American History–An Incurable Passion

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American history  has paid the bills at my house for several decades now.  (Hey, American history, I would not object to you generating a few extra bucks.)  I have walked the breadth and depth of historical studies and found myself falling in love with many different ages, countries, and periods of history.  But when I fall back on my druthers, I had druther read, study, and teach American history than any other place, story, or phase.

I want to highlight very briefly each of the books above.  Most are review books lined up in my never ending queue of required readings.  Other are books I have shelled out the hard cash to purchase and really want to read.  Some have already been read through; some are being read; some have been started; but all are books I certainly hope to get read in the next few months. (Unfortunately, more books will show up demanding immediate attention.)

From left to right, I will identify and comment briefly on the books pictured above and below.

Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History  by Gillis J. Harp.  Outstanding study of a long relationship between the often changing ways that Christians have, for both better and worse, embraced every changing modes of conservative thinking.  I have reviewed this book on this blog.

The Price of Greatness:  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Oligarchy by Jay Cost.  More a survey of the economic and political agendas of these two men, rather than biographical studies of two sometimes allies, sometimes enemies.  Useful study of the hows and whys of early American economic successes and challenges.

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine.  Someone slipped a bit of UK history into my line-up of American history stories.  British history runs a strong second to my love of American history.

Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements by C. Douglas Weaver.  I am interested in looking into this story with no dog in the hunt.  American church and Christian history is a sub-genre of American history and is a consuming interest.

Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson.  Sent by Oklahoma University Press, this book struck me as one of marginal–at best–interest.  Then I read from the introduction and realized that this event–totally unknown to me–sounded incredibly interesting.

The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M Rein.  In spite of my best efforts to wean myself away from Civil War reading, I keep returning.  The western campaigns are still largely vague, in spite of having read Thomas Cutrer’s excellent study Theater of a Separate War:  The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865.  

The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University edited by John A. Regosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy.  While this might not sound like the most interesting book around, we must remember that Jefferson listed the founding of the University of Virginia as one of his 3 greatest accomplishments.

Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History, edited by Robert M. S. McDonald.  I started this book recently, but other readings rudely pushed it aside.  Through the years, many have written about and sought to interpret the life of Thomas Jefferson, and this book’s contributors dwell on how the man has fared through it all.

Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions by Caitlin Fitz.  I almost felt guilty for spending two bucks for this Goodwill find, for I have so many books on the American Revolution/War for Independence.  Then I discovered that it focuses on the subsequent revolutions in Central and South America in relation to our national experience.  Looking forward to this read.

Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes.  Having read Dr. Shlaes’s books on the Great Depression and Calvin Coolidge, I knew this was a must have.  Bought it with a Christmas gift card.

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael P. Winship

and

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall.

I love colonial American history, the Puritans, the Reformation and its impact on American and British history.  What is there to not be excited about with these two books?

America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It by C. Bradley Thompson.  I have been interested in this book since I first heard about it from Bradley Birzer.  After reading the opening, I am more interested than ever.

Conceived in Liberty:  The New Republic, 1781-1791 by Murray Rothbard.  Years ago, Dr. Rothbard wrote a multivolume history of early America.  Only now is this last volume, painstakingly deciphered from Rothbard’s handwriting, made available.  Rothbard is anything but conventional and predictable as a historian, and that is what makes him interesting and challenging.

Dreams of El Dorado: A HIstory of the American West by H. W. Brands.  The settlement of the American “West” has not been one of my main priorities in my studies, but as I am learning from this book, it is a fascinating story.

Lest anyone think these are all of my current history–American mostly–books that are screaming to be read, I assure you the stack is still very high.

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Protestants and American Conservatism by Gillis J. Harp

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Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History by Gillis J. Harp is published by Oxford University Press.  Dr. Harp is a professor of history at Grove City College.

I became a Christian around the year 1972.  A few years later, I self-consciously began identifying myself as a conservative.  The conversion came about from the benefits of a lifelong family commitment to attending church and respecting the Christian faith.  In God’s timing, I began finding sermons, previously uninteresting, suddenly compelling and convicting.  Many factors contributed to what I now know was the work of the Holy Spirit convincing and convicting and drawing me to Christ.

Many factors also contributed to my becoming a conservative.  One night, Johnny Carson had William F. Buckley, Jr. on his show as a guest.  The next day, I went to the college library and checked out God and Man at Yale.  I devoured it.  This was during a season of my life when I was being overwhelmed with a myriad of ideas and concepts.  The biggest intellectual change in my life at that time was embracing a Calvinistic Worldview.  That changed and solidified all types of things in my life.  It put me on a trajectory that has never changed.

But rethinking has been a way of life since the beginning.  Much of what is found in Protestants and American Conservatism is almost biographical.  Familiar names, issues, historical time periods,  political fights, and the changing conservative agendas and definitions have been consuming passions for me in my personal thinking, teaching, lecturing, and writing.

The tendency in our time is to have quite simple ideas of what Conservatism and Liberalism are.  Turn on conservative talk radio and a number of hosts will be there usually defending Pres. Trump and touting his conservative credentials.  A few years back, they were castigating Pres. Obama and attacking his liberal views.  Turn to many of the more liberal media formats and the opposite cases are being presented.  Then there are those who now proclaim that any Republican who is not lining up exactly on the conservative’s check list is a RINO, that is, a Republican in Name Only.

Go back a few years and we have the rise of what has been called the Christian Right, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and other names, all of which are highlighting the politically conservative and usually Republican-leaning views of evangelical Christians.  Of course, this opens the discussion up to other types of Christians who may not identify as evangelical, fundamentalist, Protestant, or conservative.

When did this all start?  Some say when Ronald Reagan created his winning coalition in 1980.  Some say when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion in 1973 (although Protestants remained asleep for a half decade on that one).  Some date events back as far as the Goldwater race for the Presidency in 1964.  Or maybe it does goes back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, published in 1951.

All those markers are useful, and a number of books have been written on both the popular and scholarly levels attempting to alert, alarm, or inform readers of the cultural, political, economic, and philosophical crises of our times. But the strength, the key selling point of this book is that while it covers all of the events listed above, it takes the issue of Christian conservative thought back to the Colonial Era.

This is not just another “America was founded by Christians” book.  Lest anyone think I was being sarcastic with that sentence, I firmly believe our Colonial and Revolutionary Founders were Christians, with many being self-consciously focused on applying the precepts of the faith to events of their times.

“Nothing is simple,” says my former history professor Dr. Tom Wagy.  The interaction of Protestants with politics has a long and textured history.  It was not as though they were all trying to impose a Christian form or design on the political order.  Rather, they carried deep presuppositions about the nature of man, of society, about the covenantal and historic connections between the faith and the social order, and about the applications of such presuppositions in their times.

Christianity is not safely caged within a political creed.  One can argue that the Pharisees and Romans were the conservatives of their day.  Certainly, those who didn’t skip across the pond to start new versions of church and state were not trying to conserve the English status quo.  Nor were Loyalists during the American Revolution the liberals in the scuffle over rule of the colonies.

Literature is full of cases of characters donning someone else’s uniform or armor.  Patroclus, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’s armor, leading to his death in battle.  Christians have been sometimes too quick to embrace a political view that puts them in the wrong battle or at least in a awkward position.  Events both prior to and after the American Civil War put Christians in a variety of odd positions regarding application of the faith.

To be sure, I believe that Christian presuppositions call for a view of people that recognizes both their being in the image of God and being fallen.  I believe that there are limits on what government can and should do.  I believe that the free market is generally more conducive to prosperity and distribution and enjoyment of resources.  I believe in freedom.  All of these beliefs and more are grounded in my being a Christian.  They propel me to favoring more conservative politics in our times.  (I identify as an unhappy Reagan Republican.)

I remember some years ago when a conservative and Christian (failed) political figure was calling for America to reclaim the Panama Canal.  For sure, I sided with Candidate Reagan on that issue in 1976. (His close ideologically conservative friend William F. Buckley, Jr. disagreed.)  I think there are sound reasons for arguing that the U. S. should never have relinquished control of the Canal and Canal Zone.  At the same time, I have not witnessed any apocalypse resulting from our ceding it back to Panama.  What is the Christian position on this issue?  I don’t find any of my Christian presuppositions endangered by giving up the Canal Zone.

Of course, not every issue is like that.  And while the Bible doesn’t list a program for government actions, I do believe that there are plenty of laws, admonitions, examples, broad themes, specific applications, and so on for Christians to appeal to in thinking about public policy.  There are both debatable issues and non-negotiables.

This book will not cause a conservative like me to repent, nor cause any who hold more liberal views to accept Christ.  But it does examine and weigh out many of the past issues.

This book is fine history.  Yes, I argued with the author at times.  Yes, I hung my head in embarrassment a few times as well.  Overall, I love the reading experience and hope to read it again and refer to it often.

 

Philosophy 101 Claimed by Christ

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A clueless, naïve college freshman walks into a classroom.  The course is Philosophy 101.  The bearded, intimidating professor, decked out with a bow tie, tweed jacket, and an armful of books walks in.  He announces that this is a course on the study of PHILOSOPHY.  As he passes out the syllabi to the students, he goes on about some of the benefits of taking the course. Then comes the clincher:  As he walks back up to the front of the room, his stentorian voice rings out, “Write this on a sheet of paper:  I don’t believe in God.  Postdate the paper for May 12, 2020.  For by that date, and by the time you are taking the final in this class, you will not believe in God.”

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Wow!  How many times have I heard this kind of story? And there is even a movie made about it.  And even Einstein is resurrected with words put into his mouth answering the atheist professor.  And many a scared young Christian has feared either going to college or taking philosophy, and maybe he has been scared about confessing to his parents and pastor that he is studying philosophy. I am sure it actually happened somewhere.  I am sure that there have been professors who maybe had an agenda for discounting belief systems in their students.  I had lots of college profs who seemed to have little regard and even less understanding of Christianity, but if any were trying to dissuade me, I didn’t even realize it.  (Most teachers I have ever had have had a genuine appreciation for any serious students.)

To tell the truth, I would actually be more frightened if I were an atheist, agnostic, or skeptic about entering a philosophy class than I am afraid as a Christian about the field, the study, and the teachers of philosophy. If there is one area where Christians today are waging war, one area where we are capturing the high ground, one area where the vast treasures of the past thought are being uncovered in our favor, one area where we are winning, it is philosophy.  CHRISTIANS ARE DOMINATING THE FIELD OF PHILOSOPHY.

Forget end times, tribulation, despair and decline, retreat, and hopes for being raptured as a last effort to save a shrinking band of surviving believers.  Christians are winning cage matches, tag team matches, philosophy-mania, and more. This is not to imply that there are no battles to be fought.  This is not to imply solidarity among Christian philosophers and philosophy teachers.  This is not to imply that philosophy has morphed into a praise and worship team. “In this world, you shall have trouble.  Be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world,” said Jesus.  Let’s paraphrase, “In the study of philosophy, you shall have trouble.  Be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world.”  Not escaped, sidestepped, or retreated from, but overcome. I assure you that if you are a Christian and are wanting to study philosophy, the resources available to you are vast and growing.  And these are not little booklets written by non-philosophy types like me.  (My background studies are in history and literature, and I am, at heart, a junior high and high school teacher.)  We are talking Ph.D., peer reviewed journal contributions, top name colleges, and books as dense or readable as you wish.

There are many fine books on the market aimed at Christian college students introducing the field of philosophy.  Alongside that, there are the secular presses that have hundreds more–new and old–to choose from.  For many, beginning with a book like R. C. Sproul’s The Consequence of Ideas is a great foundational work.  For those wanting to see how a writer without Christian presuppositions approaches the topic, there is Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind.

Most of the introductory books will be largely a historical survey of the philosophers and ideas that have come and gone through the ages.  Some, in contrast, will focus more on the issues that have engaged philosophers.  Every history and literature teacher, along with every pastor and Bible student, should have a hefty stack of such introductory books.

In this review, I would like to highlight John Frame’s We Are All Philosophers:  A Christian Introduction to Seven Fundamental Questions.  This book is published by Lexham Press, a favorite publisher of mine.

This small hardback book is a great accompaniment to any of the historical survey-type intros to the field.  Frame is a theologian with a solid philosophical background. He studied at Princeton and Yale, as well as studying theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary.  Frame is a student of Cornelius Van Til and a prolific author on theological topics.  His larger work on philosophy is A History of Western Philosophy and Theology–a magnum opus in the field.

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology - By: John M. Frame

Concerning We Are All Philosophers, here are the seven questions:

  • What is everything made of?
  • Do I have free will?
  • Can I know the world?
  • Does God exist?
  • How shall I live?
  • What are my rights?
  • How can I be saved?

One might think that these questions are either irrelevant (in regard to what everything is made of) or merely religious (as in regard to questions about God and salvation).  Everyone has to confront what everything is made of.  If we are merely material stuff, then lots of other questions get answered differently than if we are being with material bodies and non-material souls.

The question of God’s existence is the one that shows up in the stories and anecdotes concerning the fabled atheist Philosophy 101 profs.  At its heart, the question goes beyond just a Ray Comfort Man-In-The-Street evangelistic interview.  Is belief warranted, rational, and certain, or is it merely hunches and hopes.

The question of rights gets to the heart of many of the political agendas that are being debated in the current election year.

Avoid these seven questions (which I don’t think is possible) and you avoid life.  And if you give wrong answers?  Then we go to history class and prepare by taking a major anti-depressant.

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Eleonor Stump’s book The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers is published by Marquette University Press.

Dr. Stump is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louise University and is recognized as a leading expert on Thomas Aquinas.  This short book is based on lectures she gave at Marquette University.

All through the years, philosophers and theologians have borrowed from each other, but also battled each other.  A theologian poring over the Bible and a philosopher poring over philosophy texts can and have reached different conclusions, given varying explanations, raised different questions and provided contrary answers.

But is that an insurmountable divide?  Are these two fields separated by the guiding presuppositions?  Is the Christian who enters philosophy bound to always be a philosopher who is a Christian rather than a Christian philosopher? This question has been discussed numerous times.  It is a great question with lots of implications for al of life.  Dr. Stump gives some strong reasoning why we should not feel compelled to put our Bibles aside while studying philosophy.

If you took note of the picture posted at the top and bottom of this discussion, you will see several other fine Christian works on philosophy.  The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy by Steven B. Cowan and James Spiegel, published by B & H Publishing Group, is a fine and weighty study on the issues one studies in philosophy.

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism by C. Stephen Evans is published by IVP.  It is a survey of the history as the title says of famous philosophers, schools of thought, and major ideas.

Philosophy: A Christian Introduction by James K. Dew, Jr. and Paul M. Gould, published by Baker Academic.  I became aware of this book after reading and loving Dr. Gould’s book Cultural Apologetics.

Final comments on the two books by Dr. Frame and Dr. Stump:  Both are small, short, nicely done hardback books.  Great for carrying along on a trip or a meeting where you might just find a few free minutes.  Frame’s book is a good “learning to swim” book, while Stump’s book is a serious plunge in the deep end of the pool.  Even the most serious students need to get a refresher on the starting fundamentals of philosophy, and even we beginners need to be exposed to some of the depth of the subject.