Christmas Suggestions

What I think my study area looks like:

Something closer to reality:

With Christmas coming, it is time to start making suggestions to all of you as to what book selections you need to get for the readers in your life.  If, by the way, you have no readers in your life, I can only grant you pity.  Please note that this is not MY CHRISTMAS LIST.  This are books and authors I am recommending to others.  In most cases, I have and have read from the books and authors mentioned.

I will begin today by mentioning 5 authors whose works I have enjoyed.  And though their works have not made me a penny richer, they brought me joy and delight, which are the two prime attributes of reading.

1.  Rick Bragg.  All Over But the Shoutin’ is the best place to begin.  It is also Bragg’s first book dealing with his family, and it is about his mother.  The next book was about his grandfather and is titled Ava’s Man.  The third book is darker, more painful, but still incredibly moving.  It is The Prince of Frogtown.  A more recent book is The Most They Ever Had.  This short book is an account of the poor Southerners who sacrficed their lives and health working in cotton mills.  Bragg’s books are about the hardships of life in the South.  The South has been a land of faith and suffering.  These books are a chronicle of that world.  You may have discovered Rick Bragg in your Southern Living magazine where he contributes a great column about his experiences in Southern living.

2.  Bret Lott.  I have been singing the praises of Bret Lott’s books for several years now.  He is one of the best novelists in the country today.  Novels by Lott that I would recommend include Jewell, Ancient Highway, The Hunt Club (scary!), and A Song I Knew By Heart.  His two books on writing Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of a Writer’s Life and Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian are great reads.  As noted, Lott is a Christian.  He also writes very realistic fiction.  He is not in the vein of sweet, sentimental, gushy Christian authors whose characters come to Jesus in the last chapter.  But there are strong chords of the faith in his books.  He writes far more like Flannery O’Connor than like the author of the Elsie Densmore series.  Reader beware:  God’s grace is for a fallen world.

3.  Jesse Stuart.  I have only like Jesse Stuart’s books since I was a ninth grader in 1970.  The Thread That Runs So True is the about the most influential book I have ever read regarding teaching school.  Hie to the Hunters is one of my favorite books to teach junior high students.  This past year I read Stuart’s first major collection of poetry, titled Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow.  These 750 rough sonnets chronicle life in Kentucky, filled with both the beauties of farm life and the harsh realities of life.  Stuart wrote a number of novels, many short stories, an incredible number of poems, and several autobiographical accounts of his life.  I am always thankful for the on-going work of the Jesse Stuart Foundation in keeping his books and legacy alive.

I still lack an autographed copy of a Jesse Stuart book.

4.  Jan Karon.  I read the Mitford novels some years ago and really enjoyed them.  I read them slowly and only at those times, to quote Robert Frost, “when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood….”  Father Tim and the community of Mitford, both church and neighbors, offered a glimpse of the real struggles and challenges of life.  I always feel inadequate as a pastor when I compare myself to my Episcopal fictional colleague Father Tim.  My wife first read this series and was constantly laughing uncontrollably and telling me that Father Tim reminded her of me.  So, initially, I hated the books, but finally began reading them out of spite and grew to love them.  These books are a picture of how the church is to, or ought to, exist in community.

5.  James Herriot.  It was about or possibly even over 30 years ago that I began purchasing paperback copies of James Herriot’s wonderful books about his life as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, which is the northern farm country of England.  His four main books took their titles from a great English hymn.  The books are All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All.  These stories will make you laugh; they will make you cry; and sometimes you will do both. I read these books slowly, very slowly.  I only allowed myself to read James Herriot when I was either exhausted or defeated by some events in life.  Back in the 1980s, the day-by-day battles were different, but the books were good medicine.  Many of Herriot’s works have been reprinted and repackaged in picture books, children’s editions, and other formats.  I feel like I need to start the whole series over.

 

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Radical Christianity

As a pastor and Christian teacher, I am trying to keep up with some of the trends, movements, and leaders in the evangelical Christian world.  There is an overwhelming need for me to be continually digging deeper in the Reformed and Puritan classics.  There is an ever increasing stack of weighty tomes by solid theologians and Christian thinkers.  I am woefully deficient in needing to better understand every angle of theology.  So, popular Christian books are a threat.  But I still need to read them.

I also have take the approach of reading popular Christian books without going first to the reviews, blogs, and critiques.  Furthermore, I try to begin the books with an openness to the message.  I am an old time Calvinist.  I have been nurtured by those guys who held the fortress of Reformed and Calvinistic theology in the eras when such thinking was way out of line.  The term “popular Calvinist writers” was an unrealistic then as the term “conservative Democrat” is now.  But I seek to read with an interest in learning and growing and with the sword of contention sheathed.  I am as Calvinistic as ever, but willing to learn from others.

I picked up a used copy of Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream for 50 cents or a dollar.  (That is another tendency, driven by necessity:  buying cheap, very cheap.)  The top of the book cover proclaims “New York Times Bestseller.” Elsewhere I learned that over 250,000 copies have been sold.  (As the author of a book that has sold over 250 copies, I am impressed.)  I noted that the author is a young pastor and his church is a mega-church (two potential grumbling points to me, if I didn’t rein myself in). I assumed that the book would be something light and airy, but hopeful that it would be convincing since it is called Radical.

First, I was pleasantly surprised and moved to shout “Amen” as Pastor Platt discussed salvation.  He contrasts the modern-day gospel which says, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” with the biblical gospel which says, “You are an enemy of God, dead in your sins, and in your present state of rebellion, you are not even able to see that you need life, much less to cause yourself to come to life. Therefore, you are radically dependent upon God to do something in your life that you could never do”  (page 32).  Wow!  Could it be that this guy has a bit of Calvinistic, or rather truly Pauline theology, I thought?  I cheated and looked on line and discovered that Pastor Platt is indeed very Calvinistic in his soteriology.    He has even criticized the easy-believism characterized by the sinner’s prayer.  David Platt has a good theology of salvation.

Second, Platt’s call for missions, world-wide missions, is powerful.  This is the heart of his book and, it seems, of his ministry.  I preached a short series of 10 sermons once on the Great Commission.  I think that passage is very critical to a true understanding of the mission of the church, of Christian individuals, and of the Faith as a whole.  I have lots of appreciation for Platt’s call for missions.

Third, the “radical” aspect of this book is Platt’s call for Christians to take seriously the cases where Jesus called upon people to give what they had away, to sell all, and follow Him.  The American Dream calls for something different.  Today is Black Friday.  People have been in a shopping frenzy since Thanksgiving afternoon.  Most of what is purchases in this season is toys.  Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart sells toys, but so do Best Buy and Gander Mountain and Academy.   By toys, I mean things that are not basic food, clothing, and shelter.  The American Dream is centered around the accumulation of toys, and the Christmas season is for buying toys.

Don’t get me wrong:  I like toys.  I get up in the morning and push the button on a toy that fixes coffee.  I began my Advent music season by listening to Nathan Clark George’s CD A Mid-Winter’s Eve (a favorite) on a toy that plays music.  I am writing this and you are reading this on toys.  And, I want more toys.

I have very mixed feelings about Platt’s challenge.  If I thought that the House family could downsize, sell and give away most of what we own, and thereby truly help spread the Gospel and alleviate poverty for others, I hope I would do so.  I picture such an action making me more dependent upon my own church and extended family.  Also, since I entered “full-time Christian service” some 18 years ago, my family’s economic situation has always been tight–by American standards.  Our kids share bedrooms; we drive used cars; we wear our clothes out; we don’t have cable TV; my kids (except for the college boy) don’t have cell phones, and neither do I; and we have lots of broken and breaking things in our 1970s (the era of ugly architecture) house.  I am not sure that working in a small church and small school equates to pursuing the great American Dream.

I don’t want to put David Platt’s book in that stack of books read and liked and forgotten.  I do want to have and cultivate a greater mindset for missions and evangelism.  I do want a less culture-cluttered life.  I do want to be radical in my Christian living.  Maybe at this point, I can only be both uncomfortable and unconvinced.

Third, Platt does offer a really good set of Five Points that can be implemented.  As preachers say, “This can preach.”  While I might not be getting rid of everything and moving to some frighteningly non-Christian part of the world like the Sudan or Vermont, I can follow and teach these guidelines.  Platt says to make these commitments for one year.  With January 2014 just weeks away, this is a good time to think on these things:

1.  Pray for the entire world.  I certainly agree with this and recognize that we need to do that.  It means more than just a generic “And God bless us everyone.”  There are numerous resources, such as the book Operation World  and web-sites, that can assist us in praying for the specific needs of specific countries.  Our church supports missions in several countries and these can be high on the list.  There are around 200 independent countries in the world, plus territories and language groups.

2.  Read through the Entire Word.  Another great suggestion.  If every American Christian who is vexed, angered, frightened, concerned, troubled, and anxious about the American government, our culture, our leaders, and our moral failures would each read the entire Word, that would be far better than listening to endless talk radio or engaging in endless arguments.  Internationally, if the ultimate goal is to see Muslim countries someday being comprised of church people with unopened, unused Bibles, that won’t do.

3.  Sacrifice your money for a specific purpose.  Like a lot of my Baptist friends, Platt doesn’t begin or mention tithing.  Unlike a lot of my other friends, he does mention sacrifice. I certainly need to improve my mindset and personal practices in the areas of giving.  Yes, even those of us in ministry need to look to areas where we can be better at handling finances personally and using finances for the Kingdom.

4.  Spend your time in another context.  Even if this is done in small measure, it changes our perspective.  Our church and children have been involved in Operation Christmas Child for several years now.  I will never forget my son Nate’s comment the first year we were working on filling a shoebox with small items.  Nate said, “We need to use bigger boxes.  No one wants just a shoe box full of stuff for Christmas.”  We have learned through OCC that the least of American trinkets are treasures in other lands.  We certainly need more experiences like this.

5.  Commit Your Life to a Multiplying Community. Platt says, “If we are going to live in radical obedience to Christ, we will need the church to do it.”  With that and many other words, he exhorts readers to stop church-hopping and get committed to changing the world by being a part of the local church.  I think that this emphasis in the book is another good point.  A whole book could be devoted to that.  I also like to think of the church as a Multiplying Community.

Yes, for now, it is “on to another book,” but I hope at least some of the lessons of this book sink in.

The Tragedy of the Mohicans and the Triumph of the Navahos

James Fenimore Cooper’s classic tale set in the year 1757, during the French and Indian War.

Under the Eagle: An autobiographical account of a Navaho Code Talker and how his beliefs shaped his service in the military.

I don’t always set out to read books on related topics.  Some books I read because they are school related.  Some I read because I receive review copies. Others I read for all sorts of reasons. In this case, I read The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper because I teach it in my American Story Humanities class.  I read Under the Eagle: Samuel Holiday Navaho Code Talker because I received it as a review book from Oklahoma University Press.

Somewhere in the process, I began seeing the connection between these two books.  Both shed light on the plight of the American Indian and their resilience and courage.  As is often the case with Native American studies, both turn a focus on a people and situations that have been politely ignored in our society and historical studies.

James Fenimore Cooper is a defining figure in American literature.  He carved out the future of American literature by using America as the setting for many of his stories.  He wrote the first sea novels and spy novels.  He was the first best selling and internationally successful American fiction writer.  As it happens, most people who read Cooper today do so because he is assigned in a class.  Since he wrote novels, and rather lengthly ones, sometimes he is completely skipped over in surveys.  The biggest hindrance to reading Cooper is Cooper himself.  He was a master of descriptive, elaborate, and fullsome prose.  He used extensive description in describing the setting of his stories, the characters of his stories, the minor details of his stories, and the introductions to his stories.  If Cooper had ever read a story or two by Ernest Hemingway, he might have drastically improved his writing.  But without Cooper, it is hard to imagine Hemingway existing.

One of Cooper’s great contributions to literature was his focus upon Indians.  Specifically, he created a great heroic character named Natty Bumpo, and Natty Bumpo, also known as the Pathfinder, the Deerslayer, the Scout, Hawkeye, and La Longue Carabine, had a close companion named Chingachgook.  This great chief of the Mohicans and member of the larger tribe of the Delaware was a great and noble character.  Natty Bumpo has been described as a Knight with a Gun.  Chingachgook was knightly in his own right.  Cooper does allow, and mentions frequently, that the white Natty Bumpo and the red Chingachgook have different cultures and different gifts.  In a stunning scene in The Last of the Mohicans, a young Frenchman on guard duty is stealthily dispatched and scalped by Chingachgook.  The young fellow seemed like such an innocent, naive chap, but an enemy is an enemy, so Chingachgook took care of him.

Chingachgook is the last Mohican.  His son, Uncas, was the last great hope of a once great people.  The death of Uncas leaves Chingachgook bereft of his son, his people, his land, and his heritage.  Natty, his faithful friend, shares his grief and both basically covenant together to live outside the pale of the white man’s civilization.  In the world of the Leatherstocking Tales, there were plenty of bad people.  Almost always, the French were untrustworthy, but Hurons were even worse.  But it is not as though Cooper whitewashes the whites.  His book changed the mindset of readers because of the good Indians, such as Chingachgook, his wife Wah-ta-Wah (also known as Hist-to-Hist), and his son Uncas.  In spite of all the clunky phrases and overly long descriptions and plot sequences that are odd, Cooper’s writing is still powerful and his characters are memorable.

Under the Eagle gives a first hand account of a group of American patriots and soldiers who served with great bravery in World War II.  Because of the secret nature of their work, their contribution was unrecognized for many, too many, years.  Growing up Navaho, Samuel Holiday had the opportunity to go to school.  His mother really wanted him to stay home and herd sheep. (They lived in Utah.)  Samuel persisted in going to school.  One of the first lessons, and not a nice one, was that the Navaho students were not to speak their native language, but were to master English.

Ironically, it was the Navaho language that was then called for after the United States entered into World War II.  Because of the insight of Technical Sergeant Philip Johnson, the U. S. Marines began training Navaho Indians in the use of communication radios.  In the heavy fighting that would be necessary in the Pacific War, communication was essential.  But radio signals were and are open to all.  Codes could be developed, and codes could be cracked.  The complicated nature of the Navaho language and the ready facility of its use by Navoho men combined into an effective weapon.

Navaho Indians were engaged in many of the key battles in the Pacific.  They made a great contribution to the string of American island hopping victories.  As it turned out, the complexion of the Navahos was sometimes a great disadvantage.  At least twice, one of the times when he was bathing in a water hole, Samuel Holiday was mistaken for being Japanese.  An innocent mistake, perhaps, but it was quite humiliating and irritating.

After the war, the Code Talkers were not able to tell their stories.  Thankfully, post-World War II America was appreciative toward veterans, but still there were honors due that were not received.  In time, the story of the Code Talkers began emerging.  President Ronald Reagan declared August 14, 1982 National Navaho Code Talkers Day.  Others honors and recognition have been given.

I really enjoyed Under the Eagle.  I was amazed at how unquestioning the Indians were regarding service to America when World War II broke out.  Their people had suffered historically and many Indians suffered personally from events and attitudes.  But when the nation needed them, they went into war to defend the U.S.A.

Another note, lots of Indian, or particularly Navaho, cultural and religious practices are discussed in Under the Eagle.  Part of the strength of the book is that Samuel Holiday himself is telling his story.  The co-author, Robert S. McPherson, gave further commentary and explanation of the Navaho culture.

Samuel Holiday, Navaho Code Talker, World War II veteran, and an American hero.

Morning Visits from Charles H. Spurgeon and Friends

Soon to be finishing Lectures to My Students:

Soon to be getting into Living By Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Slowly plowing through Center Church by Tim Keller:

Wishing I could get started on

Needing to get a copy of Every Good Endeavor by Timothy Keller, along with his books on Judges and Galatians:

Plotting ways to get John Frame’s new work:  Systematic Theology

I have, but have not taken the shrinkwrap off of Thy Word is Truth:

Needing a visit from Spurgeon Claus:

The American Military Tradition

Joe Mac House, my Dad, in a parade honoring Veterans in DeKalb, Texas in 2009.

God did not make me to be a soldier.  It has been a blessing to this country that it never called me to serve.  But I have had an incredible interest in America’s military history for years, along with the opportunity to teach my students about the wars in our nation’s history.  I found the duties and devotion of soldiers fascinating when I was a young teacher.  As time goes by, I find the accounts of what soldiers have done to be beyond my comprehension.  I love and admire what the American military has done through the years.  

Those unsure and slightly trained Minutemen who stood there at Lexington back in April of 1775, along with their brothers-in-arms who fired the legendary “shot heard round the world,” began a tradition.  As a student of history, I continue to grow in my admiration of the perseverance of the American Patriots who hit and retreated, hit and retreated, and struggled to simply survive the cold and hunger for the eight long years of our War for Independence.  The War of 1812 was not the easiest of wars to justify, but American soldiers did their duty.  We still remember them in the words of Francis Scott Key’s poem (and our national anthem) that proclaims “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

Those men who fought together in Mexico at such forgotten places as Buena Vista and Chapultepec showed incredible bravery and the strength of the American way of war. Sadly, comrades in arms in that war were on opposite sides in the War Between the States.  Most of my family and my heritage and many of my sympathies are for the Confederate Army, but the sheer bravery and guts shown by men on both sides leaves me stunned.

I admire the firey zeal of those who charged up San Juan Hill with Col. Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War.  World War I will always be defined for me by the bravery, Christian character, and southern markmanship of Alvin York and by the poetry of American poet Alan Seeger and of the Canadian soldier John McCrae, and others.

My father-in-law, William Kemp, and my late Uncle Hubert Moles both served in Korea.  My school years were during those dreaded years of the Vietnam War.  Since that time, I have watched as our country has fought in places such as Grenada, Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. I have had former students in many of those places.

All of that being said, I am especially interested in World War II.  Today, in theology class, I read Randall Jarrell’s short gripping poem “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner.”   The poem is powerful by itself, but it means more to me since I have come to realize a great blessing of God’s providence.  My Dad, pictured above, was being trained in the army air corps as a ball turret gunner.  Since he is a fairly small man, he could have fit in the tiny, highly exposed capsule where ball turret gunners protected the bombers from enemy aircraft. The survival rate of such a task was low. (According to one source, “The life expectancy of a B17 ball turret gunner was less than that of the other aircrew for several reasons.”) Again, you are stuck in a small capsule that is attached underneath the plane and is highly exposed to freezing winds and enemy air fire.  If the airplane had any trouble landing, the ball turret gunner was usually sacrificed.

 Then, while in basic training, my Dad received the only wound he ever got in the war.  He broke his leg playing soccer.  That ended his gunner training.  He was then transferred to another school where he learned to be an electrical mechanic on cargo planes.

Joe Mac House served in North Africa, meaning Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt.  He was also stationed in Iran, or as it was called then, Persia, and for a time was in India.  He worked day and night keeping the transport planes running.  He was not in the direct lines of fire, but some of the landings and take-offs and locations were incredibly dangerous.

This was supposed to be a blog about books on World War II and other American wars. I am probably only able to write that next blog because of that turn of “bad luck” on that soccer field back around 1943.

Covenantal Apologetics

I have two tendencies toward the subject of apologetics, and both have to be severely tempered.  First of all, apologetics is a field of study, a sub-set of theology, a close companion (we hope) to evangelism, that focuses upon defending Christianity.  It is the answering of the claims against faith and presenting the Christian faith as the answer.

One of my tendencies is to get too drawn in to the subject.  One good apologetic study, and Dr. Oliphint’s book is a good one, leads to another.  I could delightfully get lost in the recommended readings from this book.  I have quite a few books on apologetics, and that collection includes quite a few books I read and usually enjoyed in the past with many more that have never been given the reading they deserve.  Christian apologetics studies include both those answers that we give to the unbelievers, the skeptics, the opponents and the intramural debates among believers as to what methods and means of apologetics we should use.   Like I say, I could get lost in the pages and never step outside the door again. (Don’t tempt me.)

The other tendency I have is to wish to stay away from apologetics.  To use some oversimplified language, apologetics appeals to the head, while other types of Christian books appeal to the heart.  I really need to read books on prayer, Bible study, pastoral ministry, and preaching.  (Listen to the loud “amen” from the congregation on that last one.) I really need more on the spiritual disciplines.  I need Bible studies that help me glean more from Jeremiah, which I just finished, and Ezekiel, which I will soon start.  And boy, do I ever need to be a more dedicated husband and father.  These needs outweigh my need to answer the materialist, the naturalist, the atheist, Muslim, Hindu, or liberal theologian.

I think that when I really face the question of whether to read for the mind or the heart, whether to focus on apologetics or practical Christianity, to be more edgy at confronting the world or more pastoral, the answer is unequivocally clear.  God says, “Yes.”  It is imperative that pastors and teachers be grounded in the defense of the faith.  Most other Christians need some grounding in apologetics as well.  As has often been pointed out, the primary audience, the main group in need, in apologetics is believers.  We Christians need to be reminded and assured that Christianity can answer the counter-claims of the unbelievers.  At the same time, as situations and forums present themselves, Christians need to be able to speak boldly to non-believers and objectors regarding the faith.

In some cases, unbelievers are genuinely stumped over what we believe.  They are not innocent, but it is easy to believe that faith is the opposite of reason, that religion is non-rational, and that Christianity is foolish if you have been inundated with such teachings.  If Richard Dawkins says that anyone who does not believe in evolution is “ignorant, stupid, or insane,” the unbeliever swallows that creed sooner rather than later.  Again, I am not excusing those living in a sea of unbelief for developing unbelieving gills.  We have to remember that some people simply have not heard reasonable, credible, and intellectual arguments for Christianity.

The hostile unbeliever is a much harder person to confront.  In many cases, unbelievers are bullies who have not encountered strong apologists for the faith.  Years ago, a man told me he had never read an intellectual book about Christianity.  I gave him a Francis Schaeffer book, but he never responded to it.  (And Francis Schaeffer, wonderful as he was, was not and did not see himself as the intellectual defender of the faith.)

Covenantal Apologetics by Dr. Scott Oliphant of Westminster Theological Seminary builds upon the apologetical principles of Oliphint’s predecessor at Westminster, Dr. Cornelius Van Til.  There are a series of debates and discussion that often ensue when one mentions Van Tillian apologetics.  I am generally favorable to Van Til’s approach, but am not insistent on it being the exclusive approach.  I do believe that it is too easy for Christian apologists to get too caught up in debating methods in Jerusalem and not stepping out into the streets of Athens to confront the lost and skeptical.

Dr. Oliphint lists Ten Tenets upon which he bases his approach and his book.  (Thanks to Justin Taylor for posting them on his blog.)

  1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.
  2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.
  3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.
  4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
  5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
  6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see truth for what it is.
  7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
  8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context.
  9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
  10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

I slowly read Covenantal Apologetics during September and October.  I really feel that this book must be read again soon.  Apologetics is not light reading.  Even the strong coffee each morning didn’t unlock enough of the brain for me.  Reading this book caused to survey what other Oliphint books I had.  I reckon I will need to read them also.

Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology

The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture For Defending Our Faith

 

Forty Influential Christians

I was both skeptical and interested.  Bethany House offered me a free review copy of the book The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe by Daryl Aaron.  I have quite a few books that are collections of short biographical sketches of famous Christians.  I think that one of the first Christian books I ever bought and probably the first church history I ever read was a small paperback called Heroes of the Faith.  

I love biographies and so the collection of 5 to 10 page life stories appeals to me.  But the problem is this:  Other than being handy for quick reference, these kinds of books tend to be too superficial for my needs.  They are great for the novice, the beginner, the person who gets John Calvin and J.C. Ryle confused.  I am not trying to sound too erudite or too sophisticated for such books, but I know that I often need to read more than just a short clip on a person or subject.

There happens to be lots of enjoyable books that contain short, usually inspiring biographical sketches.  In recent times, Eric Metaxas wrote a book called Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness.  John MacArthur wrote Twelve Ordinary Men, Twelve Extraordinary Women, and Twelve Unlikely Heroes, all of which are biographical sketches and devotional studies of Bible characters.  Warren Wiersbe has a book called Fifty People Every Christian Should Know.  A slightly different approach and some different subjects can be found in Saints and Scoundrels: From King Herod to Solzhenitsyn  by Robin Philips.

So, before I received my review copy of The 40  Most Influential Christians, I figured I had the book already classified.  “Great for younger readers.”  “A good introduction to famous Christians.”  “Enjoyable stories of famous believers.”  “Inspiring tales of faith.” But this book surprised me.   These biographical studies are quite in-depth, even though they are each 5 pages long.  There is more here than just the basic facts of birth, life, death.  Instead, each chapter consists of 3 parts:  the context, the contribution, and the conclusion.  The first part, the context, gives a snapshot of the place where the church or culture was at the time.  The second tells what the particular Christian did, while the third part is an evaluation of that person.

I am currently using the book in my theology class with high school students.  We have “Theologian Thursday,” which is a time when I introduce a historical figure from Christian history (not necessarily a theologian).  This book is quite useful for such.

There is another fun part of books like this.  It involves who gets included and who gets left out.   To be surprised, shocked, bothered, and confirmed all takes place with the opening of the book to the table of contents.  The argument with the author begins:  “Why did you include ****?”  “What!  You left **** out?”  I will note many of the influential Christians that were included below, but first notice this.  Dr. Aaron says that the list consists of who in his opinion are the  40 most influential Christians in his opinion.  And, he points out that he is not necessarily a fan of the theologies of all those included, but is only noting that each is influential.

Here are some that Aaron says are blatantly obvious:  Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.  In the category of the unfamiliar or less familiar, he includes Clement, Cyprian, Cyril, Julian, Richard Hooker, and Rosemary Reuther (who I have never previously heard of).  Some of the others in the book are Anselm, Peter Abelard, Menno Simmons, John Wesley, and James Arminius.  I winced over that last name, but realized, that Arminius has been extremely influential.

One of the modern theologians is Friedrich Scheirmacher, who is one that I think the author would be refering to when he says that some of the theologians have been more harmful than good.  Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are in the book, and rightly so.  So are J. Gresham Machen and Carl F. H. Henry.  It might not be easy to have a pleasant meal with the last five people mentioned, but the case can be made that they all made important contributions to Christianity.

Who would I be adding if I had the chance to “correct” the book and increase the number?  Definitely, I would add Abraham Kuyper first, and then add on a few more Dutchmen, such as Herman Bavinck and Herman Dooyeweerd.  Maybe Machen represented the Princeton tradition, but I would like to have seen chapters on Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield.  From the most recent decades, a strong case could be made for Francis Schaeffer and Billy Graham.  There are always a few favorites, such as George Whitefield.  George Grant would be miffed that Thomas Chalmers isn’t on the starting line-up. He and I both would want to see Charles Spurgeon included.  Neither Cornelius Van Til nor Gordon Clark were included, and for that matter, Alvin Plantiga.  And where are John Witherspoon and John Murray?  Since the book isn’t all about theologians and preachers, Flannery O’Connor would be a good addition.

Yes, I could see the book expanded to some 1000 plus pages, and I would still have a complaint or two.  But back to the actual book and the actual list, this is a fine book, a good study.  I really like this book and am inspired to know more about these 40 influential Christians.

This book was published by Bethany House Publishers and I received a review copy free.  I did not have to write a positive review, but I did.  And I did have to include this bit of information.