Rembrandt and the Bible Combined

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The Return of the Prodigal Son, an oil painting by Rembrandt

I love bargains.  Love getting two objects for the price of one.  I am constantly hunting for ways to save money, especially when pursuing the great white Book Sale (an allusion to Moby Dick).  But I also love when I can learn two things at once.  Given my own difficulties in learning one thing and given that “time’s winged chariots” (an illusion to the poem “To His Coy Mistress”) I am doubly challenged here, but also doubly blessed when it happens.

This is one of the reasons I really enjoy Daniel Silva’s spy/espionage/adventure novel series about Gabriel Allon.  First of all, Allon is an art restorer by trade.  Each novel includes bits and pieces about his work in restoring fine pieces of art in churches across Europe and in his various studios.  But each restoration work gets interrupted by his other profession, which is in the Israeli intelligence community.

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Each book reveals some aspect of art, artists, art history, art thievery, and art restoration.  My grasp of the great artists is dangerously deficient, so I benefit from these details which play varying roles in the plot development.  (You might reckon that a book with the title The Rembrandt Affair deals with art.)  Along with the art lessons, I always pick up details about Israel, the Middle East, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and a host of other points relating to current world events.  Of course, it is the page-turning action that provides the main motivation for reading these books.  But, I do get two and maybe three benefits for the price of reading one book.

Recently, I was reading James V. Schall’s book Remembering Belloc.  Here is another “two for one” bargain and a treasure to boot.  First of all, Father Schall’s writings are always a delight and full of fun and wisdom.  Then his topic is Hilaire Belloc, who was an amazingly prolific writer of history, travelogues, poetry, and other topics.  Schall picks details from essays and themes from Belloc’s many works and restates Belloc’s points in his own manner.  Of course, while reading this book, I am wanting to put it down and read Belloc, but Schall himself is too good.

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Father Schall is always dropping hints, throwing out quotes, giving reading lists, and alluding to favorite authors in his writings.  You are always getting a grab bag full of new books to locate (most of which are actually old books) and authors to elevate to the “must read” stage.

This same “two for one” benefit can be found in reading any number of good writers, especially those who are great stylists.  I will never forget reading a Spurgeon lecture I disagreed with, but love because of how well it is written.  The histories and biographies of such authors as Max Hastings, Rick Atkinson, Bradley Birzer, and Paul Johnson are always UNSATISFYING, because when you read them, you automatically want to read more from the author and about the subject.

This past year, I read a book titled The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J. M. Nouwen.  This was definitely a “two for one” bargain.

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First of all, Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic, writes in the tradition of great Christian works of meditation.  No doubt he held to theological positions that I would rank anywhere from disagreeable to deplorable, but that is not relevant to the content of this book.  This book is about thinking spiritually about the story of the Prodigal Son.  It is, we might say, a Bible commentary or extended sermon on that event.  Being in the tradition of pietistic meditative works, such as On the Imitation of Christ and The Golden Book of the Christian Life (excerpted from Calvin’s Institutes), the book calls not for a mental connecting of theological dots, but for a heart-centered, soul-searching examination.

Second, the book is about the beautiful and rich painting by the Dutch Master Rembrandt titled The Return of the Prodigal Son (1661-1669).  I usually look at great paintings and respond with the profoundly insightful comment, “That’s real purty.”  (Let the reader understand:  For Southerners, “pretty” is an adjective, as in “I’m pretty hungry for biscuits and gravy,” while “purty” means having the quality of beauty.)

I know enough about art to know that the works of the Great Masters, such as da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer, and others are great art.  I have enough understanding to appreciate what Jan van Eyck, Pieter Brughel, and others from the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance accomplished.  I can even recognize and enjoy the works of Vincent Van Gogh (especially after Don McClean’s song “Vincent”) and Manet (one of whose paintings I have a reprint of and use in class).  I even try to restrain myself when trying to figure out the message of Picasso’s works, and I have grown to better understand Gaugin’s “Whence, What, Where?” as the “stupid bird” says.

And I know that Rembrandt is a big name.  But I still struggle to get past the “That’s real purty” stage to being able to appreciate and internalize the works.  Then along comes Henri Nouwen and his book The Return of the Prodigal Son.  Nouwen loved the painting and received a print of it which he put in his office.  And he looked at it–often, a lot, and for long periods of time.  And he thought about it and meditated on it.

Nouwen brings the Bible and the work of art together in his meditations.  Step by step, he works through each portrait that appears in the painting, and there are six of them.  He considers them in the light of the brief details from the parable and then sees himself (enabling me to see myself) in each figure.  Love, sorrow, pain, repentance, mercy, wisdom, confusion, and a host of other emotions and reactions occur in this one setting.  Painted in his latter years, Rembrandt was biblical, autobiographical, and deliberate in his placement of every detail and in the more prominent or more subdued brush strokes in the painting.

Nouwen’s work is a great example of the Lectio Divina approach to Bible study and meditation.  It is also useful in realizing how to approach art.  Eugene Peterson’s book Eat This Book aptly prescribes this method of Bible reading.  (I have read Peterson’s book twice, I think, and need about 79 more readings of it.)

Recently, a new hardback twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Return of the Prodigal has been published by Convergent Press. Not only does this really nice book include the original, but it also includes a second Nouwen work titled Home Tonight.  I highly recommend this work.  It will be a blessing to heart, mind, and the senses.  It is great for morning study, with a Bible and cup of coffee at hand.  It is a book that I am not satisfied with by having read only once.

Also, the same publisher has another Nouwen book titled Love, Henri:  The Letters on The Spiritual Life by Nouwen.  Nouwen is well known for having given up a position in academia to minister in a home for special needs people.  He, himself, was far from perfect, but was a fine stylist in terms of writing and provides much that is engaging for the reader.

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Other books on art that I have read or acquired along life’s byways:

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Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible.  Short and by a non-specialist, this book is amazingly helpful for Christians.

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The picture is of an older edition of H. R. Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.  This is THE book for Christians to study.  Rookmaaker is THE art critic for Christians to read.

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Anything Paul Johnson writes about is worthy, but art was his original call and interest.  Art: A New History is a big book by Johnson and only one of several he has done on art.  (Alas, I don’t have the others.)

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I have Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama, but have not read it.  Schama is another case of a fine historian whose original expertise is in art.  I want every book Schama has written and would not mind having all his video productions as well.

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I recently acquired Essential History of Art.  It fits into the broad category of art histories and coffee table books.  I found it for a small price, and it looks to be a good primer on the subject.

Vasari’ Lives of the Artists has been around for years.  I acquired a decent copy some time back.  It is a minor classic in its field, although dated, and worth having for reading and reference.

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Frank on the Prairie–And Being 12 Years Old Again

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I was recently listening to a cassette tape  from the Easy Chair series that R. J. Rushdoony did, often with Otto Scott.  In this talk, Otto Scott commented on Homer’s Odyssey, saying, “When I read The Odyssey, I am a twelve year boy old again.”  I loved that comment, even though I did not read and love Homer’s epics until much later.  For me, it is such books as Jesse Stuart’s Hie to the Hunters  that recreates that feeling.  There were other books I loved such as Smokey–The Cow Horse by Will James and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat.

Also, every time I teach through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I find myself wishing I could sneak out the window of the classroom and go join Tom and Huck on Jackson Island and play pirates all day.

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A few years back, my son Nate and I enjoyed reading Scout: The Secret of the Swamp by Piet Prins.  Published by Inheritance Press, out of Canada, this series told of the adventures of a young boy and his German Shepherd dog Scout.  In spite of being a German Shepherd, Scout is totally committed to the Dutch people and the Christian family he is a part of.  Inheritance Press publisher Roelof Jannsen brilliantly published this book along with his catalog together.  It led to several good book purchases, including more volumes of the Scout Series.

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The book with a hook. Read it and you will want all of the series.

You might be surprised that I grew up in a home that did not have many books.  I only randomly and haphazardly picked up hints and helps as to what to read.  In our house, we had lots of old Reader’s Digest magazines, along with Texas Horseman magazines, and we had a copy of a book called None Dare Call It Treason, which always seemed scary to me.  I did check out books from the school library, but never read the Hardy Boys, any Henty books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or other authors I should have digested before I went to high school.

Long life and a desire to learn calls for frequent repentance and acts of penance.  While I have acquired a decent amount of book smarts, there are still so many authors I barely know and book titles I may not recognize.  We won’t even begin to think about books I read that should be read again.

I recently received a beautiful little book titled Frank on the Prairie by Harry Castlemon with additional illustrations by Charles M. Russell.  The book is published by one of my favorite sources–the University of Oklahoma Press.

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The University of Oklahoma Press website states that they publish scholarly books, “especially Native American studies, classics, natural history, and regional interest titles.”  That is certainly true, and I have enjoyed many of the classical studies and the Campaigns and Commanders series, which has over 50 current volumes with more to come.

But they also publish books that the average reader, who has no academic pursuit in mind, can read and enjoy.  A few months back, I reviewed Horseback Schoolmarm, Montana 1953-1954, which I and my wife both thoroughly enjoyed.

Frank On The Prairie is also going to be a fun book.  (I am still early into it.)  It is a reprint (the original book came out in 1869) of an author of adventure books for boys named Harry Castlemon, who was the most popular author of boys adventure books in the late 1800s .  The review on the website says this:

The prolific author of the novel Frank on the Prairie, Charles Austin Fosdick (1842–1915), who went by the pen name Harry Castlemon, was one of Russell’s favorite storytellers. Castlemon’s book, which first appeared in 1868 as part of the Gunboat Series of Books for Boys, recounts the adventures of young Frank and his friend Archie as they travel across the Old West.

Charles Austin Fosdick, who wrote under the name Harry Castlemon

In this case, there was a boy named Austin whose uncle was Charles M. Russell, the man who was one of the greatest artists of the Old West.  Russell was also a fan and collector of Castleman’s “Frank Series” (there were at least 9 books about Frank).  Uncle Charles borrowed Austin’s book and later returned it with eleven watercolors and a pencil sketch detailing events in the book.

Western artist Charles M. Russell

I find myself astounded and in awe of that.  You see, I don’t really like loaning books unless the borrower is as careful as I am.  I sure don’t like when they mark up the book or do things to it.  (I don’t even want them to let sunlight get to it.)  But this would be like loaning a book of poetry to C. S. Lewis and having him return it with notes in it.  Or loaning a book on World War II to Churchill and him marking the places where he was present in the story.

This book is a great adventure story.  After all, if you have two young boys who are heading out west–the book depends heavily on Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail–and the book is not adventurous, then you ain’t no writer!

Add to that, the greatest artist of the Old West just happens to enhance the book with illustrations.  It just doesn’t get much better than this.  This fine book has been published now–illustrations and all–in a beautiful, facsimile hardcover edition.  This is a book for collectors, lovers of the Old West, lovers of boys adventure stories, and lovers of fine books.

Yea, it is not being given away, but it would be a great investment for any book lover and would be a great gift to young people who need some good reading.  It would also be good for all of us who want to feel like we are twelve again.

Proceeds from the book will go to the C. M. Russell Museum–The Art and Soul of the Old West in Great Falls, Montana.

Postscript:  Harry Castlemon wrote,  “Boys don’t like fine literature. What they want is adventure, and the more of it you can get in two-hundred-fifty pages of manuscript, the better fellow you are.”

Gordon Clark’s Many Books

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With thanks and envy to George Grant for use of this picture of his Clark collection.

If Gordon Clark has been somewhat forgotten, ignored, and overlooked in our times, we certainly cannot blame him for that.  He didn’t just write a book or two.  He wrote quite a few books and extended essays that were published in his day.  Since his death, many of his remaining unpublished and uncollected writings have been published in book form.  He was prolific and scholarly and able to comment on a wide range of topics.  All that being said, his works and thoughts have been neglected in the decades following his death.

How important was he?  When asked which theologian from our times would be read in 500 years, R. C. Sproul said, “Gordon Clark.”  (But don’t wait that long to start.) Why has his star dimmed or why is he not more noticed, respected, and read?  Read Douglas Douma’s fine biography of Gordon Clark, titled Gordon Clark: Presbyterian Philosopher, and it will detail the controversies, issues, and convictions that made Clark who he was but also contributed to his lack of popularity.

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I reviewed that book earlier this year and am still singing its praises.  However, in this post, I want to explore the roles of two men (primarily) and two publishing firms that promoted Gordon Clark’s books.

One of the most fascinating Christian works of the twentieth century was the creation of a publishing house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later Nutley, New Jersey called Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.  It was started by Samuel Craig, himself an interesting man and author, and was continued by his son, Charles, and later, his grandson, Bryce.  The son was Charles Craig (1912-1983)–one of my heroes.

Charles H. Craig

Charles H. Craig approved and published books by a number of Christian scholars, most of whom were Reformed.

Mr. Craig must have had some really deep convictions about Christian books, doctrines, and thought, along with no sense of how to make money publishing books.  From 1957, when he took over the family business, until his death in 1983, Presbyterian and Reformed published a number of heavy, weighty, often lengthy, serious books on a wide range of topics.  Long before “Christian worldview” became a catchphrase among Christian schools, home schools, and Christian campuses, Craig was producing the works that provided solid intellectual foundations for Christian thought.  These were not books that would have appealed to a wide audience or that were easy beach reads.  (For example, one of the publications was a book by the late William Young, titled Hegel’s Dialectic Method: Its Origins and Religious Significance.)

I have heard that Craig himself was not a deep thinker or reader, but he certainly became the instrumental means of many Christian thinkers getting their ideas into print.  There was a time when creationism or creation science or 6 day creation had virtually no adherents or defenders in the evangelical publishing world.  Then Craig published The Genesis Flood, which has remained in print for over 50 years.  By the way, this event happened after R. J. Rushdoony read the manuscript (which other publishers had rejected) and pressed Craig to publish the book.

He also published the counseling books by Jay E. Adams, theological studies by Oswald T. Allis and Benjamin Warfield, historical studies by C. Gregg Singers, works opposing Communism on a Christian and philosophical level by James D. Bales (a Church of Christ scholar) and Francis Nigel Lee, books on Christian philosophy by William Young and David Freeman, books on eastern religions (such as Zen Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West by Lit-Sen Chang), Gary North’s books on economics, Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics, and many works extolling Calvinistic and Reformed views of salvation.

There was a whole series of relatively short monographs called the Modern Thinkers Series.  These books covered such people as Freud, Nietzsche, Toynbee, William James, Rudolf Bultmann, and others.  The authors of this series were among the top Calvinist thinkers of their age, including R. J. Rushdoony, H. Van Reissen, Gregg Singer, Gordon Clark, and others.  (This whole series deserves to be reprinted and packaged in a good hardback set.)  Another series was called the University Series:  Philosophical Studies, and those volumes, many of which I have acquired, are still great studies and were really helpful to me in years past.

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Men who later became associated with theological and cultural wars were published by Presbyterian and Reformed during those decades that James Jordan referred to in his essay “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind”  and that I referred to in past writings and lectures as “Calvinistic Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years.”

High on the list of authors that P & R (which is both an abbreviation and now the new name of the company) published was R. J. Rushdoony.  In time, many would shy away from or attack Rushdoony over aspects of Christian Reconstruction.  But for a long time, P & R was publishing and promoting mind-changing and thought-provoking works by Rushdoony on American history, politics, science, overpopulation, education, philosophy, and theology.  In 1973, P & R published Rushdoony’s monumental work The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume 1. P & R still carries that title.  (Regardless of one’s perspective, this book is essential reading and a necessary reference work.)

It was P & R that promoted most of the early English translations of the work of Dutch Christian Philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd.  Along with editions of In the Twilight of Modern Thought and The Christian Idea of the State, the four volume work entitled magnum opus, titled A New Critique of Theoretical Thought was a P &  R publication.  It was initially priced at a very affordable level and was later selling for less than $20 for the 4 hardback volume set.  Along with that, the same company published other books promoting and discussing Dooyeweerd’s thought (such as works by E. H. Hebden-Taylor) as well as books that were critical of Dooyeweerd and his followers.

The most surprising thing is that P & R became the main publisher for the famous “unpublished syllabi” of Cornelius Van Til, along with complete books of his thought, and works by his most famous fellow Presbyterian adversary Gordon H. Clark.

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A young Gordon Clark and a young Cornelius Van Til–both poring over books, life-long pursuits for both men.

Obviously, Mr. Craig was primarily interested in getting the ideas, debates, and discussions going among Christian students rather than taking a side and attempting to suppress one view or the other.  One would not have noticed in the P  & R catalogs that Van Til and Clark had waged a theological/philosophical battle royal.  Both authors works were published and both were devoted to many of the same topics.  Van Til wrote Christianity and Barthianism and Clark wrote Karl Barth’s Theological Method. Both men were strongly opposed to Barth’s theology and concerned about the popularity of his writings and thought among American Christian pastors and teachers.

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 Both jousted with and did mortal combat with atheism, Darwinian naturalism, and other non-Christian philosophies.  Both were highly critical of neo-Orthodoxy, Arminianism, and Catholicism.  Their books and subjects complemented each other.

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The University Series: Philosophical Studies of Presbyterian and Reformed, a.k.a. Craig Press, included several of Clark’s works.

A few of Gordon Clark’s books were published by Baker Book House and other publishers, but P & R was the main source for his books for many years.  Often the P & R titles were published under the name of Craig Press, which enabled more college teachers and non-Presbyterians to use the books.  In time–not sure of the exact time frame here–P & R changed its focus and began publishing more books designed to reach a wider audience.  The covers became more attractive, the topics were more practical, and the publication was no longer the hard-core Calvinistic scholarship center it had been from the 1950s-1980s.  This should not be taken as a criticism of P & R, nor should anyone think that P & R is not still publishing some great and weighty books.  See, for example, the works of John Frame (including his History of Western Philosophy and Theology), the books by and about Cornelius Van Til (including Greg Bahnsen’s Van Til’s Apologetic), and books on a number of social, cultural, and theological topics.

Around 1977,  a man who had embraced Gordon Clark’s theology, philosophy, and apologetics began a publishing and study center in Unicoi, Tennessee.  His name was John Robbins, and he had already made his mark in areas of Christian writing and political action.  His doctoral thesis was on Objectionist author Ayn Rand.  Still in print today under the title Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System, it is the only book I have ever come across that gives a Christian critique of Rand, who remains popular in conservative and libertarian circles.

As Robbins was working through his own thoughts and ideas, he read widely in the tradition of philosophers who were political or theological or both.  Upon reading Gordon Clark, he had his “eureka” moment and fully embraced a Clarkian view of God and man and things.  As Clark’s books were going out of print, Robbins was able to take up the Clark banner and publish or reprint the books.

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The result is that more of Gordon Clark’s books are available today than ever before.  Robbins’ publishing house is called The Trinity Foundation.  Clark’s books are available in paperback, some in hardback, and more and more in digital formats.  With the publication of the Douma biography of Clark, we should expect more Christian readers to want to read the man’s own writings.

Be warned:  Gordon Clark never felt the need to apologize for God, side-step the Bible and its authority, or give a safe, mealy-mouthed answer to any issue.  He was dogmatic, assertive, and unswerving in his convictions.  It was not meanness or rudeness that compelled him to write in such a blunt, straight-forward way.  Clark was a man of deeply held convictions who would not or could not tolerate sloppy thinking.  I admit that I would never have approached Gordon Clark unless I were armed with a friendly bowl of chocolate ice cream.  And I would never ever attempt to play chess against him.

But the time is ripe to start grabbing up, collecting, and reading Gordon Clark’s books.  He will challenge even when he doesn’t convince.  He will set a high bar for Christian thinking.  His gift was not in writing in a winsome easy style, so be sure to have strong, hot, caffeine enhanced coffee, along with a pen and paper at hand.  Be prepared for a blessing, but one that will take some amount of labor to obtain.

Postscript:  John Robbins was Clark’s bulldog.  A gracious and generous man in the classroom (according to Nathan Clark George–grandson of Gordon Clark and student of Dr. Robbins), Robbins was also generous in distributing books.  My school has used Clark’s Logic, Machen’s Education, Christianity, and the State, and Clark’s short book God and Evil: The Problem Solved, all of which were provided free of charge by the Trinity Foundation.

Also, a few years before he died, Dr. Robbins published a book of economic essays he had written.  Some of these had previously appeared in the Trinity Foundation newsletter.  In one of his essays, Robbins referred to Hilaire Belloc as an American Catholic.  I emailed Robbins and told him that Belloc was an Englishman of French ancestry.  “I don’t want anyone attacking your essay because of a mistake.”  I admitted that I wasn’t sure whether or not I agreed with the essay or not, but I didn’t want Robbins’ argument sidetracked.

When that essay–now corrected–appeared in the book, my copy of the book was autographed with the inscription saying: “Thanks for saving me from conferring American citizenship on Hilaire Belloc.”

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The only picture of John Robbins I have ever seen on the internet. I wish I could have met him.

 

And Now For the Bad News

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Today is Good Friday and there is no better time than today to remember that we live in troubled times.  The phrase “troubled times” might even be redundant because, to tweak Dickens’ memorable phrase, even the best of times are also the worst of times.  I just finished reading Jay Winik’s fine book 1944 FDR and the Year That Changed History.  Not only was the world at war that year (and victory for the Allies was in sight), but the Holocaust was at its worst levels.  The destruction of the German military was proceeding rapidly, but so was the destruction of the Jewish people in Europe.

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So, all times are troubled times.  There never was a Golden Age and the “Good Ole Days” never really happened, although many of us can wish for some of the benefits of youth.  The world is sinful and sin-filled.  Like the recurring creatures in Beowulf, the destruction of one evil always leads to the emergence of another.  The Cold War was won without a major hot war, but the world is now faced with radical Islamic forces (who threaten not just us but fellow Muslims) and Russia does want its 1980’s foreign policy back.

Some of my recent readings have had a focus on troubles, although the emphasis has been on domestic and moral issues rather than international problems.  The contributors toward the discussion have been Christians from different backgrounds and perspectives.  None have offered any easy way out.  As it happens, my Humanities class has been reading The Consolation of Philosophy by Boetheius.  Philosophy in that account is a woman who comes to give comfort to Boetheius who is in prison awaiting execution.  Her answers, although laden with much Greek philosophy, are Christian.  She doesn’t give him a file and a saw so that he can escape prison and execution, but rather a way of seeing above and beyond the immediate dire circumstances.

The Minor Prophets of the Old Testament have much to say to us in our current age.  Apart from Jonah, they don’t get much play time on Christian life patterns.  But the Minor Prophets are still part of the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word of God and they are minor only in the sense that their messages are relatively short.  Also, they speak God’s judgement and grace to sinful people in sinful cultures and conditions.

I recently completed the reading of The Message of the Twelve: Hearing the Voice of the Minor Prophets by Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. and Gary E. Yates.  This book is published by B & H Academic, which is currently publishing quite a few outstanding works including The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon.

When I was reading The Message of the Twelve, I kept thinking that it was a good and useful book.  Then I realized that I should be reading the Minor Prophets along with the text.  That increased the usefulness of the book exponentially.  This is a work I need to pull back off the shelves each time my Old Testament readings reach those last twelve books.  It is useful for outlines, commentary, and overview.  It could be used for personal study, preaching helps, or a classroom.  And like most all good resources, it contains a good bibliography and other references to more in-depth studies of particular prophets.

To restate the main contention:  We live in times where we need to hear and apply afresh the prophetic word from the Minor Prophets.

Being that there never was a time when the Church just sailed along on untroubled seas, church history provides lots of helps for us to use.  One of the greatest works from the Middle Ages is a short, very readable little collection of guidelines for Christian living called The Rule of St. Benedict.  The pro’s (mostly historical) and con’s (mostly Biblical) of monasticism can be debated elsewhere.  Any fan of the Protestant Reformation and its Solas will find great encouragement in the Scripture-soaked message of this work.

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The message and ministry of Benedict has received quite a bit of attention lately due to a new book and an idea that has been debated over the last several years. The book is The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher.

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The key concern of this book is the cultural breakdown and impending anti-Christian cultural and legal dangers.  The Supreme Court rulings on marriage, issues relating to homosexuality, the politics of our time, and many other factors don’t bode well for Christian living.  As these forces press in on the Christian community, the need to respond is urgent.  Dreher has lots of suggestions and ideas about how the Christians can take cover and recover amidst all this.

A major criticism of the book is that it is calling for a retreat, to a degree.  P. Andrew Sandlin has a well written critique of the book titled “The Cultural Mandate, Not Benedict Option.”   Andrew’s review is just one of many–both pro, con, and mixed–of this book.  For my part, while agreeing wholeheartedly in the Cultural Mandate trumping the Benedict Option, I still appreciate Dreher’s book.  There is much to be said for his suggestions.  Building stronger Christian communities, educating our children in Christian schools, and shunning the trends and patterns of ungodly behavior are all commendable.  Take note that this book is “a strategy” and not “the strategy” for Christian action.

The Benedict Option is a worthwhile read.

For quite a while now, Albert Mohler has been on the cutting edge of cultural and theological issues.  How he has managed to preside over a major seminary and bring reformation to it while speaking and writing to a nation-wide audience is beyond me.  I finished reading his book We Cannot Be Silent today.  As the subtitle notes, this book is about “speaking truth to a culture redefining sex, marriage, and the very meaning of right and wrong.”

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This past week, which is often called Holy Week, I kept thinking that this was just not the right book to be reading in the days leading up to Easter.  Certainly a book about the life or teachings or passion of Jesus Christ might have been a better choice in some respects.  But We Cannot Be Silent was also a useful read because it reminds us of the sinful world that Jesus came to save.

Without being crude or graphic, this book depicts the moral pit our nation has fallen, or rather willingly jumped into.  From politics to court rulings to movies and the ever changing rules of politically correct thought, we are in a whole new ballgame.  It was not very many years ago when liberal Democrat candidates for high office were politically sympathetic toward same-sex unions, but were still affirming that marriage was between one man and one woman.  Al Gore of Election 2000 was closer culturally with Charlemagne than Democrats and many Republicans are today.

Christians have to weigh through lots of options, forums, and actions on the radicalization of the sexual revolution.  And the Christian community has need of intense repentance and reform within our own ranks.  This is not a feel-good book.  It is a prophetic call to wake up.

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And since it is Good Friday, I started reading N. T. Wright’s new book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion.  Not only was the opening chapter quite good and edifying, it was helpful for me to realize that this day in history marks the day the world changed.  The problems are still piled up higher than we can fathom, but sin has been dealt with.

Best Histories of 2016

 

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April has arrived and I have failed to create a list of the 10 Ten Books of the past year (2016).  This has always been a big event in my otherwise sedentary life.  This causes me to have to get up, walk to the shelves, look up and down the rows, and remember what I have read.  Sometimes I even have to pace the floor thinking through which books were best.

I used to number the list 1 to 10.  Then authors began craving the higher ratings and jealousies ensued when someone was beat out of 3rd place by Tolstoy or some other contender.  Also, I never was sure why one book was number 5 while another was number 9.  I just know that I really enjoyed them.

In this post, I will highlight some of the really good, even best, history readings from the past year.  I will try to follow up with other categories, including theology, classics, and popular fiction.

BEST HISTORIES FEATURING WIDE SCOPES OF EVENTS

How the West Was Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark

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It is with no little bit of professional jealousy that I admit that Rodney Stark is one of the best cultural historians around today.  Dr. Stark is an academic in both training and profession, but his field of specialization is sociology.  Yet his histories–with lots of focus on Christianity and religious beliefs–each keep knocking the ratings in terms of accomplishment.  Maybe it is exercising judgment out of the normal bounds that enables him to speak with such authority and write with such boldness.  The only other historian I rank alongside Rodney Stark is the Englishman Paul Johnson.

This particular book, which is one of more than a half dozen Stark titles, resets and recasts the typical assumptions regarding Western Civilization.  This book is a clarion call against the tenets of modernity, post-modernity, political correctness, post-Enlightenment education, and Christian squeamishness.  The book is chocked full of bibliographical selections just in case one is thinking that Stark is creating his own reality.

The War of the World by Niall Ferguson.

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War of the World:  Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West needs to be viewed and read in the context of other fine histories by Scotsman Niall Ferguson.  His books are weighty and often focused on economic aspects of history.  By training and inclination, Ferguson is an economic historian.  But unlike the trends of economic historians of the past century, he is totally free from Marxist interpretations of economics or human nature.

If someone wants to read of the epic battles and brave soldiers of the two world wars, avoid this book.  Look instead to the works of John Keegan, Max Hastings, and Rick Atkinson.  But if one wishes to read of the greater political, social, cultural, and economic forces that plunged the western world into a really long destructive 20th century war–lasting from 1914 to 1945 with a rest break in between–read this book.

Ferguson’s other outstanding histories include Civilization: The West and the Rest, The Ascent of Money, and Empire.

Honorable Mention

To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw

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To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw (who was written a multi-volume biography of Hitler) is a part of the Penguin History of Europe.  The whole series is quite good and includes works by some skilled historians.  Kershaw’s book covers lots of the same territory as Ferguson’s book, but he includes quite a bit of information about the often ignored areas of eastern Europe.  Sometimes, we are prone to think of the world wars as involving only the half dozen bigger powers.  The coverage of other areas reminded me of how little I know of European history.

BEST CHRISTIAN CHURCH HISTORIES

The Crisis in Evangelical Christianity by Keith Sewell

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I became acquainted with Dr. Keith Sewell several years ago through a web-site focusing on Christian philosophy.  I kept up with him after he retired from teaching history at Dordt College in Iowa and moved to Australia.  Since then I have read articles he has written on historical issues and have read from his work on historian Herbert Butterfield.  It can be a bit awkward when you read and then are expected to review a book by a friend (even one who is a friend only via e-mail, hence an e-friend).  I was not just relieved, but quite excited when I read this book.

This study is a good survey of the strengths and weaknesses of Evangelical Christianity.  Dr. Sewell writes as one who has not only lived in various countries in the English-speaking world, but who has been open toward various Christian experiences.  He is, like me, basically Reformed in background and theology.  There are more than a few high water marks and accomplishments for evangelicalism.  But there are failures and weaknesses as well.  In short, this book surveys the history.  It is outstanding as an overview, a refresher course, and a starting point for evaluating where we Christians have been and where we ought to go.

The Church: A Theological and Historical Account by Gerald Bray

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I read The Church: A Theological and Historical Account by Gerald Bray soon after finishing Sewell’s book.  Although there is some overlap, the two works complement each other quite well.  Bray covers a wider expanse of time.  He begins with the church in the Bible and then traces the various eras through history.  But this book is not just another church history survey.  The strength is his theological analysis of the role and function of the church.

This book sold me on itself and the author.

BEST REFORMATION HISTORY

Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George June

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This being 2017, there are already many books coming out that are celebrating and analyzing the lives and theology of the Protestant Reformation.  (In case you forgot, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in October of 1517, so this year is the 500th anniversary of that event.)  Along with the new books, we cannot neglect the outstanding scholarship and thrilling accounts of the Reformers that were written earlier.

Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George came out over 25 years ago.  How did I miss it through all the years?  I have read and collected books on the Reformation since 1974.  In my small pond, I think of myself as somewhat well informed on that time period.  This book, however, opened my eyes wider than they have been opened before.  Most of the account is predictable in terms of major subjects:  Luther, Calvin, Melancthon, Knox, the English Reformation, and the Anabaptists.  The biographical stories are included, but the main strength is the analysis of the theologies of the different arms of the Reformation.

BEST CHRISTIAN BIOGRAPHY

George Whitefield : America’s Spiritual Founding Father by Thomas S. Kidd February-March

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Thomas Kidd is a rising force in Christian history.  In spite of his relative youthfulness (and having the last name of Kidd), he is no novice.  A professor of history at Baylor Univesity, Kidd is pumping out a wide range of books on topics relating to Christian history, most of which are centered on American history.  Even this biography, titled George Whitefield–America’s Spiritual Founding Father, while covering the life of an English preacher is largely focused on Whitefield’s many experiences in the American colonies.

Arnold Dallimore’s older two volume biography is more inspiring.  In the Banner of Truth tradition, it aims to both educate and inspire.  This book is much more scholarly and analytical.  But don’t think that this is simply head-knowledge with no heart.  Good history can teach while instructing in righteousness.  Sometimes that instruction is from the positive example of a tireless evangelist like Whitefield, and sometimes it is from the negative instruction from his own failures.

I am slowly collecting all of Dr. Kidd’s books.  He is a historian to watch and read.

BEST NON-EUROPEAN, NON-AMERICAN HISTORY…OR BEST MIDDLE EAST HISTORY

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin

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This book–A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East–was an unusual find.  I picked it up used for a dollar.  I really questioned myself for staring to read it due to its length–570 pages.  While reading it, I found myself continually confused and sometimes lost because the names of Middle Eastern, particularly Turkish, leaders are unfamiliar.  Some events, like World War I, were familiar, but much of the information was new to me.

But all along the way, I kept realizing how informative, well written this book is.  It is not a one-time read for me.  Even I did not realize how much I did not know about how the modern Middle Eastern countries were formed.  Finishing this book left me strongly desiring to know more, to read more about this same area of history, and to read this very book again.

David Fromkin is a good author.  Some years ago, I really enjoyed his book Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?  He is moving up in the ranks of favored historians on my list.

BEST BOOK ON READING, WRITING, AND INTERPRETING HISTORY

Christian Historiography: Five Views by Jay D. Green

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Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions by Jay D. Green made me want to go back to the starting blocks in the study of history.  This is one of the best books I have ever read on what history itself is and how it should be studied by Christians.  On the one hand, it includes lots of references and works by some of the best Christian historians, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette, George Marsden, Lewis Spitz, and others.  Then it analyzes different approaches to history as exemplified by both scholars and popularizers.

I confess to having read, enjoyed, and followed, and even imitated many popularizers who have used history to support our beliefs and enlivened our stories.  There is a place for the slightly exaggerated anecdotal accounts of history, but those who are serious about the profession have to learn the ropes and think more carefully.  Such professionalism, to use an awful sounding term, does not have to ruin history.  In other words, to make George Washington into a theologian is bad history.  To reveal him as a man of great leadership skills and heroic stature and even a man of faith can be done both correctly and in a way that edifies.

Don’t plan on majoring in history or teaching history without having read this book with care.

BEST POLITICAL HISTORIES

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Thomas Fleming is one of my favorite writers and historians.  I have also come to know him as a very gracious gentleman.  I don’t have to wonder if a book he has written will be good or not–it will be.  While he is conversant on quite a few areas of history, the early period from the American Revolution to the Jeffersonian Era is his specialty.  I am anticipating with eagerness his next book which will be on the generalship of George Washington.

This past year was unnforgettable and, quite frankly, odd as a political season.  Sometimes, in search of sanity, I found it healing to read political histories.  As the Roman historian Livy said, “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind.”  Part of the cure is being able to see that there never was a pristine, perfect past where only statesmen walked the halls of power.  George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson were all gifted men and brilliant leaders in their time.

But they were men, meaning human, meaning like us, meaning great virtues and damaging vices can exist side by side.  The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jeffeson That Defined A Nation tells the story of Jefferson’s frequent scheming, undermining, and opposing George Washington.  Sure, Jefferson served Washington as Secretary of State, and Jefferson had plenty of defining moments as a man of vision. But after you finish gazing at Jefferson’s monuments across the land, you can be sure that no one would wisely turn his back on the man from Monticello.

Much of the conflict was carried on at a ground level by Hamilton and Jefferson and some of their supporters, but it was a real divide.  If you are not thankful for anything else today, be thankful for this:  Jefferson’s unabated love for the French Revolution did not infect George Washington.  Great book.  Read Thomas Fleming, starting with any book he wrote.

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When America Liked Ike: How Moderates Won the 1952 Election and Reshaped American Politics by Gary Donaldson will probably only appeal to political science students and teachers and political junkies like me.  This retelling of the story of the 1952 election was a refreshing read during a year when the bizarre in politics became mainstream.  Neither Eisenhower or Stevenson were perfect men, but had Stevenson won, America would have been well governed.  And since Eisenhower won, it was, likewise, well governed.

It is surprising that after four national defeats–several of them by landslide proportions–that the Republicans would have all flocked to General Eisenhower.  But the party establishment (that bad word of 2016) included plenty of conservative (when it included isolationism as a plank) forces.  National elections hinge on lots of demographic and economic dynamics.  The personalities at the top of the tickets only reflect and motivate those forces.  Good book.  First time I have read this author, but it won’t be the last.

BEST INTELLECTUAL HISTORIES

The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life and Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich by Richard Weikart

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I am both proud of and jealous of my e-friend Dr. Richard Weikart for getting two outstanding books published in one year.  The two books are on largely different subjects, although Dr. Weikart has focused quite a bit of his career on the ideas and philosophies that influenced the modern German and the Third Reich.

I have previously reviewed both of these books and would again recommend them as serious, weighty, and good reads.  The Death of Humanity, as I have said before, can be viewed as an undated, retelling of the message of Francis Schaeffer in How Should We Then Live?  There are always those who object to such books in part because they boil the thinking of a major figure down to a few pages.  I am more than happy for someone to counter these books with lengthy analyses of several hundred pages on such thinkers.  Certainly, men like Darwin, Huxley, Nietzsche, and others are worthy candidates for in-depth studies.  But until the 24 hour day is abolished, I am dependent on those who synthesize and condense philosophers, scientists, and social commentators.

The Death of Humanity, like all of Weikart’s books, is premised on Christian presuppositions.  But all serious students of LIFE should read his books.  His underlying belief system is not concealed, but it is, in my opinion, convincing.

Hitler’s Religion is a serious and detailed book that clearly shows how unclear Hitler’s religious views were. He was not a Christian in any sense of the word and not even likely a theist in any real sense.  That point has to be asserted and proved since there are those who attack Christianity on the grounds that men like Hitler and Stalin were Christians.  I am more than open and optimistic about questions regarding the faith of men like Churchill and Roosevelt, but think that contending Hitler’s Christianity is a minor point.

But that then raises the question of what Hitler was.  It would not be a fair point or accurate one for a Christian to pin the label of atheist on Hitler either.  On the one hand, Hitler gave lots of public statements that were religiously based.  He was a skilled politician who knew how to use words so as to please several crowds at once.  He did live and rule in a country that had Christian roots and institutions.  But Hitler himself was a pantheist.  As Gary Scott Smith said, “Weikart argues that Hitler is best understood as a pantheist, one who believes that nature is God and that the cosmos provides principles to guide human conduct.”

This book is not just a good read about the particular mixed up mind of Adolf Hitler. Instead, it tells us quite a bit about the basically religious nature of all men and of some of the particular deviations found in early 20th Century Europe.

BEST WORK BY A NEW (YOUNG) HISTORIAN

The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in British America by Matthew Dziennik

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I must admit to a lot of prejudice regarding the author here.  I met Dr. Dziennik a few years ago at Yorktown Battlefield.  He was still working on his doctorate and traipsing back and forth from his native Scotland to the U.S. and Canada doing research and lecturing and working on his dissertation.  He is what I would have been if I had been young, disciplined, brave enough to travel, and smart–and Scottish.  I knew from our conversation and subsequent communications that this guy was an up-and-coming name in the field of history.  This book is proof that I was right.

Reader beware, however:  This is a serious, scholarly, and sometimes technical study of Scottish Highlander soldiers in the British possessions in North America.  If you simply want to enjoy the imaginary thrill of bagpipes as hearty Scots dash across the field of battle to give cold steel to their enemies, this book might disappoint you. But if you want to both read some serious history and actually see what historians have to do, read this book.

Scotsmen were not all basic warriors at heart.  They lived in a land subjugated by their English neighbors (overlords).  Lack of opportunities made military service an interesting option.  Military service generally meant transfer to the North American colonies.  So Scotsmen served throughout the 13 colonies and the Canadian territories.  The various wars and conflicts with Frenchmen, Indians, and disgruntled American colonists gave them plenty of opportunities to fight.  Time spent in the colonies also convinced some to find their own stakes in the land here.

Part of the value of this book is that it punctures one of my favorite images.  It is not that I am wrong and Dr. Dziennik is right (or at least I am not admitting that).  It is that the story I like to believe is only a part of the story.  Surely, lots of Scotsmen who migrated to the colonies served under General Washington.  Surely, the battles of Cowpens and King’s Mountain were payback for defeats at places like Culloden.  But lots of Scots gave total service and loyalty to the British army.  As Professor Tom Wagy asserts and re-asserts, “Nothing is simple.”

This book comes with a pretty good price.  Then comes the price of the time and attention needed to read it.  But, it’s worth it.  I am looking forward to many more books from Matthew Dziennik.