Top Reads from the Bottom Year 2020

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The best of the book reviewers and bloggers get their lists of favorite reads out in December or very shortly after New Year’s Day at the latest. But the defining characteristic of my life is that I am behind, late, slow, and struggling to catch up.

The books I have chosen are not given in any order either in regard to what part of the year I read them or ranking from good to best. I even thought about listing them alphabetically by author. These are a small number of books from the year that I read, and I could easily list ten more and then another ten and so on. There are a few that I could post as the worst books I read or the least helpful, but I see no need in capping off such a delightful year as 2020 with negativity.

Without further ado, here goes:

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I stumbled across the name of Towles in some book list several years back. Soon, I found a copy of his novel Rules of Civility, which I read with delight and found quite good. Later, I bought a used copy of A Gentleman in Moscow at the Thrifty Peanut in Shreveport (a favorite used bookstore).

This was one of the most beautifully written, paced, crafted, and enjoyable novels I have ever read. I hate the term “an instant classic,” but this book might very well fit that designation. What an incredible read! Of course, I love Russian literature and hate Communism, so it was satisfying those senses as well.

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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Changed America by Timothy Egan

I picked up a nice, like new copy of this unknown book in the Potter’s House in Siloam Springs. I was not familiar with the book, author, or event. I read it sometime after the wave of fires swept the American west during the summer.

It is hard to imagine how a story as horrible as this one could be written as such engaging history. This book reminded me of why I majored in history in college and taught history in school. While I respect and learn from the weighty academic tomes, this book kindled the fire that has always driven me to adore history (sorry for the puns). The great fire in Montana, Idaho, and Washington in 1910 was tied into the history of the National Forest Service and the friendship and political cooperation between Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.

After reading this book, I promptly ordered several other books by Timothy Egan as well as an extra copy of The Great Burn.

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

Several friends recommended this book, so I hesitated about buying it. But they were right. Even Cody Howard was right (and actually he usually is).

If you want a serious theological reason to read this book, I could mention that it makes great use of Puritan and Reformed authors in presenting how they taught about Christ. Granted, sometimes Reformed pastors are thought of (hopefully without accuracy) as being harsh. Admittedly, we are often hesitant about appearing soft or gushy in our theology. But those warrior Puritan fathers had no such qualms.

More than a Puritan compendium of good quotes, this is also a Biblical study of a key component of the Christian life. If you are not a suffering sinner right now (and truthfully, you are), then you will be. And so will your congregation, family, and friends be.

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Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy by Charles Coulombe is published by Tan Books

I don’t reckon that this book will have been read by too many who are interested in the great rulers of history and certainly not by very many Reformed Protestant Christians.

Who is this young looking man on the cover? We know him as Prince Charles or Karl of Austria-Hungary. He was the last monarch of the Habsburg family which was dethroned at the end of World War I. The role of Austria-Hungary is often ignored or minimized in studies of World War I. At the same time, the A-H Empire was less than stellar in its battlefield exploits.

A year or so into the war, Emperor Franz Joseph died. Originally, Prince Charles was fourth in line of succession. But the deaths of the three others, including Franz Ferdinand, put him in the place as the heir. While we tried to brand the First World War as the “war to make the world safe for democracy,” it was a war that destroyed the stability and future of central Europe.

Prince Charles was a dedicated Christian man, husband, and leader. His particular theology and piety was different from mine, but he was a model of the ideal emperor. His time of rule was short, and he tried in the years that followed to regain his rightful heritage. Along with the book Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals by James Longo, which I read in 2019, and The Habsburgs: To Rule the World by Martyn Rady, which I plan to read soon, I have an insatiable desire to know about this once great ruling family.

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Sermons on Titus by John Calvin is published by Banner of Truth

This book enabled me to become more of what I am often accused of being: A person who follows John Calvin. But, like everything else I have read by Calvin, I end up not being drawn to Calvin the man, but the God who he adores.

These sermons were quite good, edifying, quotable, and applicable. Robert White is the premier translator of Calvin’s works today. I also have the sermons on I and II Timothy from this same Banner of Truth series. These are finely done books that are good for study, devotional reading, and soul care.

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The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons

Great study of two of the most diverse, talented, and determined men to ever seek the Presidency. Jackson got a bad deal in 1824 when he and Adams first clashed. The return bout was no-holds barred. Even this last year’s Presidential election may not have exceeded 1828 in intensity. I confess to simply loving these kinds of studies.

How America’s Political Parties Change and How They Don’t by Michael Barone

Barone is a favorite political commentator. I have several of his books and read his articles when I come across them. He is conservative, but capable of writing some hard hitting objective political commentary. From Barone, one learns of the patterns, the demographics, and the dynamics of political campaigns.

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America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts, edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles, is published by Notre Dame Press.

This book is a great study of American history through examinations of the nation’s wars. The lengthy opening essay deals with the idea of the Just War Tradition. Strangely enough, I don’t remember hearing about that in either undergraduate or graduate school studies. Perhaps historians wish to ship the topic over to the philosophy or political science departments.

The essays, all from different contributors, were exceptional readable and thought provoking. Some defended what I thought was indefensible and some found fault in areas that I thought were solid. This is not a “read it to agree with it” kind of book; rather, it is one that provides lots of challenges. It was a mental workout that was outstanding.

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Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862–The Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

I started this book with merely a curiosity as to why this conflict was labeled as the most violent in American history. After all, the events in this book took place during the Civil War. But the key term in this is that it was an ethnic conflict, particularly between the Dakota Indian tribes in Minnesota and the white settlers.

I was often lost in the reading of this book. That is because I was not familiar with the geography of Minnesota, nor with many of the key figures in the events. But what astounded me about this book was that it was a story of injustice and evil multiplied. The Dakota tribes were continually deceived and cheated by the government agents. When factions within the tribe retaliated with a wave of attacks, the results were brutal. Since most of the men and war materials were diverted to the bigger cause of the Civil War, the remnants that were available to defend the white citizens were few.

As was always the case, in time the white people prevailed. That led to the most upsetting part of the book. The “justice” that was meted out to the Dakota Indians who surrendered was terrible. Their trials were farces of justice. Many were sentenced to death and hanged. This is not the way that prisoners of war were to be treated. The trials were in English and the defendants were totally unaware of what was happening.

I was reading this book during the summer when Minnesota again became the center of terrible actions due to the death of George Floyd and the riots and protests that followed. History doesn’t give quick answers to current events, but it does provide a sad commentary that injustices, retributions, and dire resolutions are not new. This is a sad, but very important book.

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Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West by Bradley Birzer is published by Angelico Press.

This book is such a rich collection of essays on literary, historical, and philosophical topics. It is a venture into the mind, reflections, and loves of the author. I learned some years ago that anything that Brad Birzer writes is a “must have.” His books on Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and Andrew Jackson are all prized possessions.

The “worst thing” about this book is that it caused me to order almost every book he referenced and discussed. This was a very calming, mind-enriching read.

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America’s Revolutionary Mind by C. Bradley Thompson

This is an in-depth, lengthy account of the ideas, philosophers, and American political leaders who embraced the Declaration of Independence. That document, especially the opening paragraphs, have impacted the world and changed minds and countries again and again. Even in our own country, it has an ongoing role in the discussions of how we view ourselves and our history.

I was greatly blessed by Dr. Michael Douma who invited me to participate in a group discussion of this book. Surrounded on Zoom by a host of readers who were far advanced from me, I went from liking to loving the book. This one is one I need to re-read and one that I really needed years ago (long before it was written) to guide my own thinking.

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Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland

This book got lots of attention last year when it first appeared. Maybe the craziness of 2020 caused some to grow less interested in it, but it is a blockbuster of a book. Many of us have and read Church histories, but this book goes beyond those accounts and gives a broader vision of how Western Civilization and then the whole world has been impacted, mostly for good, by the Christian faith.

Holland was raised in the faith and gives the nod to his heritage, but does not appear to have personally embraced faith in Christ. But he does what far too many secular historians fail to do, and that is, he sees and shares the impact of how God is bringing the world into submission to His Kingdom.

The Life of William Faulkner

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“You have seen a country wagon come into town, with a hound dog under the wagon. It stops on the Square and the folks get out, but that hound never gets very far from that wagon. He might be cajoled or scared out for a short distance, but first thing you know he has scuttled back under the wagon; maybe he growls at you a little. Well, that’s me. ” William Faulkner

The Life of William Faulkner: The Past is Never Past by Carl Rollyson is published by the University of Virginia Press.

While many readers have struggled, agonized, and even given up when trying to read or understand some of William Faulkner’s fiction, perhaps his life itself is the most difficult challenge. On the one hand, the factual account of when and where he was born, lived, and died, who his family members were, and what books he wrote are all pretty easy to figure out. Any encyclopedia for us older readers or Internet search for the rest can yield those details.

This is why biographies are so important, revealing, and enjoyable. Faulkner presents a real challenge both to the reader of his fiction and to his biographer. Authorship of great literature is a process that contains a certain degree of magic or mystery. “How did any person write such things?” we think as we read the great works.

Some have assumed that Homer was not really the blind poet of legend, but was a different poet, perhaps also blind, with perhaps the same name. (I know that sounds crazy.) Maybe The Iliad was actually composed by several authors, some have suggested. Shakespeare presents one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time. How did any one man write the plays? Moreover, how did any one man born in Stratford-on-Avon, who had a good but not spectacular education, and limited travel experiences write such far flung, diverse, and powerful lines with such a vast array of characters?

Greeks spoke of the Muses and Milton called upon the Holy Spirit for illumination, and we all speak of being inspired to write. The bottom line is that great words, worlds, and imaginations flow from the minds and pens of some few very special and gifted people.

William Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897. His family had some honored historical people, particularly his great grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner. Young Faulkner ( who added the “u” to his last name) was decently well educated and was a sharp kid. The only social advantage he seemed to have was that his family lived in town where his father labored in work that would have been more secure than subsistence farming.

Colonel William Clark Falkner, whose life story will appear in part in great grandson William’s fiction.

In the early years, the boy Faulkner traveled the country a bit, supposedly in search of education and life experiences. He attended the University of Mississippi where he contributed a few pieces to the college paper, but did not either complete a degree or distinguish himself as a student. He went “off to war” during World War I, but his record was and remains quite sketchy. In that time, airplanes were a real fascination for many, including Faulkner. He went to Canada where he joined the Royal Air Force. He came back home with a uniform that was real and a limp that was an affectation.

He was a goof off at his job as a post master. He gave all appearances of being a ne’er-do-well. He was interested in a few girls, particularly Estelle Oldham, whose family connections were a barrier to Faulkner. From Oxford, Mississippi, he left and spent some time in New Orleans where he developed his writing skills, hobnobbing with Sherwood Anderson–a successful author of the time, and dividing his time between charming people and being drunk.

Truth is, I find the younger Faulkner almost totally unlikeable. I find few redeeming traits in his habits, ambitions, and actions. Had I known him in those years, I would have written him off as a loser. He wasn’t winning too many accolades as a promising fellow from his townsmen nor his colleagues. But he kept scribbling away.

During these years, he published several novels that tend to be overlooked and unread in these times. One was titled Soldier’s Pay and the other Mosquitos. This was basically the same era in which Faulkner’s two contemporaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were emerging as the brilliant literary lights of their times.

Reviews for Faulkner’s early works were decently commendatory. But he had to return to his native ground of Oxford, Mississippi (both literally and imaginatively) before his literary abilities began blossoming. His third novel was titled Flags in the Dust. It was a story that combined elements of his connection to his locally famous great grandfather and heritage with the experiences and despair of post-World War I America. The book got chopped down by his publisher-editors and was titled Sartoris. I was a freshman in college in 1974 when my English teacher, who was then in love with Faulkner’s works, said that the original full novel had finally gotten published.

In the next decade, the 1930s, Faulkner wrote a half dozen of his most enduring novels. These included The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom. He rose to his heights as an artist, but he was only able to survive by writing short stories that were quick sellers and writing movie scripts for Hollywood.

All of this is covered in great detail in Rollyson’s first volume biography. Prior to this biography, a massive two volume work was written on Faulkner by Joseph Blotner. (I learned of this work from my college teacher in 1974 as well. ) A slew of shorter biographies and studies of Faulkner also came out over the years. My favorite one volume study if Jay Parini’s book One Matchless Life, and I also love Cleanth Brooks’ several volumes of literary studies on Faulkner’s works.

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What Rollyson does in great detail is something of a combination of biography and literary examination. In fact, from Faulkner’s short pieces and poems in his earliest attempts to his great novels, Rollyson connects the story of Faulkner with the story that Faulkner was writing. This unveils lots of insight into Faulkner’s writings. While he was not doing autobiography, his fiction was imitating his life.

Faulkner married his lifelong sweetheart Estelle. One could wish that this small town romance story was a pretty one, but it isn’t . Estelle initially married a different man, left Oxford, had two children, and then got divorced. Faulkner, once the not approved beau, took advantage of her return and married her. He truly seemed to be a good step-father to the children, for he was, in spite of all his faults, a gentle and caring man. Faulkner and Estelle were in need of some serious intervention and counseling through the years. Both were severe addicts: William to alcohol and Estelle to alcohol and drugs. Finances were rough as Faulkner was often waiting for story payments or advances in royalties.

Despite having written what are considered several great novels, Faulkner was not writing page turners or thrillers or best sellers. His successes eked out enough money for the Faulkners to slowly renovate a run down piece of property just outside of downtown Oxford. They named the place Rowan Oak.

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Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi: One of my favorite places to visit.

Rollyson’s account of Faulkner is often dark and troubling. His revelations into Faulkner’s life, often correcting previous accounts or adding to the known sources of information, are helpful in trying to see what the man was really like, what made him tick (to use an overly ancient cliche}.

The sections that deal with some of Faulkner’s movie script writing are really hard to follow because many of us who read Faulkner have not read these accounts. Still, this account does add quite a bit to the possibilities of figuring out the often deceptive, secretive, private, but brilliant life of the future Nobel Prize Winner.

Nope, this is not the book for those who have not read Faulkner’s works, nor for those who just want to learn the basics about his life. But for any wanting to travel further into the depths of the wilderness of the man who created Yoknapatawpha County, get this book.

Post Script: Often we have to wait for a long time for the second volume of a work to appear. But in this case, volume two of Rollyson’s study of Faulkner is already out. The Life of William Faulkner: The Alarming Paradox, 1935 to 1962 is published by the University of Virginia Press.

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Scottish Theology and History


It is worthwhile during these times to remind ourselves that the cultural and domestic upheavals of our time are primarily theological in nature. This does not simplify the matter to good guys fighting against bad guys, nor does it mean that we can safely assume that we are the Lord’s army and those who disagree with us are Satan’s minions. Remember that in World War II, Hitler’s Third Reich waged war against Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union. Both were evil. We and our political opponents may not be on that order of evil, but we should always be asking not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.

Christians have a long history of bloody street fighting as well as armed clashes of armies in the field. Christians have long said and done ugly, ungodly things. And some of those terrible actions, like the conniving of Joseph’s brothers, have brought about good through the providence of God.

Reading the history of the Church and/or particular groups and individuals in the history of the Faith will not yield easy and perfect role models. History does not work like that. The phrase “History repeats itself” is extremely inexact. History provides models, patterns, and examples, but which model, pattern, or example will unveil the future is not the realm of history or the task of historians. Clio did not work on weekends at the Oracle of Delphi.

Nevertheless, history runs a close race with theology as being essential for a Christian’s ability to understand the world, the Bible, and the current state of events. This discussion prefaces my review and recommendation of the following book:

Therefore the Truth I Speak: Scottish Theology 1500-1700 by Donald Macleod, published by Mentor, an imprint of Christian Focus Publications.

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This book appealed to me (and delivered!) on several grounds. First of all, the topic is one that is of interest, or I should say, two that are of interest. I am a history teacher by profession and a student of theology by interest. This book belongs in both sections of the library. Also, it is tied to the Post-Reformation period where the implications of the Reformation were being felt and applied throughout Europe.

Second, the author himself is commendable. Earlier this year, I read his short book Compel Them to Come In, which is a powerful case for the Free Offer of the Gospel in Calvinistic theology. I was already in the choir when I read this book, but I loudly gave an “AMEN!” to the content.

Compel Them to Come InCalvinism and the Free Offer of the Gospel

Add to those reasons, Christian Focus Publications is one of the publishing outlets whose every volume I covet. They are solid, practical, and well produced.

Now, on to the book: The Scots battled for “the Crown Rights of Jesus” fiercely for several decades. Scotland was already a political pawn on the European chessboard with ongoing collusion with France and the ever-threatening dominance by the English. The first major figure who emerges onto this battlefield is John Knox, but that does not mean that he was not preceded by others.

Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart preceded him. Both became martyrs to the cause, and both influenced Knox. The life and times of John Knox are adventurous. He lived through more tumultuous events in one lifetime than most people live through in several lifetimes. His life was not one devoted to writing out treatises in the quietness of his study. Compared to the better known of his contemporaries, meaning Luther and Calvin, we have a much shorter body of works. But Knox was a theologian, and this book, while giving some account of his life, delves into that aspect of his legacy.

In the decades following Knox, other great leaders arose in Scotland. Chapters in the book are devoted to Andrew Melville, Robert Bruce, Alexander Henderson, and Samuel Rutherford. These men were all top notch preachers and leaders who continued to fight the battles which were always a combination of church and state issues. What was most central to the task was the culture, as always.

One of the more interesting chapters for us Americans has reference to the impact of Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex. That work was largely ignored by American theologians and pastors until Francis Schaeffer began calling attention to it back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In some ways, the fact that Americans were rebelling against the British and that many of the Americans were of Scot descent led people to think that Lex Rex was a direct influence on the events.

Three of the latter chapters dealt with David Dickson and Scottish Federal Theology. I confess to being totally lost on the issues. I suspect people of deeper theological learning would be able to engage in this discussion. That aside, it doesn’t detract from what is a fine study.

Final note, I found myself wondering when Thomas Chalmers was going to show up. Then I glanced back at the subtitle and remembered that this book only goes to 1700. That makes me hope that Doctor MacLeod follows up this work with another one that takes the story up through another century or so.

As can be seen, I have a hefty stack of books on the Scottish and English Reformation experiences. I have completed four of the books and hope I can successfully tackle a few more in the coming months. The study is profitable and relevant.

For now, I can highly recommend Therefore the Truth I Speak.

The Household and the War for the Cosmos by C. R. Wiley

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The Household and the War for the Cosmos by C. R. Wiley is published by Canon Press.

Just about skipped over reading this book. Books about home and family and marriage tend to not interest me. What I find is that I can read them, but my wife doesn’t apply what the books are teaching, and why should I be the one to make changes in our home, marriage, and family? And there is the guilt load from realizing how far I fall short of being the husband, father, family leader, and shepherd I should be.

So, I was highly inclined to give this book a pass by. And yet, I finally felt guilted into reading it by Brian Kohl who works for Canon Press. So, just to be nice, I read it.

On the one hand, I am always in need of another set of exhortations, rebukes, occasional encouragements, and out right slaps in the face over family matters. Spiritual, moral, economic, and practical lessons for life together as a family, in a shared space, and amongst wife and children are needed. I agreed to read the book just to subject myself to such.

But that is not what Wiley’s book is about. I was not prepared for the greater issue of his book. The Household and the War for the Cosmos is not a manual for home life. It is a call for the greater entity than just husband and wife or parents and children. This book is about the household. And what does that mean?

The future of civilization is not merely dependent upon males and females getting married and then having babies, although that is essential. The household is a structure, a hierarchy, an order that is part of the greater order that God has created. It is rooted and focused on the past and is aiming toward the future.

Part of what is fascinating about Wiley’s book is his discussion and comparison between what Abraham did and what Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, did in The Aeneid. There was a piety, an out of date and out of use, but vitally essential word, that characterized both men and their missions.

So often we miss the big picture because we are lost in the focus on the smaller angles of the smaller pictures. We need to save babies, stop the encroachments upon family freedoms, keep couples together, maintain proper and biblical gender roles, and more. The brush fires against family are many. But to expand that analogy, if we have many brushfires, the greater danger is a huge wind that will spread and increase the flames all across the landscape.

Wiley uses and likes the term “Guerrilla Piety.” He also likes the Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which he views as a handbook for such piety. This is a militant book. But again, this is not the Benedict Option or the call for an Amish retreat. The household is the center and fulcrum of the debates across the land.

Part of what I keep thinking from my 2 enjoyable readings of this book is that the ideal family is not the primary goal. We can have the idealized family notions with just the right amount of fatherly leadership, wifely/motherly submission and co-reigning, children nurturing and catechizing, societal withdrawal, courtship driven marriage planning, family worship, and perfection. Only, I never achieved any of that when my children were small, and now my youngest is 18.

And if I fell short of the marks, I must admit that my own parents and my wife’s parents fell even more short of the mark. But we (my wife and I) and my children were and are blessed because the imperfect, stumbling, struggling, often chaotic homes we had and have were, nevertheless, stable and Christian. In military terms, we were not elite special fighting units, but we did wage war and never considered surrendering to the enemy.

America is a mess right now. We are living through the worst time in all of our history, except for all those other times which were also the worst times in our history. Voter fraud doesn’t happen, but systemic racism does. The printing presses that “make money” are rivaling those of the Weimar Republic of old. Political satire and political reality are indistinguishable. Several people have said, in my hearing, that they really feel sorry for the young who will have to live with the consequences of these times.

I, on the other hand, envy the young. God’s plan for the household. God’s order for confronting the flimsy idols of our time. God’s raucous laughter (see Psalm 2) at the pantywaist plastic sword wielding powers of our age. God’s promises of victory over all of His and our enemies. As many as the blazes are. As mighty as the wind that threatens to fan the flames. God’s flooding will extinguish the fire and drench the enemies totally.

The most basic patterns set forth in Scripture do not begin with a political program or a top-down Washington set of guidelines for changing the culture. Look to the household. This is not said to minimize the role of the church, which is, ideally, made largely up of and training, households. Parents, children, grandparents, relatives, and others brought into the circle of the family bonds are the means to confront the culture.

Oh sure, we need to sharpen the edges of our husband and wife relationships and communication. And for certain, we need some more instruction on training our children. And yes, yes, yes, to Christian education. And yes as well to training Christians to be good citizens. And yes to evangelism and a thousand other issues. But let’s center on the household.

I strongly suggest that this book not be ordered singly, but in multiples of ten. Groups and Sunday school classes need to read and discuss this work. Like I said, I read it twice. Another two readings wouldn’t “do me no hurt” (to quote Mother York from the movie Sgt. York).