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.

 

 

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