with great skill.  This book of nearly 400 pages would be cut in half if all of his fine quotes from Puritans and their fellow travelers were cut out.  This book is a primer on what Puritans to read, which volumes to peruse, and what method to use to get the Puritans’ thoughts into your own heart and mind first and then into your preaching and teaching.  Names like Charnock, Sibbes, Trapp, Henry, Owen, Edwards, Poole, Bunyan, Watson, Gurnall, and Baxter become household names after just going a few chapters into the book.  Add to that, you get a number of other great Christian writers such as Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, A. W. Pink, James Henley Thornwell, and more.  Learning begins with lists and recognition skills.  I promise that if someone were to read this book and then pick a book every month by almost any of the authors quoted, he would have years of good reading choices.

All this being said, Johnson did not write primarily to introduce us to Puritans and other theological writers.  They are only eligible for being the supporting cast for this book.  The key theme, purpose, goal, and objective for the reader is to know God.

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It might seem like God is the Big E on the eye vision chart.  We might think that the pressing need in the church is to focus on family, marriage, the current cultural challenges, witnessing and evangelism, and many more practical things.  Of what practical use is hearing about the incommunicable attributes of God? This entire book seeks to answer that question.  A case can be made that all of the practical needs in the church, all of the cultural problems, and all of the defects in our theology stem from inaccurate, inadequate, and unbiblical views of God.

Pastor Johnson, who ministers in the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, originally set out to preach ten sermons on the attributes of God.  It didn’t turn out that way, for he ended up preaching 82 sermons in that series.  This book is the distillation of that series.  Whether one reads for devotional purposes, or desires to delve into theology, or seeks to find material for preaching and teaching, this book is a gem.

On the cover of a 1971 album, the rock group Jethro Tull described modern folks saying, “In the beginning man created God in his own image.”  This is not too far from a statement by Karl Barth: “I said concerning critical reflection that it cannot be good to reverse the order and turn ‘Thus says the Lord’ into ‘Thus hears man’….”  I have been convicted in paragraph after paragraph of this book that I may know God and be known of God, but I have taken the name, identity, and attributes of God far too lightly.

I highly recommend this book.  Thanks to Banner of Truth for publishing it and to Pastor Terry Johnson for laboring to write and share it.