It is always good to find help when you are lost. This year, I am teaching World Civilizations. This is a college credit course and a worthy study. The only problem is that although I have a degree in history and sufficient graduate hours to teach it on a college level, I am lost. My career has been spent teaching American History and Western Civilization. Give me a decade and five minutes and I can teach an American history class, possibly without resorting to books or notes. Give me a century and an hour and I can teach a Western Civilization class possibly without resorting to notes. I would be a bit shaky on some centuries in the Middle Ages without a few prompts. But there are some centuries or decades I could teach an entire course on.
This is not bragging. It is simply a fact based on 34 years in the classroom and more years than that reading and studying.
But world civilization has been putting me in ancient China, India during the Harrapan period, Meso-America long before Columbus or even the Aztecs, and Oceania. But learning is fun, and learning involves repentance. I am struggling to catch up on great swathes of history that I have neglected or did not know existed.
Trying to get a handle on ancient world civilizations caused me to ask around the scholarly networks. Dr. Roy Clouser, author of the incredible book The Myth of Religious Neutrality, gave me this useful thought: “There have been a lot of attempts to define “human” because any attempt to account for human origins can’t help using some criterion or other for when there are humans & when not. My point (in my books and articles) has been that Genesis defines a human as a being created in God’s image for fellowship with God. If that’s right, then having the capacity for religion is the defining feature of humans.”
The idea of focusing on religion drew me to Rodney Stark’s book Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. I got this book some years back for Christmas, but had never read it. Before then, I was avidly reading all of Stark’s books I could find. This one seemed harder and less appealing to my interests, so it went on the shelf. For my current class, this book has been full of gold and silver.
I find many points that Stark makes unconvincing, some strongly objectionable. But overall, the book is incredibly informative and at many points very brilliant. I just wish I could find several other similar titles on World History that would be as useful in supplementing my reading.
More reading and a review of John Frame’s Systematic Theology is overdue. I have long enjoyed his writings and teachings. But he has written quite a few very hefty and heavy books. Many of them I start or read portions of. Now, he is publishing a series of shorter writings. John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings, Volume 1, is published by P & R Publishing. These essays range from a few pages to several dozen pages. As always, Frame is informative, very even keeled, and Biblical. Frame fans will enjoy “Twenty Five Random Things Nobody Knows About Me” along with the 100 books that have most influenced Frame’s thought. These essays combine some good theology, good commentary on Christian issues, and exhortations.
I recently wrote two articles about Flannery O’Connor. They can be found here and here. The research was lots of fun. I dug through through a biography of O’Connor (which rebuts her witty statement that no one would write a biography of someone who lived between the house and chicken yard). I pulled a couple of books about O’Connor’s writings down and read from them. Best of all, I got to go back over portions of her book on literature, Mystery and Manners, and over some of her letters.
This prompted me to read a book I got last December. (I think it was a Christmas present from me to me.) This, the latest book by O’Connor, is a journal of prayers O’Connor kept from 1946-1947 while at the University of Iowa. The prayers cover some 40 pages of this well-done book with a facsimile of the journal covering another forty pages.
These prayers are quirky, inspiring, and painfully honest. One rejoicing when reading her saying, “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.” Praise God, He answered that prayer. O’Connor is probably the best Christian short story writer of the age.
Then there is this really profound entry: “No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.”
Yes, Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic, and her Catholicism seeps in here and there. But it is interesting, she is, via her thoughts, praying to God, not to saints. She has a communion with the saints, which all us Apostle Creed reciters have, but not a reliance on them.
This is a delightful book. So is the one by Presbyterian theologian John Frame and the one by Baptist sociologist Rodney Stark.