Appraising Emil Brunner Before Reappraising Him

I don’t read and review books for a living.  Rather, I live to read and review books.  Someday, I may drop the habit for something less strenuous, like maybe camel training or swimming with sharks.  But for now, this is what I do.

I was excited to receive a copy of Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal by Alister McGrath a few months back.  It was the author McGrath, rather than the subject Brunner that drew me to the book.  McGrath has written dozens upon dozens of books on theological and biographical subjects.  He can, as in the case of this book, write for a more specialized audience (me being an exception) or for a broader Christian audience.  His recent biography of C. S. Lewis is a case of his more popular writings.  While C. S. Lewis: A Life is written for all types of readers and fans, McGrath also did a follow-up work titled The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewiswhich is more expensive and devoted to the unfolding development of Lewis’ ideas.  (The multi-faceted Lewis was both a scholar of the highest order and a popular novelist and apologist.)  As if that wasn’t enough, McGrath also did a fun looking volume titled If I Had Lunch With C. S. Lewis.  [Reader take note:  I do not own these latter two volumes.  It is currently ranked as a problem in my life, but could be elevated to a crisis at any time.]

                             

I have also enjoyed other volumes by McGrath, including The Twlilight of Atheism and Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution from the 16th Century to the Twenty-First Century.  I also have his biography of John Calvin and his book titled Heretics.  (And for any mean-spirited readers, they are not on the same subject.)

Needless to say, if you look at the range of McGrath’s writings, my paltry collection is the tip of the ice berg.  I am sure that there are things that McGrath believes or has written that should cause us all to gasp.  I know Iain Murray has some reservations about him, and I highly respect Murray.  But I never assume that McGrath is adding volumes on to the canon of orthodoxy.  I do believe he is a very productive and faithful servant of God.

Concerning Emil Brunner:  I was not able to read this book as a re-appraisal of Brunner.  I knew too little about him, so it was an appraisal.

Brunner existed in a foggy bit of theological European history in my mind.  He was Germanic and his name started with a B.  So, there was Barth, Brunner, and Bultmann.  You could add Bonhoeffer to the list, but Dietrich emerged from the pack with such books as Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.  German theology ranged from the arcane, like Keil and Delitzsche, to the insane, like Strauss and Feuerbach.  The German higher critics scaled the heights of academic acumen and brilliance, but shed orthodoxy to make the climb possible.  Aspiring American theologians crossed the great pond to study theology in the German universities.  German academia ruled the world in a way that the Third Reich never came close to equalling.  Sad to say, many believing students of theology returned to the American theological scene much better grounded in German language and thought, but spiritually blinded in heart and mind.  In turn, their contagion spread to American churches and seminaries.

J. Gresham Machen was an exception in that he survived his German pilgrimage, as did his mentor Benjamin B. Warfield.  Their students and followers, including such men as Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, waged war against the bad aspects of German theology.

I have told this story in simple form and really didn’t understand it much more than what is stated above.  A few years back, I read Eric Metaxas’ enjoyable biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I love the Bonhoeffer life story (tragic as it is) and enjoyed the book, but felt extremely uncomfortable with it.  Then I read historian Richard Weikhart’s critique of the book.  Basically, Metaxas cast Bonhoeffer as an American evangelical.  The murky depths of German theology was made to be like the clear–shallow–waters of American evangelical theology.

Others have made similar mistakes when they assume that German theological scholars were all bad guys  (or heretics, if you prefer).  Bonhoeffer wrote some good books, but some things that are questionable, to say the least.  Barth held some unorthodox views.  I would not want a Barthian as a pastor, but would not rule out reading or hearing from one.  On some matters, Barth was very good.  In the overall context of the theological liberals of Barth’s time, he was a knight in shining armor.

Bultmann is still off limits for my theology.  If McGrath writes a book titled Rudolph Bultmann: A Reappraisal, I would give it a hearing, but until then, I am still wary of him.

Brunner, however, was just a “B” name German (actually he was from Switzerland) linked in time and place with the others.

This book was an incredible eye-opener for me.  Brunner was a theologian of some depth, and some of the issues on which he and Barth sparred are still lost to me.  He held some wrong views on matters, and were he and I having lunch together, I would feel compelled to tell him so.  But he was a solid believer on the essentials.  He wrote and spoke orthodox truth.  He rightly recognized the evils of Naziism (which was next door to him) and Communism.  He understood that Christianity should impact culture.  He valued preaching and church life.  He loved and proclaimed Jesus Christ.

I will try to follow this post with some details from McGrath and Brunner.  I did read a book titled Our Faith by Brunner so that I could build upon this intellectual biography.  The book is a bit high priced, so I hope it comes out in paperback.  It is a worthy read.  It is one of the best books I have read this year.

Brunner, left, and Karl Barth, right. They sometimes had cordial scholarly exchanges, but sometimes were at loggerheads with each other. When Barth learned that Brunner was dying, he wrote a very kind note to him.

 

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Great Literature and Page Turners

Readers battle over these matters.  Authors agonize over this.  Actually, some don’t agonize; rather, they go to the bank…often.  Two people who read lots of books find themselves with nothing to talk about.  There are snobs on the one hand; and addicts on the other hand.  It is the issue of high brow and low brow.  It is not just confined to the world of books, but pertains to music and other artistic forms as well.  There are the patricians and the plebians.  There are great divides.  There are snubs and snobs.

It is the old issue of what makes great literature great literature.  It is the issue of timeless works and the latest best seller.  It is the issue of refined works of lasting literary merit versus pot boilers.  It is the difference between what literature professors read and teach versus what the man in the street or the woman at home reads.

It would be a lot easier to discuss this matter if it were a clear case of good versus bad, great versus mediocre, lasting versus latest.  There are no unbending, absolute rules determining what is and what is not great literature.  Even the aficiandos of great literature cross out selections on each other’s defining canons.  Also, one cannot reasonably assume that great literature ended when William Faulkner died in 1962, or for other purists, when Shakespeare or Dante or Jane Austen died.  We don’t always know new stuff will last, but we don’t know what old stuff will last either.  Herman Melville went down to obscurity, strapped to the side of his great white whale, and did not emerge for a generation.  Sir Walter Scott is off the required reading lists of most serious literature programs, but I figure that dogged Scot Scott will show up again in time.

I must confess to having spent most of my novel reading life in the classics, engulfed in the literary classics.  This began as a serious quest when I was in my junior year of high school.  In what might be considered the dullest life ever lived, one of my favorite memories is of a Labor Day weekend where I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  We had a screened in porch, and it was there that I spent that long weekend.  Later that year, I discovered Faulkner, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, Kipling, and a host of other writers.  Literature began its long association with history as the subjects that consumed my interest.

Over the years, there were only a few rare occasions when I read a book that had been on a recent best sellers list.  One of the few was Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.  It did seem to have some literary gravitas.  I was usually aware of who the best selling authors were, but I did not read them.  Nor did I read mysteries, thrillers, spy novels, westerns, romances, science fiction, fantasy, or any other type of popular literature.  There were a few exceptions.  I read Sherlock Holmes stories.  I trudged through C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy and a volume or two of the Narnia series.  I managed to read The Hobbit.  But again, those cross the lines to the more literary stuff.

All of this is to say that I now read quite a few more popular, less literary, more fun, less weighty novels.  I started a few years ago by reading Bret Lott’s books.  I read a few of John Grisham’s novels, such as Bleachers.  After enduring my wife’s laughter over Jan Karon’s Mitford series along with her constantly saying, “Father Tim sounds just like you,”  I read the books myself.  Wondering what made popular literature popular, I read a Nicholas Sparks romance.  I read Tom Wolfe’s Man in Full and Anne Tyler’s St. Maybe and novels by Larry McMurtry, Lief Enger, David Guterson, and others.

Then I discovered Daniel Silva and his Gabriel Allon series of spy/espionage stories.  Actually, I didn’t discover Silva, rather I was pushed toward him by George Grant.  After the first read, my literary comment was “Okay.  Enjoyable enough.”  The second book I liked better, and by the third one, I was hooked.  I like them so much that I force myself to space out the readings.  From Silva, I have branched out to other authors such as Steve Berry, Nelson DeMille, Alan Furst, and Brad Thor.

Reading of Late:  An Unexpected Experiment

Recently, I finished two novels.  It was only after finishing them both that I thought of them together.  The first was Thunder Point by Jack Higgins.  This story began in World War II with the evil Martin Borman escaping Berlin and making his way toward South America.  Then the story shifts over to former IRA fighter and assassin Sean Dillon, who is recruited by the British Intelligence to find a lost U-Boat that contains top secret and damaging information.  There are killings, fights, lies, danger, beautiful women, unexpected deaths, and enough plot movers to keep the story going.  It quickly became a fun page turner.  Then it was over.

The other novel was The First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  This story concerns zeks in the sharanska in Soviet Russia.  Zeks are political prisoners and the Sharanska was a research and development bureau made up of generally highly skilled gulag prisoners.  This is more than just an expose of Communist atrocities and evils, although that element is there. There were many biographical elements within the book, but this was not Solzhenitsyn’s autobiography.  This was a soul searching book. This was the story of Dante’s first circle of Hell, where things are not so bad, but not good either.  I started it in April and finished in August.  It was not an easy read, and at times, I was totally lost.  There were engaging chapters, but sometimes, I had to force myself back into the camp with the zeks and the dark world of Soviet Russia.

Both Higgins and Solzhenitsyn were good writers.  Both books were well written, and I wish I could write something comparable to either of them. Both left me wanting to read yet another book by the authors.  I bought another Higgins novel and am planning on reading Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn.

Here are the differences:  When I finished Thunder Point, the story was through.  It was fun, fast, and engrossing, but then it was over.  When I finished The First Circle, I immediately began looking up sources on the book.  Then I went back to the book The Other Solzhenitsyn by Daniel Mahoney and reread the part about The First Circle.  I discovered that the version I read was only 87 chapter long, but in 2009, the complete version of 96 chapters was released.  I find myself still thinking about the book.  I am still moved by the scene where one of the prisoners was granted a half hour visit with his wife (with no physical contact).  The arrest and treatment of another person is still terrifying.  The struggles, the conversations, the acceptance of life inside the prison still resonates.

In reading Thunder Point, I was constantly thinking, “What will happen next?”  When reading Solzhenitsyn, I am still thinking, “What happened in that book?”  In time, I will want to read Solzhenitsyn novel again.  If I could read it with others, that would be even better.  In time, I will read some more of Jack Higgins’ writings, along with Silva.  But great literature, like The First Circle, is never completed.  The questions within the heart of the book keep coming back.

Two Great Historians and Writers

Some guys just don’t know when to quit.  Two examples I am thinking of are Thomas Fleming and David McCullough.  According to Internet sources, Thomas Fleming is 88 years old and has written at least 49 books.  David McCullough is 82 and has written at least 11 books.

Thomas Fleming                                         McCullough I.jpg

And they just won’t stop.  Have neither of these guys heard of retirement?  Apparently not because each has a new book out this year.  Thankfully, I have both new books, but how am I suppose to decide which one to read?

cover of The Great Divide

Thomas Fleming’s new book is The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation.  Even though both Washington and Jefferson were Virginians and their lives intersected at many points, they held different fundamental views of human nature and politics.  Often the conflict is presented as being basically between Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson.  Washington usually appears as being above the fray, although swayed more often by Hamilton.

Having started this book, it is surely a great story.  Fleming has written extensively on George Washington, the American War for Independence, and other aspects of our nation’s beginnings.  He is on familiar ground, and as always, he is a good story teller.

Fleming, by the way, previous book, A Disease in the Public Mindis the most balanced, thought-provoking book on the north-south slavery debates I have ever read.

Thomas Fleming is amazing for lots of reasons.  He is a northerner, from Massachusetts, I think, who writes about the south and the War Between the States in a balanced and challenging way.  He is a liberal, I think, who is part of the old school of Democrat liberals.  By that, I mean that he is part of the generation that supported men like Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey, but he also has written some powerfully devastating critiques of Democrats like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.  He is a scholar, but he writes history with a story-teller’s flair for unfolding a good history tale.  Also, he is a specialist in the area of the American War for Independence, but he has written books outside that area.  And, he has written quite a few novels, usually historical novels.

David McCullough’s new book is The Wright Brothers.  I came to love McCullough’s writing some years back when I read John Adams and 1776.  He has won enough awards and honors for his writings to fill a warehouse.  Sometimes, I get suspicious of writers who get too much honor.  After all, Melville got mostly criticism for Moby Dick and Faulkner was basically forgotten in America when he won the Nobel Prize in 1949.  But McCullough is a very good historian and writer.  Prior to this book, he wrote a lengthy book called The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.  Like a petulant schoolboy, I complained about having to read the book.  I thought the topic wasn’t at all interesting.  By the way, no one was forcing or even encouraging me to read it.  But I did read it, and I enjoyed it, and I reviewed it HERE.

It is the mark of a good writer when he or she takes a topic we are not interested in and keeps our attention for hundreds of pages.  (English historian Paul Johnson is a master of this.)  I can also add that I have never had more than a passing interest in the Wright Brothers.  I did enjoy visiting Kitty Hawk back around 2007, but I would enjoy being on any part of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Now, I am back to the dilemma of which book to read first.  I want to own and read all of Thomas Fleming’s books and David McCullough’s books. It will take a bit longer to acquire and read all of Fleming.  But I need to get busy because I suspect both men have another book in the works.

I thank God for good historians and writers like Fleming and McCullough.  Both write well and entertain and delight as well as inform the reader.  They write history the way I want to teach it.  Neither are ideological, so they don’t write specifically as liberals or conservatives.  Both write respectfully of faith, although I don’t know “where they go to church” or what they specifically confess.  Both write of faith and providence when the people or events they write of call for such.

Both are great examples of men who love their work.  The shelves of books they have already written would be accomplishment enough.  I would love to write one book as good as what they have done over and over again.  They obviously don’t write for fame or money.  They write for love–love of the craft, of the stories of history, of the beauty of a story told well.

When I grow up, I want to be just like them.