Readings from Recent Weeks, October 2020

Another good month of reading is now basically over. No, I am not a speed reader by any stretch of the imagination, nor would I want to be tested over the exact details of many of the books I read.

I am a persistent reader. I read for an hour or more in the mornings from two or three different books. During the afternoon, I usually read 10 to 20 pages from one of the easier, faster books. Then at night I read for maybe an hour from biographies and histories. I almost never get a book read in a day or two. I cannot remember reading a whole book in one sitting. Most often I read a few pages at a time until the page takes ahold of me, and then I triple or double the amount of reading. And, I usually have between 5 and 10 books I am reading or attempting to get into at a time.

Let’s look at the stack, working from bottom to top, and make a few comments:

The General versus the President: MacArthur, Truman, at the Brink of Nuclear War by H. W. Brands

I have now read several books by Professor Brands. This is not a new interpretation, or a scholarly monograph, or an examination of the powers of the Commander in Chief in contrast to the military.

Instead, it is a historical narrative, a step by step retelling of the outbreak of the Korean War and the ensuing clash between two very strong-willed leaders, MacArthur and Truman. I confess that I always have an inner tug toward MacArthur in this clash, but that I finally and begrudgingly side with the President both in terms of his authority to fire DM and in his concern to limit the Korean Conflict. Both men were great leaders in their own right. Both were flawed men, of course. And this story is a great one and the book does a great job of telling it.

Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics , edited by David Haines. This book is published by the Davenant Institute.

This is a series of very challenging, intellectually engaging, and critical (in both senses of the word) examinations of presuppositional apologetics as developed by Cornelius Van Til and further worked out by Greg Bahnsen, John Frame, and Scott Oliphint.

From beginning to end, I remain more aligned with Van Til and his followers than with his critics. Admittedly, the essays and discussions in this book are anywhere from slightly to greatly above my mental powers. I did appreciate the tone and depth of this book.

One of my many positive take-aways is this: Christianity in America is still producing first class minds among men trained in both theology and philosophy. While I might disagree with some or many points along the way, I recognize that these men are seeking to advance God’s Kingdom through the life of the mind.

The Covenanters , Volume 1 by J. K. Hewison. This book is published by Banner of Truth.

I have recently reviewed this book (most favorably) and am just getting started into the second volume. Scotland’s battle for the soul and nation is worthy of study and applicable to our own times and ideas.

Blessed Charles of Austria by Charles Coulombe.

I really loved this book. A year of so ago, I read Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Royal Family by James Longo. That book covered the story of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his family. Ferdinand’s assassination sparked World War I. His role in history is typically limited to the fateful day of his murder in Sarajevo.

This book deals with his nephew, Charles (also Karl). Charles was originally fourth in line to become emperor, so there would have been little likelihood of his actually becoming the ruler of the Austrian Empire. But, untimely deaths by the three others in front of him made him the heir to the throne. Franz Joseph was, at the time that World War I began, very old. Charles then became emperor in 1916.

That fact had often showed up in the books I read on World War I, but Emperor Charles, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, and all things not related to the Western Front in France were side notes to the Great War.

History in the larger chunks and in the more broad sweeps has to be taught in selective bullet points. The subject is simply too detailed otherwise. But the history student, reader, scholar, or fan must and can read the more detailed accounts.

Charles and his wife Zita were both dedicated to their marriage, family, the Christian faith, and the many peoples who were part of the Empire. Charles’s abdication was a tragedy for Europe and Christendom. Although he dedicated the rest of his short life to regaining his thrones (plural), he never did. Although he fell to the wayside in the history of the times, he is still much loved, venerated, and honored by people across the world today. This is a great story of a truly good and gifted, although unsuccessful, ruler.

The Trial by Franz Kafka.

This past summer, I reread Kafka short novel The Metamorphosis. So, I put this novel on my bed stand and struggled to wade through the translator’s commentary on Kafka and the original text. (The problem was that I was reading it too late at night and at the time when my mind was already going to sleep.) Finally, I started in on the book itself.

Kafkaesque is a term that is used to describe unreal, bizarre situations. Quite fitting for 2020. The trial in this book is just as unreal and bizarre, and is truly Kafkaesque. There is much that seems like a parable about this story. It is not a happy story, although at points, it is very funny. It truly describes much, too much, about events and thoughts and worldviews in our time.

It would seem to me that apart from the Christian faith, a world such as that in The Trial would be our most viable alternative. I look forward to reading this book again and would love to read it alongside others who would then discuss it.

The Importance of the Electoral College by George Grant.

You may notice that I have two copies (one is the original edition and the other is the updated version) of this book. I moved much of my library from my school office to my home. Books are in disorder. But I have discovered and rediscovered several books.

This book is a valuable read for this season. The Electoral College is a brilliant device that better insures that a wider range of the American people and states are represented by whoever wins the Presidential election. Know for certain that there are those who are anxious to remove this part of our heritage. Read this book!

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

I reread this book because I assigned it to my class (meaning the one student that I am giving private homeschooling to). Great love story! The unexplainable love of young Manolin for the failed and struggling old fisherman Santiago is beautiful. The struggle for the great fish and the ensuing battle with sharks is magnificent

What blew me away, however, was near the end when the boy told Santiago that the people in the village had sent out boats and planes looking for him. Hemingway, you see, was focused on the individual fighting against the forces arrayed against him. But, being a good writer, he inadvertently borrows a key theme from Scripture. The community, or we might say the parish, sought the struggling brother. Love, community, perseverance: Ernest, you could not help but reflect God in your writings.

Flight from Humanity by R. J. Rushdoony

This is the little thin book with no title on the back. This is a short essay or two by Rushdoony dealing with neo-Platonism, particularly as it shows up in Christian history. Obscure topic, unusual treatment, and arcane references to be sure. But Rushdoony was the master of taking the unknown, overlooked, and misinterpreted and revealing how relevant they were and are to Christian thinking.

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund.

Get this book. I read it slowly even though it is not a very long book. I will reread it slowly. I sent out a bunch of quotes from it to friends, church members, and family. This is a rich venture into an aspect of Jesus Christ that we often fail to see.

Side benefit of this book: It will enrich your understanding of and appreciation for the Puritans and for other Reformed theologians.

Choosing Community: Actions, Faith, and Joy in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers by Christine Colon and others.

Dr. Colon and Dr. Criner (one of the contributors in this collection) were both teachers of my oldest son Nick while he studied at Wheaton College.

My interest in this book was related to Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. Sayers is the Founding Mother of Classical Christian education. As such, I have read her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” many times. But she was also a gifted and successful writer of detective novels, plays, and theological works. Alas, I have now read three books about her life and writings, but have yet to enjoy the pleasures of reading her Peter Wimsey novels. Okay, coming soon to my reading stacks: Dorothy Sayers’s novels.

The English Reformation by Alec Ryrie

I previously posted a picture of a large stack of books related to the Reformation in England and Scotland and the Puritans and Covenanters. I am slowly chipping away at that stack of books.

There are two tendencies of small books dealing with large events. In some cases, the small book gives a simple retelling of the story. I like such books because the pithy, concise review is right down my (former) alley as a history teacher. The other tendency is to be a specialized analysis that assumes a knowledge of the overall events and then provides some depth of interpretation or that unveils a different approach. Those books can be enjoyable, but sometimes a struggle to read through.

This book does neither. It was a most enjoyable reading that examined the English Reformation from several angles. England did not copy events in either the Lutheran lands or Calvinist areas of the continent. The English Reformation was religious, political, radical, incomplete, up and down, economically driven, lust driven, and deeply spiritual. What an array of powerful, often brilliant, usually conflicting, mostly controversial actors on the stage. Great story. Great treatment in this book.

The Covenanters by J. K. Hewison

The Covenanters, two volumes, written by J. K. Hewison, is published by Banner of Truth.  Hewison was a historian, author, and Presbyterian minister who lived from 1853 to 1941.  This work was originally published in 1908, was revised in 1913, and was reprinted by Banner of Truth this past year in a beautiful two volume hardcover edition.

Americans tend to superficially think that issues relating to conflicts between Church and State were all basically solved by the First Amendment and Thomas Jefferson’s Wall of Separation letter.  Any time matters arise where the two entities butt heads, it is seen as a throwback to an older, less enlightened, more superstitious, almost theocratic age where religious leaders zealously kept the fires burning with freethinking martyers.

Granted, there are plenty of ugly, horrifying stories from the past related to abuses by the Church (and you can identify that institution with any branch you wish) and leaders in the name of Christ.  Movies have continued to add to that narrative.  And no one should give carte blanche defense of all actions done “in the name of Christ.”

Often less noticed is the of the State (and fill in any regime from history you wish) in persecuting beliefs, restricting freedom of religion, and using civil power to coerce religious belief.  Even more a problem is what has been previously said in this post:  People think that these matters were all in the past and that any present attempt to raise church/state issues is a throwback to less enlightened days.

Nothing is more certain and sure than the fact that society, government, political philosophy, and people are in a culture war.  And culture, as Henry Van Til famously said, is religion externalized.  Every issue confronting us today is not just political, social, economic, or racial, but rather theological.

Augustine was right on target in his contrast between the City of God and the City of Man.  We no longer see Visigoths pillaging and plundering Rome, but we are seeing things not totally unlike that.  (Sorry for any unfavorable aspersions cast by comparing the Visigoths to the current barbarian onslaught.)  The battles are constantly being waged between more godly and less godly ways of dealing with social unrest.  Lest I be misunderstood, I am not implying that one American political party represents God’s truth marching on while the other is in thralldom to Satan.

Studying history does not provide a series of pat answers or blueprints of exact ways to deal with the present.  As a history teacher and student, I hate the phrase “History shows….”  I hate it not because it is not a useful concept, but because the “Book of History” is too vast and complex.  History shows anything and everything you want it to show.

But dismissing the simplistic is not a reason to dismiss history.  History provides perspectives.  History reminds us that we are not alone or unique or in the midst of a never-seen-before set of circumstances.

This is why The Covenanters is so important for these times.

The age of the Protestant Reformation was one of the most turbulent times in European and world history.  On the one hand, it entailed many a man and woman poring over often newly translated Bibles and theological tracts. It involved priests and laymen standing up amidst congregations and saying, “We have previously been taught this, but now, in the light of Scripture we affirm this other thing.”  In other words, it was a spiritual, personal, and intensely religious revolution.

But religion is not a genie in a bottle.  You cannot put it in a bottle.  Religion is, as said earlier and often, culture, worldview, and life.  If I were to become Amish, that would affect my views and interactions with politics.  The same is true if I become anything else, as it certainly did happen in my case when I became Reformed.

The Reformation spread across Europe to the citadels of power and to the lesser powers of the day.  The story of the Reformation in Scotland would appear to be simply the short addendum to a huge story, but small, obscure Scotland exerted a mighty force during the age of Calvin, Luther, Cranmer, and others.

See the source image

John Knox rightly carved his own place in the lineup of Protestant Reformers.  Knox has received both the praise of many (usually those in the Reformed theological tradition or those of Scottish heritage or both) and the unmitigated scorn of others.

He was no lightweight.  He was tough, aggressive, determined, but also filled with the zeal of the Lord.  In one sense, he is the key player in Hewison’s two volumes, but he died relatively early in the on-going post-Reformation war in Scotland.  Also, he was standing upon the shoulders of several men who preceded him in the fight.  The name of Melville also stands alongside that of Knox in the battle for the soul of Scotland.

The problems in Scotland intensified when James VI, son of Queen Mary Stuart, ascended to the throne of England and became James I of that country.  James had been raised, and, perhaps a little too strongly, force-fed Protestant theology.  He proved to be no friend to his fellow countrymen in Scotland nor to the Puritans in England.

When his son, Charles I, became king of the realms, matters worsened.  Controversy intensified when an Episcopal prayer book was imposed upon the Scottish church.  This prayer book, like so many government-imposed sanctions of the time, gave the tip of the hat to bits and pieces of Reformed theology, but maintained practices both Anglican and Catholic that irked the Scots to no end.

As much as anything else, the imposition of this prayer book was a means of keeping, maintaining, and even increasing government control over the churches.  The modern day, particularly American, model of separation of church and state did not exist during the 1500s and 1600s.  But we are, in the more favorable ways, where we are today because of the intertwining of church-state battles fought then.

The defining event in Scottish Reformation history was the signing of the National League and Covenant.  Scotsmen and Scotswomen banded together to sign, some with their very blood, this testament declaring their refusal to bow to the unwarranted dictates of Charles I.

That bold action did not end the conflict, but was fuel to the fires of oppression.  The story continued on with many a Scotsman being threatened or persecuted or martyred for his faith.  The story was not pretty.  Like most stories from history, it is not always black and white in regard to actions on both sides.  But it was one of the most important battles for freedom of all time.

Scottish history is not my specialty.  I feel a strong attraction to the history and culture of that beautiful and harsh land.  I revel in the story of Scots immigrants who came to the United States and settled the Appalachians and so often rallied to the Patriot cause in the American War for Independence. Yet I still find the history of the country a big challenge.  But I continue to read on it.

There are several books that I would recommend for those who, like me, want to understand both the events and their importance.

A Scottish Christian Heritage by Ian Murray.  Published by Banner of Truth, this book, like all books by Murray, is a soul-filling delight.  Great place to start on all things Scottish.

Fair Sunshine:  Character Studies of the Scottish Covenanters by Jock Purves.  Another Banner book, this one is a great starting place for reading some inspiring accounts of brave and doctrinally unbending Scotsmen.

Scottish Puritans: Selected Biographies.  I cannot speak directly about this 2 volume Banner set because, alas!, I do not have it.  But buy 2 sets and give one to me, and let’s just see how good it is.

The Saint Andrews Seven: The Finest Flowering of Missionary Zeal in Scottish History by Stuart Piggen and John Roxborough is yet another, believe it or not, Banner classic on the topic.  Don’t forget that the headquarters of Banner of Truth Trust is in Edinburgh.  I came to this book late and only after hearing George Grant praise it often.

Of course The Works of John Knox, published by Banner, is the cream of the crop of essential books on the Scottish Reformation.  Don’t expect to race through these volumes, for they retain the particular spellings and phrases of Scots’s English usages of the time.  But this is a rich treasure trove and a beautiful adornment to the shelves.

Riots, Revolutions, and the Scottish Covenanters:  The Work of Alexander Henderson by L. Charles Jackson.  Published by Reformation Heritage Books, this is a more technical study, but worth reading on the church-state battles.

The current lallapalooza of books I have and am working on reading on Scottish and English, Covenanter and Puritan topics.  Now, I just need to be stranded on an island for a few months so I can devote adequate time to these books.