Subjects Theological and Worldview Oriented

During the summer days and weeks this year, I have been, as usual, reading through a number of books. Also, as usual, I have fallen way behind in posting book reviews and updates on my readings. I can’t blame the usual suspects from the past: administration duties at school, closing of the school (2020), health crisis (2121), vacationing, spending mornings overlooking the sand and the surf, backpacking in the Appalachians, or doing yardwork. I really don’t have an excuse other than a tendency to be lazy.

So get ready for a potpourri of books that have this in common: All are by and for Christians and all were on my unending reading stacks.

Let me start with When the Bluebonnets Come by John J. Dwyer. This book and the other works by Dwyer can be found HERE.

Sometimes I need to read a story that is pleasant and affirming. I appreciate the great works of 20th Century masters like Hemingway, Faulkner, and others. Dostoevsky is unsurpassed. Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper are both profitable challenges. But sometimes, I long for home, for childhood, for community, for local matters rather than epic challenges.

This book is set in Texas and in a small-town community. The dialog reflects how people talked that I grew up around. Most of the thinking, both good and bad, reflects how most people I knew thought. Yet, this is a novel, and there are several layers of conflict. At the heart of these problems are issues of faith versus the unbelief of the world around us. But even the faithful in this book stumble and struggle. And the “Christ-haunted” nature of the South, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, seeps in in unexpected ways and places.

John Dwyer, a friend for certain, has most recently written the second volume of his history of Oklahoma. He has also written other books. My two favorites are Saltgrass and Mustang. He and I believe the same things, share the same loves, and are close enough alike in age and temperament to be brothers. He also fulfills some of my dreams. He not only wears a cowboy hat, but he has the real credentials. Best of all, John is a Christian whose writings don’t just slip a hint of Christianity into the middle of the stories, but are undergirded by Christian thought.

Read his books! If you want a pleasant vacation from your life struggles, read When the Bluebonnets Come.

Francis Bacon by David Innes is part of the Great Thinkers Series published by P & R Publishing.

I am long overdue writing a blog post heralding and praising the Great Thinkers series. This is a collection of some 12 books and still counting on philosophers, theologians, and key thinkers through the centuries. These works are analyses of the ideas, good and bad, by people who maybe were or were not Christians, but who have impacted the world around us.

If you need a quick biographical sketch of some famous thinker, go to Wikipedia or, if you are old fashioned, the encyclopedia. If you want an analysis of the ideas of great thinkers, get ready to be overwhelmed by the serious studies that are available.

What makes these books to differ? These books are all of readable length, meaning that they are less than 200 pages. Most important, they are written by Christian scholars in the Reformed tradition. The authors are people who are deeply embedded with people like Calvin, Bavinck, Van Til, and others.

Christian colleges need to have stacks of these books on the required reading lists and in their libraries. College professors who teach philosophy, history, theology, and even literature, need to have and to have read these books.

But beware: These works are not easy, “philosophers for dummies” types of reading. Every one of the volumes that I have read so far has swamped my philosophically limited brain. That’s okay. I’m a history and English teacher; I’m old; and I am slow witted. But there are plenty of you who need these books. The rest of us will just have to read them slowly twice and wait for someone to help us.

Francis Bacon, the subject of the book I most recently read, was a key thinker from England. We often pick up snippets of his witty sayings or read a paragraph about his contributions to the developing field of scientific research.

His claim to be a Christian fits into a context of Christian England more than it affirms a living and active faith in the man himself. The impact he has had on modern thought is enormous.

David Innes is also the author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men, which is a study of political thought and is another P&R publication.

Check out the Great Thinkers series. Read these books. Buy them for your college bound students.

One of the unsung publishing and writing heroes and scholars of our time is Ruben Alvarado.

Through his efforts and publishing company, Pantocrator Press, we have books like In Memory of Stahl by Groen van Prinsterer.

Because we “live in time so little time,” to use Robert Penn Warren’s phrase, we also know so little. That problem of finite time and ability has been compounded by the times in which we live. Christian thought and heritage have been ignored, muffled, misinterpreted, suppressed, and forgotten. Thankfully, we live in a time where we can now find the works of John Witherspoon. In my college days, such was not to be found; nor were biographies of him. Most people go through life and school without learning anything about the great Christians of the past and present. (Go ask your local philosophy professor about Gordon Clark and Herman Dooyeweerd.)

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer was a brilliant Dutch historian and political thinker. His works, numerous in Dutch, are still slipping into English translations and being made available. Stalin-types might ask, “How many divisions do the Dutch have?” as a way of dismissing the contributions of the Netherlands. Well, not many divisions, but lots of great minds in philosphy and theology.

Friedrich Stahl was a Christian thinker and political leader in Prussia and Germany. Obviously, his thought lost out in time to the forces that led to Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and tragically to the Third Reich. But there was a time in which Stahl was a significant force for Christian political thought.

For those who think that this book written by one obscure Dutchman praising an obscure German is too far above their paygrade, I would suggest that you look into the works of Stahl published by Pantocrator.

If you are in any field of political thought or jurisprudence, this is a command, not a suggestion.

To better understand Groen van Prinsterer, one should race hurriedly to acquire a copy of Unbelief and Revolution, which is published by Lexham Press.

Lexham Press, a favorite of mine, has also published a beautiful collection of sermons by John Webster, titled Christ Our Salvation.

Also, John Webster was a theology professor, he very strongly believed, taught, and preached that “the Gospel is the heart of Scripture.” These beautifully crafted sermons, models of rhetorical preaching, are all deeply rooted in a theological unveiling and exposition of Scriptural truths.

As a preacher, it is hard for me to read someone like Webster and then venture into a pulpit. I can’t preach like he did, but I can be deeply enriched by reading his sermons. This book fulfills the daily need for a devotional jumpstart and incentive, along with the need for some theological ballast.

These sermons were preached to men in theological training, meaning men who would one day be preachers themselves. They are weighty, without being obscure or opaque. They are convicting, without being shallow. They are Christocentric, without being repetitive.

Great book for any serious Christian reader.

[I will write on the remaining books later.]

Ah! Bartleby! Ah! Humanities!

It is a trap. I am warning you, beware. When you undertake to read and teach a course focused on what we call “the Great Books,” “the Humanities,” “the Canon,” “the Classics,” or whatever term is used to classify “them,” you are entering into a never ceasing spiral.

I had hints, bit and pieces, excursions along the edges of a classically based education along the way. Some of the books were assigned in whole or were divided out in parts in literature class. Most were self guided reading that I did. I read some books because they were considered classics. I acquired and started (with varying results) many others because they were classics.

Having a number of English courses both as an undergraduate and graduate student, I got a decent exposure to authors like Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Solzhenitsyn, Moliere, Mark Twain, and a few others. But it was more like taking a first aid course than like being in medical school.

Then along came an essay by a little known (to me) British writer named Dorothy Sayers. Titled “The Lost Tools of Learning,” it shook up my mind about the meaning of education. And I had been long in the trenches of the teaching profession at the time. Thankfully, I was given a reprieve after reading the essay and did not have to specifically apply it.

Fast forward a few years and a group of people in my church and I began seriously contemplating a way to create a school to educate a growing number of teen kids in the church. The classical Christian school movement was cropping up here and there, with a few books and essays and even some “how to” opportunities for the willing pioneers.

From classical Christian education emerged the idea of a Humanities program. I first picked up on the idea after coveting the Humanities courses that he has produced and shared with many Christian students. These courses are still available through Stirling Bridge Shop. A bit later, the Omnibus program started showing up in a series of what became 6 volumes of books dealing with a huge list of great books spanning the ages. This series is available through Veritas Press.

Quite simply, this method of educating blends the teaching of history and literature, as well as the Bible, political thought, theology, and art, into one integrated course. Too much of our learning has consisted of going from class to class, of closing one textbook and opening another, and of compartmentalizing knowledge. Focus and differentiation have places in the education process, but blending is a much richer approach.

These approaches, which I will call Humanities rather than Omnibus or Great Books, bring the classics front and center into the learning process. In this swimming pool, there are two ends–the deep end and the deeper end. And there are two ways to get into the water–the high diving board and the higher diving board.

The assumption is that you already learned to swim in the grammar and logic stages of the educational process. It is now time to take on some scary, challenging, difficult, but rewarding reading hurdles…or high dives to continue the previous metaphor.

Regarding which books to read, how many, where to start, I will say nothing. There are plenty of reading lists and guides available on the Internet. Also, much depends on the type of school, the type of students, the number of students, and the expectations of the parents and administration.

The accumulated rubble of our civilization is going to involve lots of digging and recovery efforts. So, don’t assume that you can reconstruct it all in a year…or a decade.

What follows are some suggestions for you to dwell on.

1st, Don’t assume you are qualified or ready or the best person for the task. Unless you are a C. S. Lewis or one of the Vanderbilt Agrarian scholars, you have not read enough or been trained enough for the job. Start with where you are, what you know, and with an eagerness to advance.

I am assuming that you are a fairly well-read person with a built-in love for reading. If not, why are you teaching such a course? (Why do you even exist?) Most of your reading has been fine. Many times you have read classics. You did read some things in college. You have forgotten much of what you read. Some classics that you read were not memorable to you. And you are embarrassed to admit how little you know. (I am, by the way, describing myself primarily.)

Most of us who find ourselves teaching a Humanities curriculum were not chosen from among a cast of giants. We are the Humanities teachers for reasons other than our impressive resumes and extensive knowledge of all the great books that have ever been written. It is okay. We start where we are. As long as you have today and maybe tomorrow, you can make some headway.

2nd, Don’t try to become the expert literary scholar in the summer months prior to the school year. If you want to go ahead and read The Iliad, do so. But you don’t have to master the curriculum before the students appear. Vital to teaching Humanities is the recognition that you are a fellow learner with your students. Many of my now favorite classics are books that I first read alongside students.

One thing that I still like to do is to read a book each semester or year with the students that I have not previously read or taught. (In some cases, I have previously read the book but it was years ago.) I treasure the heavily marked and annotated copies of books that I have covered numerous times (and panic when my personal copy can’t be found), but the exploring of new territory puts the teacher into the mindset of the student.

3rd, Don’t assume that you have to be the interpreter, the analyst, the expert, the sage on the stage, and the authority figure when you are teaching a classic. My students often make comments so amazingly profound that I slightly tint green with envy upon hearing them. Sometimes, my deepest thoughts are things like “Wow! That passage is really good” or “What in the world does this mean?” or “I got lost in thi section” or “Anyone have any ideas on what the author means here?”

There are experts. I love raiding and pillaging their insights. Sometimes, as all good cattle rustlers do, I brand them with my own Circle H brand, leaving students to think that I actually know something. But the students are not in need of an expertly crafted, deeply complex interpretation of what they read.

4th, Romance the book. Your job is not to make sure that your students can pass a matching characters and descriptions test or recite the major themes in the book. Your job is to enable the students to love the books. Sometimes romance just doesn’t seem to happen. So, at least, we as teachers must create a friend zone between the student and the book.

I prefer a student loving the book rather than knowing lots of facts about it and the author. When the book is Les Miserables, the atmosphere is ripe for true love. When the book is The Federalist Papers, the chance of wedding bells is less likely. But the teacher still has the task of seeking at least some appreciation.

5th, Don’t undertake too much. It took me a good while to trudge through Herodotus’ Histories. I would much prefer reading Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. Trying to take a group of kids through the long stretches, forced marches, and lengthy digressions of Herodotus was not a great success for me.

Should people read Herodotus? I reckon. History majors in college, like I was, should be required to read it and quite a few other classic histories. But in some cases, the whole book is not worth the time and capital it will take from your year of readings. In some cases, a few chapters will suffice. In some cases, a great work will need to step to the side for a lesser work. (I enjoyed using Ernle Bradford’s Thermopylae: The Battle for the West for getting the main contours of the story together.)

6th, Don’t undertake too little. By this, I mean that you should not slow down so that everyone can keep up and grasp it all. Honestly, you could spend a whole semester teaching A Tale of Two Cities. You could spend months on any Shakespeare play. You could spend days covering William Carlos Williams’ poem The Read Wheelbarrow.”

Teachers have amazing abilities to take that which is beautiful, enjoyable, and enriching and turning such into misery for the students. Keep up a good pace. Cut your losses. Move on to the next chapter, the next book, the next venture.

7th, Don’t overkill the idea that you are to present “the Christian interpretation” of every book or idea. Yes, a Christian worldview is essential to Christian education and thought. But literature can often be read as parables with morals attached. Certainly, one should, upon finishing The Great Gatsby not live like Gatsby, Daisy, or Tom, but the book is not a morality play. Nor is Hamlet. Nor is The Brothers Karamazov.

In some cases, and Gatsby, Hamlet, and Brothers K, are all open to Christian insights, you might not have a handy-dandy Christian spin on a work of literature or an event in history or an economic theory. Be patient. Listen to your students. Read a few experts. Search the web. You are a work in progress. Helen of Troy was beautiful long before either of us were born, so if we don’t have a definitive answer on some aspect of literature, don’t fret.

I confess that I really struggled with Sir Gawain and the Green Giant. The book was on a curriculum list that I used in a Medieval literature class I was teaching a small group in the past spring. I had previously read the book, but it had not resonated with me. I had to not only read through it for class, but had to read it a second time. And some of the best parts of the story began connecting.

8th, In teaching literature, if you and the class are not having fun, you are failing. I am anguished over the student who never connects, never falls in love, never embraces what I am teaching. We can’t seem to reach every last one of them. But there has to be an atmosphere of love and joy, of celebration and delight, of eagerness and expectation in the literature classroom. If they don’t love the poem you are teaching, then they should be at least loving the poem (or poesis) that you are. As a teacher, you become the spokesperson, the ambassador, the matchmaker between Homer, or Shakespeare, or Faulkner and your students. If they fall in love with the messenger (because you are a lovable, caring, passionate teacher) long before they fall in love with the message, you will succeed.

Reading More, Reading Fewer

I find myself often driven to read more books each month. On a low month, I might get 4 or 5 read. On a good month, I might get 8 to 10 read.

But I have committed myself to reading some books that I am duty bound as a book reviewer to read, but they are heavy, long books. They will damage the monthly quota. Meaning, I have a tendency to enjoy reading the book that can be easily read in a week or less. “Look at how many books I have read this month!” I tell myself.

There are more than enough short or medium length books lying around for me to read. But I have neglected the heavy weightlifting challenges in my perilous stacks of books surrounding me. I am now on a mission to read fewer books but to not neglect the huge books that demand some attention.

The Whole Counsel of God, Volume 3, God’s People in the Western World by Richard C. Gamble is published by P&R Publishing.

Several years ago, I bought volume 1 of this series. I think I got it because it was on sale, and since I had volume 1, I felt it necessary to get the second volume. In typical Ben House fashion, I put these two hefty volumes on a shelf and let them stand.

Volume 3 arrived some months ago with the command “Read and review.” I experienced a number of starts and stops in reading at, near, from, sort of in the book. But as June was coming to a close, I resolved that this book would be read from daily all the way through to the 1100 plus page ending.

This book is something of a survey of Western Civilization from a theological perspective. From the Greeks to the present, it gives summary accounts of the leading thinkers, issues, and events. While it is a massive book in itself, it can only graze over the surface of the topics.

All of that is to say that this is exactly the kind of book I tend to love and need. Pastors, teachers, and students need lots of surveys, lots of summaries, lots of bullet points, and lots of exposure to vast areas of knowledge. Just today, I finished the chapter on Augustine. I am neither an expert nor a total novice when it comes to Augustine. Some parts of the chapter were a recitation of details in his life and thought that I already knew, but the chapter went on to a relatively detailed account of his development of the doctrine of the Trinity and related issues.

My method of tackling this huge whale of a book is to attempt to read a whole chapter or at least 20 pages each day. Typically, the deeper I get into a book, the more I am prone to read.

I assume that one would be better off reading the previous volumes on the Old and New Testaments before tackling volume 3. But the last volume is a worthy stand-alone read.

I also assume that many students in Bible colleges and seminaries (especially those in the Reformed tradition) will be assigning Gamble’s trilogy so as to produce good minds and strong biceps. But for those of us whose seminary and Bible studies are located in our nearby bookshelves, this whole set is a worthy collection and challenge.

A Theology of Paul and His Letter by Douglas J. Moo is published by Zonervan Academic.

I received this review book somewhere back near the Christmas season. I have dipped into it on occasion and found tidbits to help along with whatever Pauline writings I was going over.

This book consists of lengthy studies into the theological views of Paul (to no one’s surprise). Pauline studies are a major field in theology. I don’t even begin to think that I can wade into the vast and richly rewarding field. I mainly try to collect some books and read things to supplement my own Bible readings and teaching opportunities.

The other large portion of this book consists of chapters devoted to the various epistles Paul wrote. One could read these as brief commentaries and overviews.

As I have already indicated, this book is a useful reference tool. Later this year, I do hope and plan on reading it from cover to cover.

The Klaas Schilder Reader: The Essential Theological Writings, edited by George Harninck, Marinus DeJong, and Richard Mouw is published by Lexham Press.

Some years ago, I stumbled into the Netherlands and discovered a world of wonder. I was not unfamiliar with the land and its history nor its theologians before those years, but it was only then (around 2005) that the depth and height and width of Dutch theology and philosophy began to unfold before my eyes. I had a few major opportunities to lecture on some of the great Dutchmen. Very soon, I was garnering everything I could find by and about Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Dooyeweerd. Pursuing any one of those men’s works is challenge enough. But more Dutchmen kept showing up at my door and hinting at insights they had into God’s World and Word.

I had already heard of Klaas Schilder. R. J. Rushdoony mentioned how grand and eloquent Schilder’s writings and sermons were. I acquired his famous three volumes on Christ in sufferings, trial, and death. I have, alas, used these volumes all too little.

I found myself feeling giddy when I first learned last fall that Lexham Press (a favorite publisher) was putting this volume out. It seemed like forever before it arrived.

Of course, the biggest delay in unfolding the treasures of the Netherlands is the time needed to translate the works into English. Herman Bavinck is becoming something of a theological rock star in Christian, particularly Reformed, circles. Geerhardus Vos is getting a wider and wider reception. The beloved trio of Groen, Kuyper, and Dooyeweerd have their ardent followers, students, and commentators. The Dutch-to-America transplants like Louis Berkof, Herman Hoksema, and Cornelius Van Til have their strong supporters, along with weirdly bitter critics. And I have to throw in the name of H. R. Rookmaaker with this all star cast.

With this volume, I think many more will become acquainted with Schilder. For those who are totally unfamiliar with the list of names I have been spouting off, I will guess you may be familiar with Corrie Ten Boom and her great story found in The Hiding Place. Men like Schilder, Rookmaaker, and Dooyeweerd were all dodging the Nazi Gestapo and trying to pursue their academic missionary callings in the worst of times. The Third Reich perished–praise God–and the Dutch Christian witness pressed on.

It may be that these Dutchmen will have a greater impact in these lands across the pond than they did in their own times and places.

The Wonderful Works of God by Herman Bavinck is published by Westminster Seminary Press and distributed by Westminster Bookstore.

Speaking of Dutchmen and Herman Bavinck, this book, one of many now available by Bavinck, is a real treasure. I started reading it a year or so ago. I suppose it got sidetracked by one of about 15 major crises that engulfed our lives here, starting with Covid.

I was really enjoying the book, but for reasons I can’t explain, I put it aside, intended to read more, covered it with layer upon layer of other books, moved it to another room and bookshelf, then moved it again, and again, and again.

Blame the reader, not the book. I do remember how the book was beautifully and gracefully unfolding systematic theology. A few weeks ago, I was preparing a sermon to preach on Trinity Sunday (June 11). I was combing through some systematic theologies for strengthening my own understanding. I decided to jump into the chapters in Bavinck’s work that deal with the Trinity.

This chapter, Chapter X “The Divine Trinity,” was pure gold. It was balm from Gilead. It was refreshing cool waters. It was a green pasture to lie down in. I didn’t preach the chapter for my sermon, but it was the preaching to the preacher that enabled me to preach a far less rich message.

This book is part of an on-going series from Westminster called The Westminster Seminary Press Set. I have all five volumes. These are reprints and updated versions of theological treasures in the Reformed tradition. If you don’t have any of them, buy them as a set. Otherwise, just complete your incomplete collection.

Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, Second Edition, by Douglas Groothius is published by InterVarsity Press.

Defending the faith is vital for the Church. I have long been reading and teaching Christian apologetics. The recent overturning of Roe v Wade brought many attacks from unbelievers to the forefront. While apologetics is a tool often used for students in Christian schools or perhaps for pastors, I am convinced that it is needed for the people in the pews.

In many cases, the individual believers will not know or remember how to answer some of the endless objections brought against the Christian faith. I typically try to comfort people by reminding them they need not panic. With over 20 centuries of battling unbelief, Christianity is no rookie in the ring. Someone, usually a bunch of someones, has answered the objections previously. This is not a new game.

I have yet to dig into this book, but it certainly looks and sounds like a winner.

Hopefully, I will be posting more updates on these books in the coming months. And, I hate to admit it, but I still have several other huge books that I need to at least start scanning and skimming.