To Light a Fire on the Earth

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Several statements need to be made right up front:  This is the 500 year celebration of the Protestant Reformation.  I am a Protestant who holds to Reformed Theology.  While my heroes were once cowboys (allusion to Willie Nelson’s song), they have long since been theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and on and on.  I hold to the 5 Solas of the Reformation, the 5 Points of Calvinism, and many other listings of theological concerns.

The fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church, which Luther and Calvin belonged to but sought to change, is still around.  We are 500 years past the Reformation.  That does not mean that everything is okay now or that we can shake our heads in disbelief over theological battles of the past.  But many features of the ground war has changed. The fact that Catholics and Protestanst both recited the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer is a reminder of common ground.

The presidential candidacy of Al Smith in 1928 was harmed in part by his Roman Catholic faith.  John Kennedy broke down that barrier in 1960 in an address to Baptists in Houston, Texas.  While many may have objected to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan during the 2012 Presidential election when they were the opposing Vice Presidential candidates, the Catholicism both held to was not a factor.

We are grappling with a Secular Age, as Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has noted in his brief pamphlett (of some 874 pages).  Carl Trueman (Calvinist theologian and historian) notes that Taylor was grappling with the question of why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500 and yet an easy option in 2000.  Secularism, as a philosophy or worldview, has many children.  We see the progeny in issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, rampant pornography, and a retreat from historic moral beliefs.  We see issues which even Christians differ over how to approach:  the size of government, who controls education, the flood of immigrants into the country, and gun control.

A popular saying, once seen on Christian trinkets, proclaimed, “Christ is the answer.”  I believe that, but first we have to go back to what the question is.  And, just saying “Christ is the answer” is not the answer.

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I received a review book last month titled To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age.  It is written largely by John L. Allen Jr., but is taken from his extensive interviews and quotes from Catholic Bishop Robert Barron. It is published by Image Books and is distributed by Word on Fire ministry.  Before I received and read this book, I knew nothing of Bishop Barron and Word on Fire.

I would encourage evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist (overlap or separate those descriptions as you wish) and other believers to strongly consider reading and applying this book.  Barron is doing a work in our time that parallels the work of Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s-70s.  Those of us who balk, cringe, or just mildly disagree with Bishop Barron’s theology can profit greatly from seeing what he is doing and why.

  1.  Bishop Barron’s key labors are in the areas of teaching or communicating a message.  He has written books, taught in seminary and other settings, and served in pastoral roles throughout his career.  His main fame has come through Youtube videos and a film series on Catholicism (viewed historically).  The printing press made Luther.  Multiple printing presses made the Geneva of Calvin’s day.  Background training on the stage made George Whitefield.  Printings of sermons helped make Charles Spurgeon.  For a time, radio broadcasts enabled some preachers to reach wide audiences.  I never saw Billy Graham in person, but I watched many of his Crusades and heard many messages from him on television.  Cassette tapes were my seminary at one point in life.                                                                                      Youtube is what has enabled Bishop Barron to reach wider-than-expected audiences.
  2.  One of Barron’s target audiences is lapsed Catholics.  That means people who were born or raised Catholic but who drifted away from their roots.  Some changed and became members of Protestant churches, but many are still Catholic (as in knowing which box to check on forms asking about religion) but have no involvement or commitment to church at all.  If lapsed Catholics were listed as an official religion, it would be the second largest denomination in the United States.                                                                                                                                                   I would like to think that this is a Catholic problem and a result purely of their theology.  Nominal Catholicism could be listed as a fruit of Catholicism.  But there are way too many people who were born and raised in some versions of Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Penecostal, and other churches who have drifted away, never commited, and have ignored the Christian life.  Far too many church rolls are full of people who are out there somewhere, but who are not in church.
  3. A growing demographic in America are people who are classified as “Nones.”  Barron and Allen joke about the Catholic need to distinguish between “Nones” and “Nuns” when talking to Catholics groups.  Nones fit into the profile listed above–Catholics and Protestants who are unchurches.  But they differ in that they now identify themselves on forms and surveys by checking the word “None” where their religious preference is asked.  Related to this is an increasing ignorance of the Bible, basic Christian doctrines, fundamentals of theology, and traditions of Christendom.  When President George W. Bush made a reference to “wounded traveler on the road to Jericho,” he left some of the reporters baffled.  (See Luke 10:30)                                                                                                                                                                                These Nones are not likely to just show up in our church services.  The rituals that minister to the rest of us will not likely appeal to them.
  4. Barron’s repeated emphasis is on the priority of Christ.  He is very Christocentric.  His best known book is titled The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.  He really, truly believes, emphasizes, and teaches the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This emphasis in this book and in Barron’s teachings resonated strongly with me.

I especially loved Barron and Allen’s chapter titled “Truth.”  Barron tells the story of a little nine year old girl who tells him the story of star Wars in detail.  After the story, which included every minor player and complicated name, he asked the mother, “Now tell me why little kids can’t understand the Bible?”  True enough, if they can master a grand narrative like Star Wars, the Avengers, the Harry Potter world, and other stories, they can grasp the essentials and the particulars of the Bible.  In another example, Barron was talking to a group of teachers in Catholic schools.  He said, “I hate dumbed-down Catholicism.”  when they applauded, he told them to not applaud but to do something about it.

“High school kids can handle a lot of serious stuff; so why aren’t they reading C. S. Lewis? Why aren’t they reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton?  Why aren’t they reading Aquinas, for that matter?  My nephew, he’s a smart kid, he’s a junior in high school, and he’s a math guy….Man alive, the complexity of the math books he’s dealing with….Why couldn’t we give him Augustine or Thomas Aquinas?….We dumbed it down out of this attempt to be relevant.”

As a teacher in a Christian school, I can identify with Barron’s objections to dumbed down Catholicism and “Beige Catholicism.”  We face the same problems on our side of the divide.

This is a worthy book and a great introduction to part of what is going on among those who are on the other side of the Reformation divide.

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The Christian Mind

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A post like this must, by the law of the jungle, begin with the famous quote by Harry Blamires.  He began his book The Christian Mind with the words, “There is no longer a Christian mind.”  But that book was originally published in 1963–over 50 years ago.  I am not totally convinced of how true it was in 1963, but am convinced that there is a Christian mind today.

Without trying to miss the point that Blamires was making, he was writing in a time where C. S. Lewis (his friend), J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Gordon Clark, Carl F. H. Henry, Herman Dooyeweerd, Flannery O’Connor, Arthur Holmes, R. J. Rushdoony, Stanley Jaki, Jaroslav Pelikan, H. R. Rookmaaker, H. Van Reisen, and many others were not only still living, but were writing books or in some cases preparing intellectually for the great works they would later write.

These were not just men (and women, in the case of O’Connor) who were brainy teachers in Bible colleges or intellectually leaning pastors.  Christian thought was and is part of a tidal wave.  None of this is designed to call for a mental rest break or assume we have captured all or even much of the academic high ground.  But finding top-heavy Christian books, journals, and monographs is not an impossible chore today.  Being able to keep up with it all is impossible.

I remember back around the mid-1980s, I was teaching a course on American literature for a local college.  I asked a Christian thinker about good books on American literature or literature in general from a Christian perspective.  He told me that there wasn’t any.  (Again, this was pre-internet days and I think there was more stuff out there that neither he nor I were aware of.)  Now, I have shelves of books about American literature and American thought from Christian or theological perspectives.  Some of it is light and fluffy, but much of it is deep and weighty.  Some books are overtly Christian, while others are written with some Christian underpinnings or beliefs of the writers that are not openly displayed.

If there are several shelves of books on literature from Christian perspectives, they are walls full of books on history from the same.  Name about any field of academic thought, and there can be found Christians who are plowing up the ground and cultivating those areas for Christ.  Not all of the theological perspectives are the same, nor is the orthodoxy of the thinkers identical.  Marilynne Robinson’s idea of Reformed theology gives me the heebie-jeebies, but she is writing fiction and essays from a Christian perspective.  Roy Clouser’s views on origins is revolting to me, but his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality is a block buster.

I work in the thinking business.  I am a teacher of history, literature, government, and theology in a classical Christian school.  On the one hand, I am not a heavy weight, but I do try to work out and lift the barbells of the best Christian thinkers around.  I am constantly amazed at what Jesus Christ is doing in our time to reclaim the MIND as well as the rest of the earth in His active role as King of Kings.

In this post, I will merely highlight three books–two new ones and one overlooked one–that will challenge the intellect as well as minister to the heart.

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The first book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, edited by Collin Hansen and published by The Gospel Coalition.

If The Gospel Coalition had never published this book, I would still be heavily indebted to them for the many fine articles, blogs, and authors who contribute to their ministry.  I am sure that if I looked long enough, I could find some (or many) points to dispute, but that contentious spirit does not serve me well, nor does it usually serve the greater Christian community well.

This book is a great contribution to Christian thought.  But it is, in one sense, just a group of guys all pointing–excitedly–to a Catholic Christian philosopher, named Charles Taylor, and his monumental book titled Our Secular Age.

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Occasionally, I do something brilliant.  When it happens, it is sometimes an accident.  Some years ago, a local bookstore had some library copies of books for sale for $3 a piece.  Most were of no interest.  There was a fat book among them titled Our Secular Age.  It sounded somewhat interesting, so I went home and looked it up.  That evening, I had to take my son Nicholas (then in high school) to a party.  On the way, I stopped and grabbed the book for three bucks (hardback with mylar covering the dust jacket and in like new condition).

Several years later, I began hearing more and more about the book.  Meanwhile, Nick was at college and was reading Sources of the Self by the same Charles Taylor.  I slowly began connecting the dots. Then James K. A. Smith published a book titled How Not to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.  Then Nick graduated college and began some overdue leisure reading, which included Our Secular Age.

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As is often the case, I am ten or more years behind everyone else on important books and issues.  But I am working on catching up so I won’t be eleven or more behind.  So I graciously received and have now read this new collection of essays on Taylor’s book.  Working backward, I will likely read Smith’s book and then cautiously begin scaling Mount Taylor.

Several points in reference to the Gospel Coalition essays:

  1.  Collin Hansen is top notch to me.  I really loved Young, Restless, Reformed when I read it a few years back.  It excited me and helped awaken me to what is going on in the ever widening Reformed circles.
  2. Several of the contributors are known to me, including Hansen, Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, and Bruce Riley Ashford.  Those names are all in the plus column, but I also became acquainted with some other Christians, such as Brett McCracken (whose new book I now have).
  3. These essays are designed to be bridge to helping pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders become aware of and make use of Taylor’s insights.  Repeatedly, we read that Taylor’s book is dense (T. M. Luhrman), inaccessible (Tim Keller), daunting, and intimidating (Hans Boersma).  These essays provide some stepping stones for making use of Taylor.
  4. Charles Taylor is Roman Catholic, as is some other key Christian philosophers, such as Bernard Lonergan, Peter Kreeft (more teacher than philosopher), and some guy named Aquinas.  Setting the Five Solas aside (but not far away) for the moment, there has long been a practice of borrowing, lending, and paying back with interest between Catholic and Protestant thinkers.  (Where would we be without Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton?)  Much of this book is focused on filtering Taylor’s thought into Protestant categories.
  5. These essays are not “Charles Taylor for Dummies.”  Having finished the book, I find myself ready to read it again–more carefully–rather than being ready to nod intelligently when Charles Taylor’s name and ideas come up.  And believe me, his name and ideas come up often.

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The second  book I would like to call attention to (realizing that it is actually the fourth or fifth one mentioned in this post) is Faith Formation in a Secular Age by Andrew Root.  This book is published by Baker Academic.

A few years ago, I read Root’s book Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker and loved it far more than I expected to.  By that, I mean that I thought it would be biography of the earlier years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry labors where he was what we often call “a youth pastor.”  It is biographical, but it was more focused on the type of ministry work he did and how we should approach youth ministry.  It also, as the subtitle notes, deals with Bonhoeffer’s two fine books Call to Discipleship and Life Together.

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I have yet to begin this new book by young Dr. Root.  But in my prelimary glances (also known as pre-reading), guess who and what he begins discussing?  You are right–Charles Taylor and Our Secular Age.  Then he discusses Bonhoeffer.  I hope to post more about this book soon when I am able to start reading it.

The third book (no, fifth or sixth) that I will mention is Truth Considered & Applied:  Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith by Stewart Kelly.  This book is published by B & H Publishing Group.

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I first noticed this book a month or so ago in a local Christian bookstore.  I thought to myself:  What a fascinating sounding new book!  Later, when I was looking it up to learn more about it, I discovered that this “new” book had been published in 2011.

It is still anxiously awaiting my attention while it sits in one of the many “to be read” stacks, but I most interested in it.  The term “postmodernism” has been tossed around quite a bit and often misunderstood or misapplied.  It is among the ideas we have to grapple with as we delve into modern ideas and terminology.

More comments on this book will appear after I get started into it.  By the way, the index shows that Taylor is referenced six times, but the book in use is Sources of the Self by Taylor.

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Charles Taylor–philosopher and key influence in many Christian circles today.

 

 

November Revolution 1917: To The Dustbin of History

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I have been frequently reminded lately that this is the 100th anniversary of the first establishment of Communism.  Known in history as the November Revolution, the Bolsheviks and their allies took control of the unstable Russian nation after the previous revolution in February that had removed the Tsar and his family.  The provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, proved unable to hold the country together against the forces of continuing revolution and continual involvement in World War I.

The next several years of life in Russia were centered around a horrific civil war pitting the Reds (the Communists) against the Whites (those wanting to restore monarchy or restore some sort of republic).  The Whites outnumbered the Reds; the Whites had some support of foreign powers;  the Whites were the “good guys,” relatively speaking.  But the Reds had a more disciplined ideology and mission.  It was one of the many historic cases where history was moved not by majorities, but by minorities with an aim and purpose.

As ruler over the newly christened Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Lenin tried various ways to implement the socialistic ideas.  Although his version of the dictatorship of the proletariat was mild in comparison with some of his successors across the globe, he could be quite brutal in his dealings with the opposition.  Or he could be quite inconsistent in his practice of Communist ideals.

Lenin’s health problems and then his death helped create a battle within the leadership over his successor.  Josef Stalin ultimately defeated and removed many candidates who were initially better positioned to take over.  By a series of alliances and double-crossings, he was the last man standing.  Although the competition is tough, Stalin probably wins the award for being the most evil, ruthless, murderous man of the twentieth century.  Although his image was later removed throughout the Soviet Union, he really was and is the face of Communism.

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While we don’t want to bury the corpse until it is dead, we certainly hope that Communism will be relegated to the ash heap history, to use Ronald Reagan’s phrase.  There are still too many regimes that maintain some degrees of Communist ideology or practices.  There is still too much of the contagion in the world today, although some of the worst abuses and regimes have vanished.

Thankfully, there was not a World War III that pitted the Free World against the Communist World (or Communist Bloc).  I am forever thankful to a wide range of leaders who stood firmly in their opposition to all sorts of Communist activities.  These heroes and heroines include Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Whittaker Chambers, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa,  Margaret Thatcher, Richard Wurmbrand, Natan Sharansky, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Ronald Reagan.  Political leaders with guts, vision, and insight enabled the Free World to win the Cold War.

But it was also won by the writing of books.  I will highlight and praise a few of the many books that helped–each incrementally–to expose the evils of Communism, to give first-hand testimonies to life under Communism, or to call for the overthrow of Communism.

  1.  We the Living by Ayn Rand.  I recently finished reading this book, and now I have read all four of Rand’s novels.  She did not write great literature.  Her writing flaws and philosophical quirks are often hard to stomach.  So is the length of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  But her books contain brilliant moments. (Anthem is her best work and her shortest.)  We the Living is, according to Rand, the closest thing to an autobiography that she ever wrote.  The book is set in Russia after the Communist Revolution.  The suffering, suppression, brainwashing, and dangers are all brought out in a compelling story.  Again, this is not great literature, but it is a great picture of life in the Soviet Union by one who was there and who got away.

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2.  One Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle, The Oak and the Calf, and other works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Solzhenitsyn did write great literature.  He is the rare author whose life story is as engaging as his writings.  A Nobel Prize winner, his life was on the line when his samizdat manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago was discovered.  I remember the events because my high school English teacher encouraged us to gather news articles about Solzhenitsyn.  He has long been one of my favorite heroes.  Sadly, he was often ignored or bypassed by his native Russian people in his last years.  Let us hope he is not forgotten.

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Good news for those of us who love Solzenitsyn.  His life-long labor was to create a fictional history of the Russian Revolution.  It began with August 1914, continued with November 1916.  Now a new volume is available:  March 1917.   This edition, in English for the first time, is published by the Notre Dame Press.

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3.  Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand.  Wurmbrand, a Romanian, was captured and tortured by the Communists for his faith.  Whether in prison or out, he continued to preach Christ to all around him.  In time, he was brought over to the United States where he established The Voice of the Martyrs ministry, which was initially focused on preaching Christ behind the Iron Curtain.  VOM has distributed free copies of Tortured for Christ for decades.  The book was life changing for me in that it helped reinforce my hatred of Communism and tyranny, but it also showed me the cost of following Christ.

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4.  Against All Hope by Armando Valledares.  This book shows the evils of the Cuban brand of Communism.  I began reading it years ago and had to put it aside for a time because it was too hard to endure.  Later, I picked it up again and read it all the way through.  The effusive gushing over Fidel Castro following his death was totally out of place.  He was evil.  He may have mellowed a bit in his later years, but he was a truly wicked leader.

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5.  The histories of Bruce Lincoln:  In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War,  Passage Through Armageddon:  The Russians in War and Revolution, and Red Victory:  A History of the Russian Civil War.  These books are not about Communism per se, but they are indispensable for understanding the history of Russia prior to and during the Revolution.

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6.  Coming Out of the Ice by Victor Herman.  I ordered and bought my copy of this first-hand account from Mr. Herman.  During the Great Depression, some Americans left this country to take up residence in the Workers’ Paradise.  Bad move.  Herman’s parents were among the immigrants, and he endured some horrific tortures during his time there.  By the way, there was a movie made about this man’s life and Willie Nelson (the singer) was in it.

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7.  The World in the Grip of an Idea by Clarence Carson.  This book has probably been way too overly neglected.  Dr. Carson, a fine and very conservative/liberatarian historian, focused on the varieties of coercive government.  Socialism in its various and evil forms is the idea that this book is countering.

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8.  Miracles of Grace and Judgment by Gerard P. Schroder.  I read this and other accounts some years ago.  Although many of the details are long since forgotten, one never forgets the horrors or the courage of people who endured life under the Soviets, whether they were inside or outside of the Gulag system.

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9.  The books by Robert Conquest are vital resources for seeing and understanding the magnitude of evils of Communism and the particulars of Soviet rule.  Books I have include The Great Terror, Harvest of Sorrow (about the Ukrainian holocaust), and his biography of Stalin.

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10.  It was many years ago that I read–and never recovered from reading–The Time of Stalin by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko.

11.  I have, but have only lightly made use of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.  These studies are always grim.  They are reminders of the depravity of man (often going beyond our normal Calvinistic explanation of “total” to “utter”).  They are testimonies to the terrible history of the past century.  They are vital for us to remember and try to stomach.

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12.  On a more optimistic note, I will end with Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism by Peter Schweizer.  I loved this book–the story, the man, and the details.  Reagan’s opposition to Communism really got going when he was dealing first hand with various Communist factions and sympathizers in the Hollywood film world.  It was from those experiences that he began formulating his mission and message regarding freedom.  His strategy for winning the Cold War was shocking to the liberals and many conservatives of the day:  “We win. They lose.”  But we did.

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Hot Off the Presses–The Latest Old Thing

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I, like many readers, am subject to the Athenian mindset.  By that, I am thinking of what Luke says in Acts 17:21, “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”  I am interested in the latest book, the newest work, the hottest thing off the presses.  There are many new and fine books coming out in droves, so I find plenty of sources to satisfy my desire to read the latest, newest, most up-to-date books.  (Take note:  Very few–in fact, almost none–of the new books I read show up on the best sellers lists.)

Sometimes, however, there are new books that are actually older works.  Of course, all reprints fit into this category, but I am thinking of books that have never been available before in book form or for American readers.  So, some really new books were written many decades ago.

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One such new book with old content is Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers.  Published by Hendrikson Press, this book was translated and edited by Dr. James Eglington, an expert on Bavinck.  More people–mostly pastors and theology students–are reading Bavinck today than at any time in the past.  His works continue to be translated from Dutch to English and there is an audience ready for them.  He is primarily known for his Reformed Dogmatics, which is available in four volumes and also condensed into one volume.  Ron Gleason’s biography, Herman Bavinck: Pastor, Churchman, Statesman, Theologian, has also contributed to his popularity.

But little is know of the man as a preacher.  Sure he was a theologian, a professor, and a peer to Abraham Kuyper.  Preaching, however, was not a occasional venture, but a major part of his labors and love.  Since he preached without notes or manuscript, little is known of the actual content of his sermons.  Until now.  This “new” book consists of Bavinck’s writing on preaching and the text of a major sermon he preached.

Augustine and the Problem of Power

One of the most frequently referenced and recommended books about the time of Augustine (or the latter years of the Roman Republic or the age of the Church Fathers) is Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane.  Read a serious book on history, theology, or philosophy on the time period, and most likely, Cochrane will appear in the bibliography.

Now students have the opportunity to explore more of Cochrane’s thought.  Wipf and Stock has published the older writings of Cochrane, which have never appeared in book form.  Titled Augustine and the Problem of Power, this book promises to be pure gold.

This book “provides an accessible entrance into the vast sweep of Cochrane’s thought through his topical essays and lectures on Augustine, Roman history and literature, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Edward Gibbon.”  The transition from the late classical or ancient period of history to the Medieval period is a construct of historians (and a useful one).  Augustine is a pivotal figure.  He has been called “the last ancient man and the first Medieval man” (by Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved Civilization).  

I probably have a dozen or more studies on Augustine, along with many volumes of Augustine’s writings and some biographies.  I am still a beginner in terms of grasping this great Christian thinker.  Along with Marco Barone’s Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross, Mark Boone’s The Conversion and Therapy of Desire:  Augustine’s Theology of Desire, and others, this newly published book will be a big help in my journey to understand the Bishop of Hippo.

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Part of the quote from the web-site description of Augustine and the Problem of Power:

These shorter writings demonstrate the impressive breadth of Cochrane’s mastery of Greek, Roman, and early Christian thought. Here he develops the political implications of Christianity’s new concepts of sin and grace that transformed late antiquity, set the stage for the medieval world that followed, and faced the reactions of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Cochrane analyzes the revival of classical thought that animated Machiavelli’s politics as well as Gibbon’s historiography. Written amid the chaos and confusion of depression and world war in the twentieth century, Cochrane’s writings addressed the roots of problems of his own “distracted age” and are just as relevant today for the distractions of our own age.

The “prequel” to the new publication of Cochrane’s studies, this book is the granddaddy of many works of Christian works of scholarship.

Post Script:  One should never forget the statement by C. S. Lewis,

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

God and Politics in Esther

God and Politics in Esther by Yoram Hazony is Cambridge University Press.  Dr. Hazony’s website is found HERE.

The author is a Jewish scholar who researches and writes about philosophy and theology, political theory and intellectual history. Hazony’s previous books are The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books, 2000).  His next book is and will be completed with My next book is The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018).

This book on Esther is one I fear will not get enough attention from many of the circles I am in.  I am a Protestant Christian with Reformed and Evangelical ties.  I have lots of close connections with Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and Christians of other and non-denominational affiliations.  Hazony fits into none of those categories, nor is he Catholic or Orthodox, but is a Jewish scholar living in Israel with his wife and nine children.  He is highly recognized and respected in many circles, but, as indicated, overlooked in my world.

About the same time that I became aware of this book, a church in my town was having a Bible study for women on the Book of Esther.  I did not attend that study for obvious reasons, but was curious as to how it would differ from this book.  I think that Esther is capable of being taught from different angles to different audiences, so my point is not contentious.

Again, I would like to see Christians reading this book.  Here are the drawbacks, however:

  1.  It is published by Cambridge University Press.  For me, that is a major plus.  I am constantly amazed at the outpouring of books from university presses.  Certainly, there are plenty of astoundingly obscure topics that grow into books interesting to very small circles.  Such books will line the shelves mainly of university libraries.  But there are also a multitude of books for less specialized readers, but such books rarely appear on the bookshelves of our local book stores.
  2.  University Press publications tend to be highly priced.  I am usually dependent on review copies or used copies or university press sales for such books.
  3. It is not a conventional commentary and is not a Christian-directed book.  As noted, the author is Jewish.
  4.  This book is not all that easy to classify.  Does it go in the religion section?  Perhaps, since it is about the Old Testament.  Or does it belong in the political science area?  The word Politics is not just in the title, but is a vital part of the content.  The field of politics is itself an area of philosophy, so maybe the book should be wedged into the philosophy shelves.

Very rarely do Christian pastors preach from the Book of Esther.  It is relatively easy to construct a topical sermon or two from the book.  There are two key texts that “preach.”

One is Esther 4:14:  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

And the other is a phrase from Esther 4:16, which is her response to the verse above.  Esther says, “If I perish, I perish.”

But how would a pastor preach a series on this book which never directly mentions the name of God and that deals with so many intricate political problems?  My answer:  Read Hazony’s book.

Chapter 5, which is titled “Idolatry,” is worth the time and effort and cost of the book itself.  This is a book about bad leadership, false beliefs, and survival of faith amidst evil people.  Idolatry, while not overtly apparent as in the case of the Golden Calf, is nevertheless the great evil in this book.

Another key theme is that of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.  This is a favorite Calvinist Sunday afternoon topic of thought or discussion.  J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is still a classic favorite.  Hazony does not take a view that is totally compatible to my Reformed disposition.  But he does offer some ideas–both acceptable and debatable–about the role that people must take without depending upon a Deus ex machina.

For years, Christians shied away from politics.  It is easy to imagine a church full of people in 1960 who were evenly divided over whether to vote for Nixon or Kennedy.  Some of the choices or races in recent years are harder for conservative Christians to grapple with.  Conservative theology and liberal politics are difficult to reconcile.  But so are conservative theology and conservative politics (at least in the popular sense of “conservative”).  Since Hazony is not American, his perspective is not directly connected to Democrats and Republicans, the American left and right, or to the issues confronting us.  That is a strength of the book.  He is not one of “us,” nor is he one of “them.”

We Christians believe in both the presence of God and the intervention of God in human events.  Yet, we too face a world and circumstances that causes us to question where God was when certain events happened or why God allowed (and/or purposed) such.  The easy answers are not found in this book, but it is a help along the way.

I hope someone out there buys and reads this book.  I hope some pastor preaches through Esther or someone teaches a Sunday school series through this.  (And I hope it is not just a women’s study.)

Thanks to my friend Paul David Robinson, a philosopher in the making and a brilliant fellow, for recommending Hazony’s book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture in a Facebook post.  That discovery led to this book.

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Yoram Hazony of the Herzyl Institute

My copy of this book is autographed! Thanks again to Paul David Robinson for commending this book.

Used copies of this book (and mine is a used copy) are very affordable.

More Quick Looks at Books–American History, mostly

 

One of the classic Stanley Brothers’ songs has these words:

“Daylight till dark my work’s never done
Lord have mercy on this sharecropper’s son.”

I know my jobs are not anything compared to what a sharecropper or his son or daughter or wife would have faced.  My workload usually involves a dangerously high stack of books that I am bound by duty or need to read and review.  It is a labor of love, but don’t forget that it is a labor.

I am happily plowing my way through a stack of books that includes the volumes pictured above.  Most of my reading energies this year are focused on American history, government, and literature.  This is because I am teaching my course called Humanities: The American Story.  With more than thirty years of classroom experience (some of it being helpful), I find that I need to read continually to refresh, enlarge, correct, and direct my understanding of the United States.

Let’s look at some of these books.

Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution is by David Benner.   Mr. Benner’s website can be found HERE,  and the book can be ordered through Amazon.  He is a long-time and serious student of the Constitution, and he writes and speaks on historical topics, particularly in the Minnesota area.  Benner is a self-professed Jeffersonian.  Lest we think that species is extinct, take note that the tradition is alive and well.

Most approaches to American government, the Constitution, and history presuppose that a national, centralized State was the design and intent from the beginning.  One can easily assume that history “proves” that the tree planted at the Constitutional Convention was purposed to grow, expand, and engulf the states that created it.  We are so far removed from limited government that it is hard to even start the discussion.  But it is a necessary discussion.  President Bill Clinton once said, “The era of big government is over.”  Whatever he meant by that (whatever the meaning of “is” is), Clinton, like other Presidents, was helpless in stemming the tide of Leviathan.

The battle has to be won on the grounds of history and serious study first.  It will jolt us loose from some of our preconceived or overly indoctrinated ideas about the role of the states and the purpose of a central government.  I think we are several generations away from even the possibility of reviving any sense of Jeffersonian politics.  But that is not a pessimistic statement.  It is a call for teachers and students of America to read books like this one.

The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution

Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution by Thomas Fleming was released on October 10 of this year.  This book fills me with both happiness and sadness.  I corresponded off and on with the prolific Thomas Fleming over the past several years.  I was always amazed at how gracious he was in taking time to answer my questions or suggest which of his books I might enjoy.  When he didn’t answer an email last spring, I became concerned.  Then I learned that he had died back in July.

That he wrote and finished this book prior to his 90th birthday and death is amazing.  He certainly had a large stock of knowledge and writing experience preceding this work.  He never did a full biography of Washington, but by my count, he wrote eight or more books dealing in large part with Washington, besides books indirectly dealing with him or fictional works that included historical events about Washington.

Fleming was a master story-teller.  He writes solid history, but his style is focused on the narrative.  I have sought to collect and read all of his books.  No easy task since he wrote more than fifty books, but this one will be special because it is the last.

How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution is by Tom Shachtman.  This promises to be a good book.  Although the author has written quite a few works, he and I will get to first meet when I can get started on this book.  I used to spend lots of time and energy studying the American Civil War Between the States.  At some point, I began turning more attention over to the American War for Independence.  I still feel a mental deficit when trying to piece the entire War for Independence together in my mind.

The American Continental Army and George Washington changed the world by their victory.  But would it have happened without the French?  It is hard to think through a path to victory without the French fleet and armed forces that both blocked Cornwallis’s path to retreat and ensured his surrender at Yorktown.  This promises to be a fun and interesting read.

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I read a reviewed Daniel Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers during the summer.  I was able to briefly correspond with Dr. Dreisbach and I am not opposed to reading everything he writes (given time and opportunity).  But if I only stick to this book, I will be well served.  This is an outstanding study.  I read it as history, as spiritual devotional, and as a practical guide to godly living.  This is a book to read and heavily quote from.

I also recently read and reviewed Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Dr. Robert M. S. McDonald.  This book is published by the University of Virginia Press.

Confounding Father is an excellent second or third biography to read about Jefferson.  By that I mean that this book has a particular focus that includes many of the events and details of Jefferson’s life, but it is not a biography in the sense that the six volumes of Dumas Malone or the one volume of Jon Mecham are.  This book focuses on how Jefferson used and was abused by the media, meaning newspapers, and by his political advocates and enemies.

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A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison by Jack N. Rakove is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.I began reading this book with the idea that it was a short easily accessible biography of the man who was our fourth President and is called “the Father of the Constitution.”  Characteristic of Madison’s short stature is the small notice that is usually accorded him.  He was quite literally overshadowed by his neighbor and peer Thomas Jefferson.  His co-authorship of The Federalist Papers results in him being one of a list of three.  He appears to be the bookish, policy wonk of the Constitutional Convention.  He was large in knowledge and background information, but small in his verbal or leadership activities.

This book is not a simple biography, but a study of Madison’s political labors.  As a political thinker, he deserves to be ranked right up there with men like Machiavelli, Burke, Locke, or Hobbes.  But there is no key book from Madison that contains his political philosophy.  The closest thing we have is Federalists numbers 10 and 51.  And those two essays are “God’s plenty,” in my opinion.

Early impressions are that this is a worthwhile, although weighty study.

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For the second or third time, I have read the introduction to The French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France by William R. Nester.  It is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Each time I read the introduction, I find myself thinking that this lengthy book seems to be really inviting.  It is a time problem that has hindered me.  I am fascinated by the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), and I have collected numerous volumes on the war for what Voltaire called “a few acres of snow.”  Usually, however, my teaching on the war gets lost between using James Fenimore Cooper’s delightful Last of the Mohicans and the subsequent history chapters emphasizing that war as a cause of the American War for Independence.

Just maybe this time I will plow ahead into this book.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America by Rebecca Fraser will be out and on the shelves.  This book is published by St. Martins Press.

My copy is an uncorrected proof.  Having started it, I am finding it quite enjoyable.  This book gives a good background on the religious beliefs of the Separatists who came to the New World.  Hopefully, I can say more later as I get into this book.

Oxford University Press is a favorite source for good books of all sorts.  I recently learned of this book–Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography by Michael R. Licona.  Dr. Licona, a professor at Houston Baptist University, is a rising force in the Christian world of scholarship and apologetics.

“From daylight to dark, my readings are never done.”

Glancing Back at Antiquity–Quick Looks Books

In college, my focus was mainly on American history. I did take courses on British history (which is fundamental background for American history) and on Modern Europe (meaning Europe since the 1500s).  Outside of my course work and interest was the Ancient and Medieval Worlds.  Years of teaching world history did better acquaint me with fields outside of my preferences.  But the focal point was always on American and Modern European history.

My entrance into classical Christian education began with a horrifying jolt in the summer of 1995.  I attended some lectures by Wes Callihan and Chris Schlect (both of whom were then teachers at Logos School in Moscow, Idaho) and found myself confronting a near total illiterate–myself.  That began what is now year 24 in a quest to read all the classical works from Genesis and Gilgamesh to Faulkner and Ishiguro.  I am still behind on my readings, by the way.  But I have made progress.

This post–which promises to be brief–will focus on three recent books that are helps or friends in the journey through Antiquity.  They all deserve longer, more detailed, more persuading reviews.  For now, let me assure you that they are all worthy candidates for a space on your bookshelf if you are reading, teaching, or exploring the worlds of Greece and Rome.

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Communication, Love, and Death in Homer and Virgil by Stephen Ridd is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.  It is Volume 54 in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture.  As Victor Davis Hanson and others have lamented, studies in the Classical Culture of Antiquity or studies in the Greek and Roman languages and literature are much diminished in our day and time.  College educated people from past centuries read the classics in the original languages.  My college experiences did not even include reading translations.

This is not the book to start with.  Even though it is called “An Introduction” to certain aspects of Homer and Virgil, don’t begin here.  Read Homer and Virgil.  Read them several times.  Read them with a group.  Read a couple of translations.  Homer’s works are simple enough:  The Iliad and The Odyssey.  (I recommend Richmond Lattimore for the first and Robert Fagles for the second.)  For Virgil, read The Aeneid.  Virgil’s Georgics can also be fun.

It was Louise Cowan and some of her students who first opened my eyes to the richness of these works.  Through the years, I have taught Homer and Virgil’s books to many innocent students.  Each reading and teaching experience challenges me to better understand and enjoy the epics.  My preliminary reading from Dr. Ridd’s book convinces me that this is a worthy resource to be dipped in to or read from cover to cover.

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Worldview Guide: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Dr. Brian Phillips is published by Canon Press.  Brian Phillips is a friend of mine (although we have only met once) and a brother in Christ.  He is also the pastor of a family of friends–Wade, Jody, and Caleb Choate.  Brian jokingly wrote in the inscription of my copy “Rave about it publicly.”

This makes my task and burden difficult.  But I will be brave and launch in with this major criticism of this book:  At 41 pages, it is WAY TOO SHORT.  I was just getting into the enjoyment of this book when poof, it was over.

Now, let me put a better spin on all this.  When reading and teaching classics, we often need help.  The tendency is to go pull a dozen volumes off the shelf that provide helps and hints to understanding some older work.  The book–even if it is War and Peace–looks small compared to the towering stack of commentaries and serious studies.  The book described above about Homer and Virgil is that type of helpful reading.  But the key to reading classics is reading classics.  

My belief is that the reader/teacher needs to find a few short, simple (as in simplistic), readable guides for the classic.  Read the Wikipedia article on the classic.  Read an encyclopedia article, a summary, or a brief (5 pages or less) introduction.  But let nothing stop you from reading the classic.  Upon reading the work itself, keep plowing back through the brief helps.  Only after your classical permanent teeth come in can you or should you read the experts.

Brian’s book is a part of a series of Worldview Guides.  The Christian reader can easily succomb to either rejecting a book totally because the author is a pagan  or embracing it totally because it mentions things compatible with Biblical truths.  Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian; in fact and almost unexplainably, he was a Roman emperor who persecuted believers.  But before we shout, “Unclean, unclean,” we have to recognize the sheer brilliance and beauty–via God’s common grace–of his Meditations.

I read and loved the Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations, pictured above and published by The Modern Library.  Phillips uses the older George Long translation (1862).

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Destoyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado is published by Baylor University Press.  This book is a blockbuster of a work.  It can be asserted that the Christian battle royal against the Roman world is the greatest epic battle of history.  Many of us Christians read the New Testament with far too much ease.  But the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are battle reports and tactical training manuals for warfare.  And, pragmatic folks notice, it worked.

This book will preach, to use the old preacher term.  It is a scholarly, historical, and theological work.  But it is affordable (not all that common for university press publications) and practical and devotional.

My only lament in this post is that this is my American Story year for Humanities.  Most of my reading and all of my teaching will be devoted to things American.  But books can still be scanned, dipped into, and coveted (in terms of content) even when they are not on the reading stacks.