Honoring William Childs Robinson

A good study of a faithful and not so well known theologian in the American South.

Some books are vital although they will never appeal to a large audience.  Such can be said about Pleading for a Reformation Vision: The Life and Selected Writings of William Childs Robinson 1897-1982 by David Calhoun.  I think there are several reasons why this book is extremely significant.  The first relates to the author and editor David Calhoun.

Dr. Calhoun has been compiling an impressive history of Presbyterian and Reformed education in America.  This series of books began with two volumes on Princeton Theological Seminary.  Volume 1 is titled Princeton Seminary: Faith and Learning 1812-1868.  This volume covers the heyday of Calvinism in early America.  This was the age in which such men as Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge defined and defended Reformed theology.  They and others made Princeton a pillar in the Protestant world.

The strong stand that Presbyterians made during the first half of the 19th century came under severe attack from within during the last decades of that century and beyond.  The second volume of Calhoun’s book is titled Princeton Seminary: The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929.  These were the years when issues relating to the Higher Critical Movement, Darwinian Naturalism, and Theological Liberalism undercut basic Bible beliefs in America.  Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield battled the enemies in his day, but upon his death, the theological orthodoxy of old Princeton was eroded.  J. Gresham Machen fought a valiant rearguard action against the theological enemies of his day, but the war was one of strategic retreats for Calvinistic doctrine.

Princeton Theological Seminary and northern Presbyterianism did not constitute the whole story during the 18th and 19th centuries, however.  Here, Dr. Calhoun’s third volume is really instructive.  In the South, there were also several strong bastions of Calvinistic thought and theology.  One of the main centers was Columbia Seminary, which is the topic of Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary 1828-1927.  I wrote a review of this book which can be found here.  The theological challenges and cultural issues facing Southern Presbyterians were not exactly those of the Princeton scholars.  This book is a good history of Southern Christianity as well as Presbyterianism.

Our Southern Zion

Dr. Calhoun’s more recent book, Pleading for a Reformation Vision, is a different type of work, but it supplements the other three volumes.  About half of this book is a biographical sketch of William Childs Robinson and the other half is a collection of some of his writings.

This forgotten hero of the faith, William Childs Robinson, is the second reason why this book is so vital.  God always raises up men to stand in the gap.  In the darkest times, the light never goes out.  When orthodox Christianity waned in the northern churches, when Arminian theology trumped Calvinistic theology, and when theology itself was basically dethroned from being queen of the sciences to an irrelevant obscurity, there were men who stood fast.  William Childs Robinson upheld the Westminster Confession of Faith and Reformed theology when all about him waffled, compromised, neglected, undermined, and minimized the old doctrines.

I have been studying–in awe–for over several decades the men who upheld historic Calvinism during what I have called “the Wilderness Years.”  While men like Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Gregg Singer, R. J. Rushdoony, and others have gotten some notice for their intellectual rigor and faithfulness,  for their expansive Calvinistic minds, Robinson is not widely known today.  Neither he nor his writings should be forgotten.

A biographical sketch of a seminary professor contains little that is exciting.  This man preached, taught preachers, read, wrote essays, and went to church.  He was not immune to controversies; he was in contact and/or with leading theologians of his day; and he did preach the last sermon that Franklin D. Roosevelt heard (and I hope it was effectual). But he mainly stood fast.  He mainly remained faithful.  He mainly persevered.  When you think about it, that itself is quite an exciting story.

Proof of Robinson’s sound theology is found in the dozen or so essays found in the book.  This book, as well as the other three by Dr. Calhoun, are all published by Banner of Truth.

The Ideal Life

I have been reading some each afternoon from A Little Better Than Plumb–The Biography of a House by Kentucky authors Henry and Janice Holt Giles.  This is the story of a couple of writers who built a log house in Kentucky in the 1950s.  They used logs from a number of existing log structures in the area.  Janice Holt Giles insisted on having a house near the water.  Her  dream home became a reality after lots of looking and then building the house. The home, pictured above, is now a tourist site in Kentucky.

Janice Holt Giles was a prolific writer.  I have not read her novels, but from the descriptions, I think she is a writer I would enjoy.

With winter approaching soon and with many good memories of the log house in the woods I used to have, I was quite moved by this passage:

Normally Mister G. and I can settle into November and December and January and February quite cozily.  For the unfriendly outdoors there is the friendly compensation of a fire, drawn curtains, endless pots of coffee, dozens of books to be read and, for me, the best time of the year to work.  It is naturally a time of hibernation that I can sink into the writing of a book, withdraw from time and man, and do it more easily than at any other time of the year. There is a long silence and a long peace and if I’m lucky enough to keep both unbroken I can do prodigious amounts of good work.  (page 153)

The whole image of cold weather outside, hot coffee, a fire, and dozens of books inside sounds like the ideal life.  I still dream of a home like my old log cabin or like the Giles’ log house.

A fun book. A good read for the late afternoon.




A Tale of Two Cities, Part 3: Two Women


A Tale of Two Cities is also the story of two women. The book is a continuous weave of contrasts. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The calm and peace found in London contrasts with the turmoil and revolution seething in Paris. The nobility and deportment of Charles Darnay contrasts with the intemperance and wasted life of Sidney Carton. The selfless labors of banker Jarvis Lorry contrasts with the scheming ruthlessness of Ernest Defarge. The law and order of the English courtroom, as highlighted in the last article, contrasts with the cruelly efficient injustices of the French courtroom. One of the greatest contrasts, however in the book is that between the two key women–Lucie Manette and Therese Defarge.

There is a religious symbolism that pervades all literature. It is very obvious in the self-consciously Christian writings, such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress, Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene, or C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. But themes of sin and redemption, communion, forgiveness, providence, conversion from one path to another, baptism and cleansing, and the sanctuary of the church pervade all stories. The writer may have been nominally Christian, anti-Christian, of a religion other than Christianity, or indifferent to the Christian faith. But the contours of the human landscape make religious themes inevitable.

Charles Dickens was a writer who was a Christian. I avoided saying that he was a Christian writer, for he did not seek to write a genre of specifically Christian-themed stories. In the past, I would have been less assertive of Dickens’ commitment to the Christian faith, but I have found Gary L. Colledge’s God and Charles Dickens: Recovering the Christian Voice of a Classical Author convincing and enjoyable. So I stand with Dr. Colledge along with Russian authors Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky who referred to Dickens as “that great Christian writer.” That being said, the topic of Dickens’ commitment to Christianity, especially as evidenced in his writings, is another topic and one that Colledge’s book amply covers.
Women in literature often portray to role of the church. Women protect, heal, nurture, give comfort to, and provide solace to other characters who are suffering from sin and its effects. While there are certainly plenty of good male nurses and teachers, there is still a powerful sense that women often take on these roles with greater compassion and mercy than men.

People find salvation in the church. A careful Biblical Christian often hesitates to utter that sentence. It might imply and it has led to belief and ideas that have given “the Church” a role that it does not play. The church is not Jesus Christ; it does not redeem lost sinners; membership and identification with it does not confer salvation. There are, no doubt, far too many people without Christ whose names adorn church rolls. But people find salvation in the church. In Psalm 73, the psalm singer bemoaned the prosperity of the wicked. He was on a slippery slope until, as he says in verse 17, “I went into the sanctuary of God.”

The wayward path, the confused mind, the wandering soul, the restless heart, the sin laden conscience, and the broken publican all find the way back to God in the sanctuary. The church is, in the Christian cosmos, the bride of Christ. The wife in marriage is symbolically related to the church, just as analogically the husband is related to Christ. Women, then, represent the role of the church in literature.

What about the case of wicked women? Just as the virtuous woman represents what the church ought to be, the wicked woman represents the failed or apostate church. (In like manner, a wicked husband misrepresents Christ who is the husband of the church.)

One additional matter regarding Dickens as a writer. Charles Dickens was writing during the early to mid-1800s. This was the Victorian Era, and the literature of the time was heavily influenced by the manners and mores of Romanticism. Dickens could be amazingly accurate in describing human ills. Many Dickens’ characters display complexity and ambiguity. Dickens revealed the heart and minds of men of all types. But he wrote before the advent of those schools of literature termed Realists and before the invasion of psychology into writing. Dickens is not Freudian or pre-Freudian. His tendency to be paint words and characters with strong contrasts rather than indistinguishable muted tones. Good guys are really good. Villains are really bad.  Plot lines coincide and resolve by the end of the novel.  People may not live happily ever after, but the issues are resolved.

Also, Dickens was a man, a male. Surprised at that insight? Well, Dickens was surprised when he read a novel that was written by a woman. The author of the novel was George Eliot. While reading the book, Dickens realized that George wasn’t really George. George was she, not he. The reason was because of the way female characters were portrayed. Dickens had a great ability to put himself into the thoughts of his characters, but he knew what all men know. That is, we guys don’t really understand women. Hence Dickens the Romantic portrayed heroes and villains, and when those characters were females, they were perhaps even more exaggerated in character.

The result is Lucie Manette is perfect. The boy who reads this book, falls in love with Lucie (“I love Lucie”), and determines to find her exact incarnation among the girls in his life will die a bachelor. The only slight fault that Lucie has is fainting on occasion due to shocking news. Since she lived in a time where fainting couches were common furniture, that was no fault.

It is no wonder that the three younger men all fall for Lucie. Portly Lawyer Stryver decided to do her the favor of marrying her. Sidney Carton was strongly smitten, although painfully aware of his own faults. Charles Darnay, who was blessed with near perfection himself, was the perfect match. One even supposes that good old Jarvis Lorry fancied Lucie. He was, as pointed out in the book, “born a bachelor.” But he did imagine how nice it would have been to have had a long wedded life with someone like Lucie. I admit that if I were a literary character who just happened to walk into a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, I would have been hoping that Lucie would notice me.

Lucie has a purity and grace in all that she does. She is one who restores her father after his imprisonment. She provides the home life and love that sustains Charles Darnay. She is the moral compass for Sidney Carton who determines early on that he will, when and if necessary, do anything for her and anyone she loves. She is no stranger to adversity, for her father and husband both undergo imprisonments. Her son dies, and her life is disrupted several times along the way. Like the church, through trials and tribulations, she endures and is a light to those in darkness.

Madame Defarge also had a troubled life. Late in the book, we learn of some of the troubles her family endured. She witnessed the miseries of the French people around her and knew firsthand of the coldhearted indifference of the French aristocracy. Whereas Lucie was a devoted Christian, seen more in actions than rituals, Therese Defarge held to a revolutionary faith. While not all atheists are bad, mean people, there are those whose atheism (as well as those of other faiths) leads to unrestrained evil.

The French Revolution unlocked some forces and inhibitions that far exceeded any of the atheistic beliefs of Voltaire or the philosophical tenets of Rousseau. This something that spawned the French Revolution was horrible. James A. Billington devoted a lengthy and scholarly book to this topic in his work Fire in the Minds of Men, aptly subtitled The Origins of a Revolutionary Faith. Groen van Prinsterer devoted a series of lectures to the topic of Revolution and Unbelief. Something in the human psyche was unleashed in 1789 that spun out across Europe in revolutionary violence that continues to this day.

Dickens repeated the slogan, the mission statement, the ground motive of the French Revolution (and its children) in the saying, “Liberty, equality, fraternity, or death.” There was no longer a presumption of innocence until proved guilty if someone fit into the slippery charge of being an enemy of “the People.” From Robespierre to Lenin and Stalin, from Mao Tse-Tung to Pol Pot, from Al Queda to ISIS, revolutions have proven to be insatiable for blood.

Ironically, Madame Defarge is always knitting. The image of the good wife knitting is comforting one. Knitting is a family directed activity. It is a constant activity. It is ministry to others in need. It is motherly. But when asked, Madame Defarge says she is knitting shrouds. She is inscribing the names and deeds of all she observes into these knitted items. She is storing up accusations and charges. The knitting is a record of her hatred and vengeance. Interestingly, her female friend and co-revolutionary is called “the Vengeance.”

After the Bastille is stormed, the somewhat restrained Madame Defarge unveils her true personality. Pulling a knife out of her cloak, she personally beheads a fallen guard. There is, from that point on, no restraint, no conscience, no moral scruples, no sense of law and order in this woman.


If it were not for the history of the twentieth century and the evening news coming out of the Middle East, we might think that Dickens overstated the case. But Madame Defarge lives. With none of the nurturing, teaching, or mothering instincts, this woman, devoid of even common grace, Madame Defarge can either kill her enemies herself or amuse herself watching the daily executions enacted by another evil woman, Madame Guillotine.

Historical Fiction–Great Reading Experiences

Believe it or not, I love reading history.  I also love reading novels.  One might deduce from those facts that I read lots of historical fiction.  I see fiction series quite often that are set in the time of the American Civil War, in the Middle Ages, in World War II, in Tudor England, in the American West, and the like.  I am generally not overly attracted to those kinds of novels.  I figure some of the series are quite engaging, judging from the number of books in the sets.  I don’t generally seek to learn history through fiction.  Nor do I seek to find great literature in what are sometimes called genre novels.  Keep in mind, I am not opposing or critiquing and certainly not snubbing such books and series.  Given the restraints of time and money, I just don’t read these kinds of books.

But I have read quite a few novels that are historical novels.  Basically, I am interested in the novel that stands on its on as a work of fiction. I like the literary work that is set in a particular historical context and that reveals some of the central issues of the history, but I don’t expect a novel to do the work of a history book.

All that being said and my conditions being set out, I will name and describe some of my favorite historical novels.

1.  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens is the only historical novel he wrote.  One could argue that the bulk of his works reveal the social history and conditions of his time, but this is the only book that was set in a specific historical context.  The opening lines are well known and brilliant:  “It was the best of time; it was the worst of times.”  The two cities are London and Paris, but the novel is not really about two cities.  Or, if it is, the cities are those that Augustine discussed in The City of God.  One city in Dickens’ novel is a world of decency, redemption, and love.  The other is the cauldron of human depravity and wickedness as found in the streets of France during the French Revolution.

I read this book for the fourth time and have enjoyed teaching it in my Humanities class for the third time.  My first reading was around 1971 when I was a freshman in high school.  Even though I was a reader, I did not like this book until we got near the end.  My whole view of the book was radically changed.  I came to love it then and every subsequent reading has reconfirmed my love.


2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Several summers back, it took a concentrated effort to get into this massive labyrinthine Russian novel.  As it often the case with a Russian novel, the length is as vast as the Russian steppes, the characters are numerous, and the sub-plots are multiplied.  Added to that, Tolstoy often digressed from his fictional story to philosophical and historical ramblings.  One must simply gear up when approaching this novel, but somewhere about 100 or 200 pages into it, something happens.  I still remember looking forward each night to finding out what was happening to all the characters.  I have never taught this novel.  I do teach some shorter works by Tolstoy, but I think a reading group on this book would be fun.

The historical setting is the Napoleonic Wars, and in particular it focuses on Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign.  By the way, I prefer the translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for any reading of a Russian work.

3.  None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon.  A few months back, I did a whole blog on Civil War fiction.  (It can be found here.)  Every book on that list could be reposted here, but I will limit myself to only a few.  This book by a great Southern author is an outstanding read.  I have often said that Ms. Gordon writes about love and romance like Jane Austen and war like Homer.  At this to the mix:  This novel has a strong Southern flavor.  The cause of the South rings throughout the story.  I read this novel several times in years past and developed a strong affection for Caroline Gordon’s writings.  She is largely overlooked today, and her views–Southern, Agrarian, Christian–are not well received in many circles.  But as an artist, a creator of fiction, she is outstanding.

4.  Green Centuries by Caroline Gordon.  One good Caroline Gordon novel calls for another.  This book is set on the colonial frontier.  It centers on a man named Orion Outlaw.  As you might guess, a man on the rugged Appalachian frontier whose last name is Outlaw is no pushover.  This book, as the previous one, has a strong epic feel.  To get a better sense of what that means, read Louise Cowan’s defining essay “Epic as Cosmopoesis.”

5.  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.  I first read this book when I was in high school and have read it several times since.   Every reading has reaffirmed what a great story and adventure this book is.  It is often thought of as a children’s book, and that is okay if one realizes that a good children’s book is a book that adults can enjoy as well.  The setting is the events in Boston at the time of the American Revolution.  I am really surprised that there has not been a good movie made from this story.  The 1957 Disney movie is very inferior.

6.  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  If a reader really enjoyed the previous book and wants another thrilling, uplifting story, don’t read this one.  Mind you, this is a powerful and great book.  But it is a grim story.  The only reason it finally becomes all quiet on the Western Front is because everyone has died.  This is a harsh, but realistic look at trench warfare in World War I.  If the world had accepted the lessons of this book after it came out, there would have been no Second World War.  But mankind seems to have a deathwish.  Madmen plunge nations into wars.  The Second World War was as necessary as the First World War was unnecessary.  Although it is not as focused on the war itself, Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms is also a good read.

7.  The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper.  The subtitle of this classic novel is “A Narrative of 1757.”  Readers of Cooper’s time would have as readily recognized that reference as we would references to December 7, 1941 or 9-11.  Like many of the historical novels in this line-up, Cooper borrows from the historical texts, but he is not giving a history.  He does deal with the interplay between British, colonial, French, and Indian peoples.  Despite the barbs of Mark Twain and the movie deviations from the stories, the Leatherstocking Tales are the story of America in its early years.

8.  The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  In spite of my determination not to mix in too many Civil War novels, I must include this one.  I have read it and taught it quite a few times.  I appreciate the movie Gettysburg which is based on this book, but I prefer the book.  This is not a history of the Battle of Gettysburg.  It is a novel, a work of fiction.  In this book, the real conflicts are in the hearts of the men on both sides, or else they conflicted visions among the men on both sides.  General Longstreet battles his loss of his children and frustration with battle tactics.  Lawrence Chamberlain battles conscience, family concerns, and ethical issues.  Lewis Armistead battles his friendship with Winfield Scott Hancock, a general on the other side.

Mainly, this is a retelling of the story found in Homer’s Iliad.  The great conflict there was between Achilles and Agamemnon, and this story recasts this as a conflict between Longstreet and Lee.


9.  The Collected Works of William Faulkner.  Faulkner told the history of the South through his Yoknapatawpha novels and stories.  The War Between the States is the background of many of Faulkner’s books and is central to several of them.  The racial, economic, social, and cultural mix of the South are woven into and through Faulkner’s writings.

I know there are many more historical novels.  Book like Ben Hur and Quo Vadis tell the conflict of faith in the time of Roman rule amidst the growth of the church.  I hope to someday acquire and read Patrick O’Brian’s novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series.  Thomas Fleming, one of my favorite historians, has written a number of historical novels.  I have read only one of the Horatio Hornblower books by C. S. Forester.  I think I might like Allen Eckert Winning of America series.  I have a copy of Lonesome Dove that I will someday read.

Any suggestions from any of you?

A Tale of Two Cities–Part 2–The Rule of Law

[Note to the Reader:  This is the second of two articles taken from my old blog.  Both were written in 2010.  Perhaps I might be able to add a third article on this great book.]
A key to Dickens’ thought can be found in examining the two court scenes in the book. In both cases, Charles Darnay is on trial, and in the most powerful of Dickensian plot developments, in both cases, it is Sidney Carton who works to free the accused.The background of the trial was as follows: Darnay was on trial in England for treason. The charges were vague and oddly presented, and if Darnay were convicted, he would have faced a horrible death. The tortures given to felons convicted of treason were much worse than the swift close shave of Madame Guillotine. For unclear reasons, Darnay seemed to have little clear evidence to prove his innocence. Despite a character reference from Lucie Manette, Darnay seems doomed until Sidney Carton steps forward and displays his incredible likeness to Darnay. Carton did not prove Darnay’s innocence, but he introduced an element of doubt. English justice had its flaws; the English system was prone to error; yet there were still legal and binding precedents and patterns that were useful to procuring true justice. The element of doubt as to the guilt of Darnay, displayed by the fact that no one could be sure that he was the actual guilty party, led to his acquittal.

The courtroom scene in England included crowds milling around, anxious to see a show rather than being concerned for justice. The seriousness of the charge (treason) and the near certainty of a conviction and execution created more of a circus atmosphere than a serious judicial proceeding. The flimsy evidence not withstanding, justice is maintained because of the possibility that Darnay’s accusers might be mistaken. A preponderance of evidence was lacking and an element of doubt was introduced. Therefore, an innocent man was acquitted. While this is not quite a picture of the City of God, it is the City of Man restrained by common grace. Dickens’ theology was better than he knew.

In contrast to the near-run injustice in England, France during the Terror thrived on injustice. The court scene in France was chaotic. Dickens quoted the slogan of the French Revolution several times: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity…and Death. It was this slogan that best describes the difference between the French Revolution and the American Revolution (or the Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1688). It was this slogan that explains that violent, humanistic faith aptly described in James Billington’s political and historical book Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of a Revolutionary Faith. France, during the Revolution and the Terror, sought to remake the world through destruction. The liberty, the equality of the classes, the fraternity of all men were all ultimately achieved through death at the guillotine. The rolling of the tumbrels to the crowded areas around the guillotines became a national religion. And this religion was founded on the law and justice of the City of Man.

The law and justice of the French courts were guided by a presupposing that certain classes of society were “enemies of the people.” As vague as the phrase is, it was able to be applied to all. Aristocrats, church leaders, and those who prospered under the old regime were by definition, enemies of the people. So were any who ever associated with the condemned classes. So were any who ever strayed in the least from the political correctness of that day. This concept of “enemies of the people” has continued in the world since the French Revolution. The terrible regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Castro, and Pol Pot, practiced the same, with the addition of more modern and horrible methods of destroying these enemies. In our American society, “enemies of the people” have not been destroyed, but particular ideas, movements, and individuals are silenced if they are out of the political and socially accepted mainstream.

Charles Darnay was clearly innocent of any true crimes in France. He had believed in a true revolution for years, and that is why he had abandoned his patrimony. His guilt was due to his bloodlines, not to blood on his hands. The driving force behind his conviction was Madame Defarge. A person reading A Tale of Two Cities in the 1800s might have thought Dickens exaggerated her villainy. Rather than being overdramatic in his creation of this meaner-than-Lady Macbeth woman, Dickens was being prophetic. It would only be a few generations later that the world would experience revolutions and plenty of willing executioners, both male and female, who were far more ruthless than Madame Defarge.

There were no court procedures, legal statutes, or appeals that could prevent Darnay’s receiving of the death sentence. His prime advocate, the good old Dr. Manette, had written a letter during his imprisonment years before that used against Darnay. Guilty by virtue of his family’s past, Darnay was then an “enemy of the people” who deserved death.

The City of Man is built upon foundations of injustices, cruelty, and death. Yet grace intervenes even in the most unlikely of situations. And just as God uses the most unexpected of people to fulfill His purposes, so Dickens used Sydney Carton as the recipient and deliverer of grace. Carton’s sacrifice of himself and his further ministry to the frightened girl on the way to their deaths, showed what propels the City of God. In a world that is overwhelmed in chaos and injustice, a world filled with wicked men, a world where goodness and virtue are mocked, there are those whose hearts are turned to something beyond this world. It is the transcendent reality of the City of God.

Sidney Carton was a wicked man; his life in the City of Man was one of drunken self indulgence, wasted talents, and pitiful self-centeredness. But it was a remembrance of the past and a vision of the future that changed him. He remembered his father’s funeral, and he took hold of a verse from the Bible that changed the direction of his life. He had already witnessed the power of a pure life in Lucie Manette (a symbol of the church) and the beauty of a godly order in the family of Charles Darnay and Lucie (a symbol of a godly order). He could have neither, although he could—by his resemblance to Charles Darnay—preserve both. The Bible verse that changed him was John 11:25 (Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.) This was an answer to the injustices found in both England and France, to the terrors of the guillotine, to the restless surging of the masses. Far from being Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” the Christian ideal provides life for the masses. It was a revolution within the revolution. It is a tale of two cities, but the story extends far beyond France and England in the late 1700s.




A powerful and definitive study of the ideas that ignited the French Revolution and other similar movements.

A Tale of Two Cities–Part 1–Dickens and Augustine



Reading through and teaching A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens has only increased my love of the book and the author.  Below is the first of two posts from the old blog that I posted back in the year 2010.

Better novels than A Tale of Two Cities, it can be argued, have been written. But one would be hard pressed to find a better beginning to a novel than “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This opening sentence starts a series of contrasts of social classes, societal conditions, and human choices that will guide the novel through to the end. Dickens did not always write with a great deal of theological discernment, yet he penned one of the most powerful Christian stories ever in this novel. His Tale of Two Cities reflects certain ideas that can be found in a key prequel to his work. I don’t know if Dickens had much personal knowledge of that prequel, and it was not a major influence in Victorian England, but Augustine’s City of God sets forth the same contrasts as Dickens’ novel.

To keep reading (and why would you not want to read more?)….click here.


Ideas Truly Have Consequences

“What marks the movements in the history of societies and peoples is not the accumulation of capital.  It is the accumulation of opinions. (And such accumulations can be promoted and for some time, even produced by manipulations of publicity, confected for the majority by hard small minorities–though not always, and not forever.)”

The quote above comes from historian John Lukacs in the book History and the Human Condition: A Historian’s Pursuit of Knowledge.    As a history teacher, student, and reader, I have spent much of my life dealing with the movements of societies and people.  As an American citizen, I have experienced such movements personally.

Lukacs is right in my view.  It is the opinions, the ideas, the worldviews, philosophies, and cultural assumptions that shape the world past and present.  In politics, the phrase recurs “It’s the economy, stupid.”  But beliefs about the economy, the pocketbook issues, the charts and graphs, latest economic reports and projections, and the like are not stand alone facts.  The economic issues are built upon cultural assumptions.

The person who votes for a Democrat based on the expectation of government programs and the person who votes for a Republican hoping that it might lead to less government are voting from the same basic presupposition.  Even people who congregated around Jesus wanted more economic applications.  “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?”  “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Political strategies and slogans aside, it is not the economy, stupid.  It’s the culture.  It’s the opinions and ideas that are floating around.  It is the presuppositions that people are catching in the same way they catch the measles, as Francis Schaeffer said a generation ago.

Granted, as Lukacs said, many of these opinions are promoted and publicized by “hard small minorities.”  R. J. Rushdoony emphasized repeatedly that majorities don’t rule history; rather, it is dedicated minorities who live in terms of their faith.

I am in the opinion-forming business.  Right now, I am working to inform the opinions of my students on the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’ worldview, early civilizations in Asia, Ayn Rand’s flawed individualism, and above all, of God’s providential rule over history and His Kingdom rule over all areas of life.  (I wish I could be experiencing a bit more accumulation of capital in the process.)

“Ideas have consequences” was the title of a book by Richard Weaver.  The title gets touted more than the book gets read.  It is a brilliant point.

I don’t see Christians using the language of “a Christian worldview” as much as I used to.  I recognize that we often spoke of having a Christian worldview, but didn’t have much depth or understanding of what that meant.  And, it has been too often used or equated with extreme rightwing political positions (most of which I hold to).  The problems that led Harry Blamires to say, “There is no longer a Christian mind” in the 1960s and Mark Noll to say, “There is not much of an evangelical Christian mind” in the 1990s is a like a returning and unwanted visitor.

Certainly Christians need to master economics and economic theories.  Certainly Christians need to see how economic wants, needs, and perceptions affect the social and political order.  But it is in the area of opinions, ideas, thinking, and worldviews that we have our best battleplans.  As James Orr said many years ago, “He who with his whole heart believes in Jesus as the Son of God is thereby committed to much else besides. He is committed to a view of God, to a view of man, to a view of sin, to a view of redemption, to a view of human destiny, found only in Christianity.”

A larger and earlier collection of John Lukacs’ essays on history.






Non-expert Thoughts on Education

I have had the rather calming thought this morning that maybe the education system has it all wrong.  I am not sure that I have enough experience to judge such a thought.  I have only been teaching school for 35 years.  That has included teaching students in the elementary grades through college classes.  I have taught in five schools, a college, and a prison.  I have taught subjects ranging from basketball to Shakespeare, and I feel equally inadequate, but enthusiastic about both.  I have introduced students to William Faulkner, Jesse Stuart, Herman Dooyeweerd, R. C. Sproul, Louise Cowan, and a host of other great thinkers and writers.  But none of that qualifies my assertion.

Here is my expanded thought:  I am mainly thinking about the subject of history, which is my specialty.  I am largely focused on how history is taught in colleges, although aspects of the same issue arises in high school teaching.  History is taught in surveys.  Surveys are built around the concept of covering the entire gamut of a history, be it American, World, or Western.  High school history classes are surveys.  AP courses are surveys.  Freshman and sophomore college courses are usually surveys.

Surveys are often dominated by that so often uninviting format, the textbook.

Now I am not an enemy of the traditional textbook.  True, many are the work of committees agreeing on content rather than individual authors weilding literary skills.  True, they dance to the tune of current trends of political correctness, hence needing constant revisions.  True, they blanch the flavor out of events.  True, they rarely present anything really provocative in interpretations.  True, they exclude and sometimes misrepresent some of the issues, people, and events that I consider most critical in history.  (Just try to find an American history textbook that even mentions J. Gresham Machen or a Western Civilization book that includes a reference to Abraham Kuyper.)

Despite those slight criticisms, textbooks can be quite useful.  (In the absence of a desk, one can use big helfty textsbooks as props for writing.)  The pictures, maps, chronologies, and even the narrative accounts can help fill in the broader story of history.

This year, I am teaching World Civilizations.  The focus of the book for the fall semester is on beginnings up to 1600.  This week, I have covered chapter 2.  Basically, this chapter highlights the incredible speed of civilizational advance in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean Sea area.  More specifically, it covered ancient Mesopotamia, Sumer, Egypt,  Philistia, Assyria, Mycenae, Israel, and a few other civilizations.  This is a remarkable story.

It is the story of two dominations, two conquests.  The first is dominion over the creation.  Early man, early communities, in the eras somewhat before and after Abraham, developed irrigation systems, domesticated animals, created wheeled carts, developed languages written and spoken, developed governmental systems, had medical breakthroughs, constructed great buildings and cities, and created a host of tools, weapons, jewels, and other objects that were both finely crafted and artistically designed.

Early people exercised dominion over soil, plants, water, animals, rocks, and other elements.  That dominion squares quite well with the Dominion Covenant given to Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Even allowing for all the cultural and spiritual deviations, culminating in the post-Diluvian world, man–by nature and necessity–exercised dominion over the earth.  Man solves the biggest problem, which is getting a surplus of food, through thinking, experimenting, and improving existing conditions.  From there, the door opens to further conquests, dominion, and development of nature, earth, and the production of other things.

But there is another dominion that has worked alongside the development of resources:  Man’s dominion over man.  This squares with the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  It is witnessed when Cain kills Abel, when Lamech, the father of incredibly resourceful sons, blatantly kills a man, and when the whole earth goes corrupt in the time of Noah.  God imposes the death penalty for murder in the post-Diluvian world.  That is a brake on the human propensity toward evil, tyranny, and murder.  But it is not the complete cure.

So kingdom conquers kingdom.  Strong men rule over weak.  People in the mountains develop iron weapons and chariots to conquer the more agrarian oriented and peaceable valley folks who think iron is for making plows.  History becomes a bloodbath, a battlefield, a contest of wills.  The goal is not merely to produce more grain and better herds of livestock.  Rather, it is to conquer and dominate those who will harvest the grain and tend the livestock.

None of this is separated from the devolution of religion.  The knowledge of God is suppressed and man stoops to worshipping kings and powerholders claiming divinity.  As the decline continues, the gods multiply and the things created are acknowledged as gods.

All that is a powerfully good story and history worth considering.  So where is my complaint?

The course I am teaching is a dual credit course.  By that, I mean that it is being taught in a high school, but students get college credit for it.  No complaint there, for I think I am providing a college-level challenge to my students.

It is the nature of the survey course that I question.  Here is why:  The book had something like 3 or 4 paragraphs that covered the civilization of ancient Israel.  Disregarding some differences in perspective, I question the usefulness of surveying the Old Testament in 4 paragraphs.  It is like teaching the Battle of Gettysburg by saying, “A lot of guys got killed.”  Now thankfully, students in a Christian school have had a much richer experience in learning the Old Testament.  From classes to chapel services, and usually a home and church life reinforcing the same, they are quite aware of the Old Testament stories, people, and history.  But recapping that in four paragraphs adds nothing to the knowledge of somewhat Biblically literate students and is probably even less useful to those students in freshman college classes with little or no Bible background.

The second example is a similar one.  Greek literature gets two paragraphs.  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are mentioned, along with Hesiod’s Theogony.  Granted, the diligent student can now answer one of the twenty-five multiple choice questions, and those with good memories are better equipped for Trivial Pursuit.  I say this because it was my own autobiography.  I was successful at the multiple choice questions and quite good in some categories of Trivial Pursuit.  It was only after teaching in a classical Christian school that I was force-blessed into reading, teaching, and discovering many of the classic works that are now the bedrock of my teaching.

At Veritas Academy, we have relied heavily on our Humanities Program for the last twelve years or so.  It is partially modeled after the King’s Meadow Study Center Curriculum developed and taught by George Grant.  It also has borrowd heavily from the Veritas Press Omnibus Series, of which I have contributed a few chapters. The Omnibus series covers grades 7 through 12 and is an incredibly rich study of history, literature, and culture.  Additionally, our program has been supplemented by the work of Dr. Louise Cowan and the Dallas Institute for Humanities and Culture.  Finally, I have been personally influenced by the vision, the writings, and the aims of the Vanderbilt men who congregated around different ideas that gave birth to the Fugitive Poet Movement, the New Critics, and the Agrarians.

What Humanities has been wary of is the survey, the textbook, the mention of facts without mastery, the multiple choices without the thought and discussion.  Instead, Humanities has been part of what Mortimer Adler and others have called the Great Conversation.

So, we have devoted a year to studying Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  I sailed through high school, college, and graduate school without having to dodge spears on the battlefieds outside Troy or having experienced the wine-dark seas that Odysseus traveled.  I only thought I had been educated.  We also study quite a few other Greek classics.  Students also read large portions of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, which still gives the only viable (but depressing) alternative to a Christian worldview.  Gilgamesh gets a 3 sentence coverage in the World History text.  A few details of the Code of Hammarabi are covered in the text, whereas students in our school have read the law codes of Hammarabi in conjunction with the Mosaic Laws of the Old Testament.

Colleges typically require surveys courses of World or American History.  Some may still opt for Western Civilizations over World History, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.  “All” history from the beginnings (and we won’t even begin on the topic of origins) through the Renaissance are flown over from late August to early December.  Many independent facts are in the crunch.  You can find Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustine, Attila the Hun, Aquinas, and dozens of other names in the mix.  The classic works of literature, history, theology, and philosophy are easy to spot on the pages since they appear in italics.  The student gets a big dose of everything and a real understanding of …..  (Should I say “nothing” or be more kind and say “not much”?)

In depth study is the best.  Less is more.  One book, especially a classic, mastered is better than a dozen scanned.  One journey to Narnia would surpass a thousand facts about Narnia.  The same can be said of Middle Earth, Yoknapatawpha County, or the City of God.

A careful reading of two dozen or so essays from the Federalist is a course in American politics.  If more is needed, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is unsurpassed.  Obsessions can be mastered by time and care devoted to Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby.  Shakespeare pulled the curtain back to show us England, Scotland, love, power, humanity, and the world.

Leave the broad sweeps and surveys and fly-overs to the realms of higher education.  The graduate student laboring over gender roles in the French and Indian Wars might better read about all wars.

But, what do I know?