Previews of Current and Upcoming Readings–Or Justifying Book Hoarding

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There are always more books to buy, acquire, read, start, review, re-read, shelve, stack, and hoard.  It is a hopeless quest.  And I continue to persevere and continue to fall behind.  Let me give out some comments on a few books that are on my book stacks and have book marks somewhere near the beginning pages.

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I love biographies and biographical studies.  These two books cover aspects of the lives and ministries of two very different servants of God.

The Pastor of Kilsyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by Banner of Truth.

Banner of Truth has long been known for publishing or reprinting biographies of pastors, theologians, and other Christian figures.  There is a predictability to their works of this sort.  Book collectors and hunters who are generally in the British Isles continue to comb the old libraries and collections and find long forgotten gems.  W. H. Burns is not a well known figure like George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon or other men in pastoral history.  His obscurity is a selling point.

Even in our day, there are many fine, faithful, and gifted publicly known pastors and teachers.  Thank God for these men who are in the limelight and who are preaching weekly and teaching even more often to faithful and large groups of people.  But how many pastors are there out there who are speaking to congregations of less than 100 people?  Or, in some cases, less than 50 people?  The work of God’s Kingdom depends on the faithful local pastor even more than it depends on the man whose name is well known in the Christian world.

Iain Murray, a man responsible for so many good books he wrote and more that he got published, says that this book is “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  His endorsement alone is enough for me.

Never Doubt Thomas:  The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant by Francis J. Beckwith is published by Baylor University Press.

We learn by small increments.  Names, key facts, descriptive phrases, and a few other mental bullet points make up much of the foundations for learning.  Learning begins by simplifying, and simplification is, by its very nature, distortion.  The name of Thomas Aquinas appears in virtually every study of European history or theology.  He was and is the linchpin for much of Catholic theology, but he is also reckoned to be one of the biggest names in philosophy, especially Medieval philosophy.  While philosophers come and go, there are still many who self identify as Thomistic scholars.

The simplification says that Aquinas took Aristotle’s writings and fitted them within Christian doctrines, thus creating a syncretism of sorts that was both Catholic theology and Greek philosophy.  The problem with such simplifications is that the largest work of Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologica, runs into multiple volumes, and there are other books as well that he did.  He was a profound and vast thinker.

Many of the authors I have read over the years gave short shrift to Aquinas.  Granted, they were not writing about him specifically or in depth, but I picked up the mode of dismissing Aquinas and anyone who claimed to be in his camp.  “Fools rush in…” as the saying goes.

There are a number of respected Protestant theologians and philosophers who hold Aquinas in great esteem.  The list includes Alvin Plantiga, J. P. Moreland, Carl Trueman, and most notably, the late R. C. Sproul.  Sproul listed Aquinas as one of his five favorite theologians, with the others being Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.

I welcome this book and this study.  I am too little informed in Aquinas to give a sound yea or nay.  I figure he said plenty to serve as grist for the anti-Thomistic mill, but I suspect he was solid in many areas.

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As a further effort to understand Aquinas, I am looking forward to reading Scott Oliphint’s short study Thomas Aquinas from the Great Thinkers series now being published by P & R Publishing. I suspect that this book may not be as favorable to Aquinas as Beckwith’s study.  I will comment later on how thrilled I am that there is a new Great Thinkers series being done by P & R.  I have read some of Oliphint’s works.  He is an apologetics professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and is considered to be an expert on Cornelius Van Til.

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Enduring Divine Absence: Modern Atheism by Joseph Minich is published by The Davenant Institute.

I have gotten to know Joseph Minich a bit better over the past few months through Facebook connections and messages back and forth.  I was impressed with him as a young, dedicated, and sharp philosophy teacher and Christian man.  Now I am reading his engaging and short work on atheism.  I always approach these books with a bit of hesitation.  For whatever reason, I have always been too simple minded to be an atheist.  Lots of sins are attractive, but denying God has just never been a vulnerability for me.

Nevertheless, there are many who grapple with this issue personally, academically, socially, and evangelistically.  The issue is not as simple as “You are stupid if you don’t believe in God.”  (Although, I admit that is my basic presupposition.)  Minich gleans from a number of scholars, both believers and unbelievers, is setting for his case.  I especially enjoyed reading his comments today on John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies.  I am trying to reappraise my negative feelings about that book after reading Minich.

This book is published by The Davenant Institute.  I hope, soon, to post a whole article on their flooding the market with powerful and weighty books.

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Cresap’s Rifles: The Untold Story of the Riflemen Who Helped Save George Washington’s Army was written by Robert L. Bantz, Karen E. Cresap, Nina Cresap, and Champ Zumbrun.

I am continually going back and studying the American War for Independence.  That war competes with both the World Wars and the War Between the States for attention in my mind, but it does attract a share of my reading.  One of the things I realize continually is how little I know of the lesser known details of that war.  As this book’s title says, it is an “untold story.”

The American riflemen were one of the main reasons why the small and struggling Patriot army was able to survive year and year and finally witness the defeat of the British.  The British army, and the mercenary Hessian forces as well, were outstanding on the battlefields of America (and Europe).  In certain types of set fighting, their skills, discipline, and methods were superb.  To back that up, one only needs to look at such books as Matthew Dziennik’s The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in North America  and Matthew H. Springs’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America.

The Kentucky Long Rifles, as they were sometimes called, were game changers.  The rifled barrels, especially when used by able frontiersman, had a range that exceeded the traditional muskets.  Small numbers of these riflemen were able to offset the balance in between the European and home-grown American armies.

This book is filled with pictures and personal details as well.  Michael Cresap was not well when he got called to raise up riflemen and trek across the country to join Washington’s troops.  Our freedom was not easily won, and this book chronicles some of the cost.

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A Guitar and a Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters is edited by Robert Hicks.  I am delighted by this book for two reasons.  First, I like…make that love country music, especially the older versions that are without question truly country.  Second, I read Widow of the South by Robert Hicks of Franklin, Tennessee several years ago and have gathered up every book I can find that he has written.

Thanks to Phyllis Buckman for thinking of me and giving me this book.

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Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence by Jessica Hooten Wilson is published by The Ohio State University Press.

This book is going to simply be too good.  I know that because it combines two of my greatest loves–Southern literature and Dostoevsky.  Add to that that is was written by Jessica Hooten Wilson.  I first heard of Dr. Wilson from my daughter, TaraJane, who was attending John Brown University.  As TaraJane kept describing the style and intellectual challenge of this teacher, I kept thinking that it was a reincarnation.  Only the late Louise Cowan from the University of Dallas could be that incredible.

Sure enough, Dr. Wilson studied under Dr. Cowan and imbibed the same approach to literature and love for many of the same authors.  Earlier this year, I read Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  That was a great study of two Christian authors from different times and circumstances.

I say this too many times about too many authors, but it must be said again of this author:  I want to buy and read everything that Jessica Hooten Wilson writes.

New Titles from InterVarsity Press

 

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There is a down side to being a book reviewer.  “Time’s winged chariots” are rarely allow me the privilege of merely enjoying a book.  I need to get it finished. I need to post a review.  I need to share that review on Amazon and Goodreads.  I need to assure the publisher that I am worth their efforts to supply me with the goods.

In days past, there was a world where time could sometimes stand still while I dug deeper and deeper into the books at hand.  There were always more to read and stacks of unreads, but there was a time carved out for the book in front of me, a conversation with the author, and a slipping away from the constraints of time and time’s tyrannies.

That idyllic memory aside, I must highlight a few reads from recent weeks and months from InterVarsity Press.

Disruptive Witness

Just this morning, I finished reading Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.  (Published by IVP.)

One of my favorite things about IVP books is that so many of them are aimed at middle-level serious readers.  Some, alas way too many, Christian books are fluff.  I despise their large print, double spacing between lines, and easy, sweetened, and calorie free content.  On the other hand, there are tomes and monographs where Christian scholars and academics toss boulders back and forth, laden with footnotes, foreign sources, and theological underpinnings that leave me quaking on the sidelines.  Many of IVP’s titles are academic, scholarly, serious, and yet very readable by laymen and non-academic folk.  They are challenging, but accessible.  This book is one such case.

Do I need to argue the case that we live in a “distracted age”?  I have no assurance that you will even finish reading this blog post (in spite of its brilliance) because it is so easy to click to something else.  Digital things, the cyber world, and gadgets have compounded the distractions in a world already inhabited by machines, schedules, and pressures that prevent us from engaging ourselves with our Creator, His Creation, and our fellow men and women.  Even in sitting still long enough each morning for a week or two to listen to Alan Noble’s case, I found myself wanting the easy list of bullet points.  “Write the chapters, Alan, and then give me a list of 5 simple things to do.”  Although Noble gave plenty of suggestions and exhortations, he did not give me the Cliff’s Notes version of applications.

In what should not surprise us, one of the key emphases of his book was on worship.  Without slipping over between the trenches of the worship wars, I will summarize his arguments by saying that he calls for us to have real, participatory worship that is not geared toward imitating the world.  He also calls us to observe the creation.  I own five acres of God’s earth.  Of course, I am really only a steward of it, but even with land, I am all too prone to slip right past the wonders and awe of God’s creation that surrounds me.

One final note:  For at least the 10th time (maybe 20th time or more), I find an author who borrows heavily from Christian philosopher Charles Taylor’s work A Secular Age.  Glad I have that book; wish I could get serious about reading it.

In Search of the Common Good

A few weeks ago, I read In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador.

Both Meador and Noble are young authors and thinkers.  Their youth has not prevented them from thinking of some issues and concerns that call for wisdom and discernment.  Meador’s book is a call for community.  His discussion of the “fractured world” is not all that different from Noble’s discussion of a “distracted age.”  My problem with community and connectedness is that it sounds like something that was just fine back in the days of slower moving automobiles, party-line telephones, and long established neighborhoods.  But the fact that that world changed doesn’t mean that we as people have changed.  Christians are often as rootless and clueless as the worldlings next door.

We are also often as lonely and fractured as those outside of Christ.  There is always that nagging concern that we are getting more and more things, and that the things we are getting are better and better, and yet, we are more isolated, more unconnected, more fractured than ever.

Just make this easy on yourself:  Get both of these books and read them one after the other.  The hard part will be making the life-style changes and implementing a different outlook.  These are not two old men remembering the good old days.  These are young Christian men with young children who are seeking to find those practices rooted in Scripture and tradition that will enrich our lives.

On the other hand, Eugene Peterson was an old man and is now home with God.  The term paralleling with “fractured world” and “distracted age” that shows up in his book is “instant society.”  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society has been reprinted in a finely done hardback “Commemorative Edition” by IVP.

I first read this book several years ago and was delighted to see it reprinted.  Re-reading it was a joy as well.  Peterson’s book is actually a running commentary on the Psalms of Ascent, those being Psalms 120 through 134.  He presents each psalm through a discussion of its meaning and application.  This is not an in-depth Bible study, nor is it a quick devotional.  Once again, it fulfills that middling operation.  Each discussion is filled with typical bits of Peterson’s allusions to literature, personal anecdotes, and insights into the meanings of the passages.

The amazing thing is that the remarkable title comes from an unlikely source–Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”  As Peterson notes with a chuckle, no doubt, Nietzsche was probably turning over in his grave to see his very used being used by a Christian pastor and author and being read by Christians for over forty years now.

 

 

 

 

Fiction: Some Fun Reads

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I was completely distressed recently when I heard a literature teacher in a graduate level college class say that she could not remember when she last read a novel.  My working assumption is that the only reason to be a literature teacher at any level is to enjoy reading the novels, short stories, poems, and plays that we love over and over again.  Along with that, reading new or unread classic works is great because one can be sitting down reading and all the while contending that one is working.

My reading tastes range a bit widely, and I wish the ranger were even wider.  One area of particular delight is in reading novels.  For many years, I distanced myself from almost anything that was recent and certainly anything that hit the best seller lists.  That is not a fatal error, but there is a problem in assuming that because so many things of our age are bad that, therefore, everything current is bad.  Good novels are still being written.  Are they great? Are they destined to be classics?  I don’t know.  Few books make the cut of being classics, and even the most respected lists contain some howlers and omit some worthies.

A few years back, I was lured by George Grant into the deep recesses of the intelligence agency of the Israeli government.  Since that time, I have found myself locked into more and more intrigues, conspiracies, thwarting of terrorist attacks, and rescuing of victims of bad cartels, drug and weapon lords, and other international bad guys.  Thankfully, all of this stressful activity was confined to reading the novels of Daniel Silva and his series of Gabriel Allon books.

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My most recent Silva read was The Other Woman.  I feel like I could be one of the reviewers who always says someting like “Silva’s Best” or “He keeps getting better and better.”  Some of this stems from being more and more familiar with the whole story of Gabriel Allon, his wife and children, his co-workers, the foreign operatives among both allies and enemies, and especially such regulars as Ari Shamron (and his stinking cigarettes and Zippo lighter), Uzi Navot, and Eli Lavon.  The good news is that I have the next Silva novel, The New Girl, waiting on the bedside table to be started during the next mental crisis in my life.  (Word of caution to married Silva readers:  Be careful of someone hearing you talk out of context when you are speaking of The Other Woman and The New Girl.)

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When the dangers of international espionage are too much, I prefer to get away from it all.  I then head off to Wyoming, to Twelve Sleep County, and enjoy the scenery and the hunting seasons there.  Of course, Joe Pickett always shows up, and Joe seems to be a magnet for trouble.  I speak here of the Joe Pickett novels of C. J. Box.  I would love it if Joe Pickett and Gabriel Allon ever teamed up to deal with international terrorists who left some dead bodies on the hunting trails of Wyoming.

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I was coaxed into a hunting trip by John Pendergraft who subsequently got me hooked on C. J. Box.  From the first page of the first book I read, I was totally enthralled by his writing, characters, plots, and descriptions.  Joe is a family man with a host of normal family problems and concerns.  Joe is also a game warden who would be well served if he only issued citations to folks who were fishing without licenses (excepting the former governor of his state).   But Joe always gets tangled up in some horrible crime that exceeds merely shooting an elk out of season.

My most recent Box read was Wolf Pack.  That book was a chilling read.  I began to wonder who, if anyone, would survive from Joe’s world.  As amazed as I am by Box’s Pickett novels, he has also done quite a few other books in the same murder mystery/hunt down a criminal genre with other characters, who are also living in the American West.  Before I read Wolf Pack, I read Back of Beyond.  I wonder now if it may just be Box’s best book.  And, I think I have one more book by him that I have not read.

CJ Box speaks at at the Douglas County (Colorado) Library on THE BITTERROOTS tour in 2019

I have managed to get hardback copies of all of the Joe Pickett novels minus one.  And I have even got an autographed book or two, but I will not be satisfied until I am standing in front of the man himself, cowboy hat and all, and getting some of my copies signed.  His latest book, Bitterroots, is on my wish list, but I don’t have it yet.

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The distinctions between literary novels and escape reading can be helpful, but limited in usefulness.  I read, along with the spy and murder novels, some novels that are more “literary” and which have more thought-filled development.  Those last four words terrify me, because a novel absolutely must have an element of enjoyment to it.

Bradley Birzer mentioned a few months ago how much he enjoyed the novel Armstrong by H. W. Crocker III.  This book was published by Regnery Fiction, which is a branch of Regnery Publishing, one of the most solid publishers of conservative books.  I got the book and started reading, little by little, during my short, sleepy afternoon reading break.  After the second chapter, the book got put aside for other pressing matters and because I was not very interested.

Then one night, a few weeks ago, I picked it back up.  Started the second chapter again and was somewhat interested.  Then I went all the way back to the beginning and read–over the next week or so–the whole book.  It was delightful and a hoot.  I am not normally attracted to a novel that is described as “delightfully funny,” but I got drawn in.

To retell the story a bit, General Custer actually survives the Battle of Little Big Horn in this novel.  He then escapes from an Indian tribe and begins a series of adventures that entail a wide array of wily characters, outlaws, and odd fellows.  The story gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.  On the cover it says, “The Custer of the West Series,” so I hope that it is the first of many.

More recently, I read Lief Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander.  Several years ago, I stumbled upon a copy of his first novel Peace Like a River.  I thought it was probably a western since the cover featured a man on horseback.  Shortly after that, I was unable to sleep one night, and I picked up that book and started reading.  I love it.  Gave away copies of it.  Told people about it.  When So Brave, Young, and Handsome came out, I picked up a copy, read it, and like it, although I was not as moved as by the first book.

Last Christmas, Virgil Wander was on my want list, and it found its way under our Christmas tree.  But I held on to it for months before reading it.  When I started it, just a few weeks ago, I kept thinking that maybe Enger had bottomed out on this one.  But slowly, I began getting involved in the weird, quirky, but loveable ways of the main character Virgil Wander and his host of friends.  They are an odd bunch, just like all the rest of us.  Before I was half way through the book, I was longing each day to catch up with what was going on.  All in all, a very good and perceptive read.

I picked up the novel Fallen Land by Taylor Brown last week and read it this week.  It had two chief appealing attributes:  It was priced for a dollar at a Dollar Store and it is set in the Civil War.  I knew nothing of the book or author prior to this.  This is Brown’s first novel, and for a firster, it was very engaging.  Once again, I found my life caught up in the characters.  But this time, I was not in the Israeli intelligence community, or on the hunting trails of the west, or alongside Sheriff Armstrong (George Custer) or watching old films with Virgil Wander.  I was trying to escape from bounty hunters (who were ex-Confederate guerrilla fighters) along with a young man named Callum and a woman named Ava.  The flight was across the barrens of the lower Appalachian area and into and across the swath of burned out territory left by Sherman’s Army.  This was a good book.

I guess I will never be a real literature professor or teacher because I am still reading.  Hope to start reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The New Girl by Daniel Silva, and some books by the recently deceased Herman Wouk soon.

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A Christian and a Democrat–Franklin D. Roosevelt

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A Christian and a Democrat:  A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F.  Woolerton and James D. Bratt is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Merely mentioning the names of Franklin D. Roosevelt in many of the circles where I am involved raises immediate irritation, ire, and objections.  Although he has been gone for nearly 70 years, even people who were not alive during his time are roused to disgust when he is mentioned.  For some, the opposition is due to his New Deal Programs.  Others are suspicious of his handling of World War II from our entry into the war to conduct of the war and on to FDR’s actions regarding the conclusion of the war.  Then there are others who have great concerns over the idea that he was a near dictator, that he was in office to long, that he was conniving, and that he was reckless in his disregard of the Constitution.  Finally, there are plenty of concerns about Roosevelt the man in his private life, especially regarding his unfaithfulness to his wife Eleanor.

Every facet of FDR’s life and Presidency is up for discussion, subject to examination, and open for strong passions.  In my own case, I find that very few Democrats seem to be interested in FDR in any sense.  For them, Democrat Party history reaches all the way back to maybe Bill Clinton.  Perhaps, I simply don’t know or hear from enough Democrats.  But for conservatives–ranging from Reaganites (like me) to more Libertarian types to Christians with political interests–FDR is much more a topic of interest and opposition.

Here is my own autobiography:  I developed an interest in Presidential politics in my young age and quickly adopted FDR as my favorite President.  I was raised in a Southern Democrat home where politics was rarely a topic of conversation.  For most of their years, my parents voted straight Democrat.  (My Dad strongly disliked Hubert Humphrey, but he still voted for him.) I began straying from the old ways when I gravitated toward Richard Nixon in 1972.  It was when I entered college that my whole perspective changed.  Calvinism took a huge chunk out of my previously held and unexamined political thoughts.  One of Johnny Carson’s guests on the Tonight Show helped seal my political fate.  That guest was William F. Buckley, Jr.  A few days after watching that part of the Tonight Show, I checked out Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  

Much of my understanding and teaching was critical of FDR on several fronts.  Yet I never got past a certain admiration for his considerable political skills and for his personal triumph over polio.  As an orator, he was first rate.  As a radio speaker, he was the man of the hour.  As a skillful executive, he was among the best.  None of his gifts diminished his flaws and failings.

An important truth for a history student (or scholar) is that we are not being called upon to vote for, approve, condemn, or justify historical figures.  We are called upon to first understand them.  From a vast factual base, we can try to interpret what they did and why.  Admittedly, we will often have an agreement with their actions or a sympathy for them or a personal liking for them.  Writing hagiolatry (the worship of saints) or writing hit jobs are not the work of serious historians.

When I first saw the book A Christian and a Democrat, I knew this was a book I wanted to read.  It is a part of a fine series Eerdsmans publishes called The Library of Religious Biography.  I have several of the volumes of that series and previously reviewed Damning Words: The Life and Times of H. L. Mencken by D. G. Hart.  The biographies range from the expected religious leaders, like Cotton Mather and Billy Sunday, to unexpected and often political figures, like Thomas Jefferson and William E. Gladstone.

FDR was raised in the Episcopal Church where he remained an active member all his life.  The Book of Common Prayer was always at his bedside, and his copy was well worn.  He was schooled at Groton and was heavily influenced by Endicott Peabody who drilled his charges in academic and spiritual exercises.  FDR sang hymns, even played the piano at services, labored to help the needy and the young, served on the board of his local church, and always included worship services before his taking oaths of office.

One of my favorite pictures is of FDR and Churchill onboard a ship at the Atlantic Conference in mid-1941.  They are in a worship service together and are singing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Whatever else one might think of these two men and their staffs and military joined in worship, this much is true:  Never would there have been a picture of Hitler and Mussolini worshiping together.

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Roosevelt’s faith was pronounced and public.  Perhaps more than any other President, he spoke of faith in his addresses and quoted Scripture.  He even led the nation in prayer via a radio address on the occasion of the Normandy invasion.  His was not merely a public and for political gain faith, but was a part of the essential man himself.

Theologically, what was he?  FDR’s faith was shaped by the traditional cadences, prayers, and services of the Episcopal Church.  His instruction was infused with lots of Social Gospel content.  In some ways, the Social Gospel that he absorbed was of the better sort.  By that, I mean that he had a strong commitment to acts of service in the community, among the poor, and help to people in need.  He read quite a bit through the years, but was not a serious reader of theology or of Christian doctrine.  He was active in church as a participant and a lay leader, but said little that could contribute to a statement of faith.  From the book, one picks up little or nothing about his take on theological issues of his day or upon the details of his beliefs.

I suspect that he heard many sermons that were tinged by liberal theology, Social Gospel teachings, then-modern deviations from orthodoxy, and Neo-Orthodoxy.  I never got the sense from the book that FDR absorbed or embraced those teachings.  While relatively well read and well educated, he was not a deep thinker.  Did he believe the fundamentals of the faith?  Did he accept the historic teachings of the faith?  He seemed to be a faithful follower of his church’s teachings and traditions without any comments on them.

The historian cannot probe the heart.  Even the man in the pew or pulpit has to be careful when doing that.  I have trouble probing my own heart, much less that of anyone else.  Of course, we can evaluate what a person professes and how he lives.  That assumes that we can know and hear and see enough of the person’s life and words.

Roosevelt was, at least for one period of his life, unfaithful in his marriage to Eleanor.  Theirs was not a model marriage, although politically they were extremely helpful to one another.  Dr. Woolverton says that FDR was remorseful over his adultery which occurred early in the marriage.  He never mentions or alludes to other cases of unfaithfulness.  One can add FDR’s  other sins to the list, if he wishes.  FDR was notorious for lying, but again one has to look carefully to see when he was outright falsifying the truth or when he was concealing things or being canny for political purposes.  I am not trying to give him or any other politician a free pass to distort truth, but am referring to cases where FDR was compelled to mislead or not answer completely when asked about matters that were sensitive due to the war.

A later chapter in the book deals with FDR’s fascination with Soren Kierkegaard.  An Episcopal minister was invited to dine with the Roosevelts.  At that time, Kierkegaard was not widely read or known, but the evils of World War II had awakened an interest in him by more people, including this minister, named Howard Johnson.  Johnson explained Kierkegaard’s views of sin and evil to FDR who found it all fascinating.  It appears that FDR basically accepted a Cliff-notes-like understanding of the Danish philosopher, but that he found it all helpful in understanding the evil of the Nazis.

To sum up, what difference does it make?  This is far from a summary question, for the relationship of an individual with God is the most important question of all.  And the relationship between a national leader and God is vital.  How FDR responded to both domestic crises (the Great Depression) and international crises (World War II) were shaped by his faith commitments.  What a man believes and how he acts or governs are connected.  None of this means that believers are better leaders or that faith leads to perfect policy positions.

All in all, this book is a fascinating study of a complex and religious man.  This book needs to be supplemented by other more broad biographies of Roosevelt, but it does have a useful focus on a part of his life that will not likely get adequate coverage in the standard biography.

 

The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson

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Every pastor, teacher, and serious Christian should have a healthy dose of Puritan theology.  Over and over again, I have heard it:  Read the Puritans.  Whole volumes have been written on the value of the Puritans.

But there is a problem.  It is not as though someone said to read the works of this author or that one.  But the call is to read “the Puritans.”  The Puritans of England, along with some of their heirs who paddled over the pond to New England, were among the more prolific, and sometimes wordy, writers that ever lived.  Sometimes their styles are dense, archaic, and too formal for easy reading.  But sometimes they are clear, crisp, and as pointed as a sharp knife.  But still there is the immensity of the task of even plodding through particular volumes, much less through whole sets, of Puritan works.

I suspect that there are more Puritan writings available today than at any time in history.  One of the main publishers of Puritan works has been the Banner of Truth Trust.

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The Banner, however, has no monopoly on Puritan reprints.  As a point to consider, you should be able to quickly judge the depth of a pastor by how many books he has on his shelves by Puritans and their direct theological descendants.  And you can make it a point to see how many Banner of Truth works he has. If his shelves are sagging from the weight of so many Puritan works, you can either buy him more or get him more bookshelves.  If his book collection makes you think of the wimpy guy on the beach before he embraced the Charles Atlas body-building program, you will know what to get him for Christmas, his birthday, and Pastor Appreciation month.

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The relentless accumulation of Puritan tomes doesn’t really solve the problem, however, of the immensity of the task of reading the Puritans.  For that reason, I want to strongly recommend The Identity and Attributes of God by Terry L. Johnson.  Yes, this is a Banner of Truth book.

Terry L. Johnson has read, gleaned, and cherry picked the Puritans with great skill.  This book of nearly 400 pages would be cut in half if all of his fine quotes from Puritans and their fellow travelers were cut out.  This book is a primer on what Puritans to read, which volumes to peruse, and what method to use to get the Puritans’ thoughts into your own heart and mind first and then into your preaching and teaching.  Names like Charnock, Sibbes, Trapp, Henry, Owen, Edwards, Poole, Bunyan, Watson, Gurnall, and Baxter become household names after just going a few chapters into the book.  Add to that, you get a number of other great Christian writers such as Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, A. W. Pink, James Henley Thornwell, and more.  Learning begins with lists and recognition skills.  I promise that if someone were to read this book and then pick a book every month by almost any of the authors quoted, he would have years of good reading choices.

All this being said, Johnson did not write primarily to introduce us to Puritans and other theological writers.  They are only eligible for being the supporting cast for this book.  The key theme, purpose, goal, and objective for the reader is to know God.

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It might seem like God is the Big E on the eye vision chart.  We might think that the pressing need in the church is to focus on family, marriage, the current cultural challenges, witnessing and evangelism, and many more practical things.  Of what practical use is hearing about the incommunicable attributes of God? This entire book seeks to answer that question.  A case can be made that all of the practical needs in the church, all of the cultural problems, and all of the defects in our theology stem from inaccurate, inadequate, and unbiblical views of God.

Pastor Johnson, who ministers in the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, originally set out to preach ten sermons on the attributes of God.  It didn’t turn out that way, for he ended up preaching 82 sermons in that series.  This book is the distillation of that series.  Whether one reads for devotional purposes, or desires to delve into theology, or seeks to find material for preaching and teaching, this book is a gem.

On the cover of a 1971 album, the rock group Jethro Tull described modern folks saying, “In the beginning man created God in his own image.”  This is not too far from a statement by Karl Barth: “I said concerning critical reflection that it cannot be good to reverse the order and turn ‘Thus says the Lord’ into ‘Thus hears man’….”  I have been convicted in paragraph after paragraph of this book that I may know God and be known of God, but I have taken the name, identity, and attributes of God far too lightly.

I highly recommend this book.  Thanks to Banner of Truth for publishing it and to Pastor Terry Johnson for laboring to write and share it.

 

The Theopolitan Vision by Peter J. Leithart

The Theopolitan Vision by Peter J. Leithart is published by Theopolis Books, an imprint of Athanasius Press.

Dr. Leithart is the President of the Theopolis Institute, which is a study center for “Biblical, Liturgical, and Cultural Studies.”  He has authored an incredibly large of books on Biblical, theological, and literary topics.  I have and have read a number of his books, but I way behind on having everything he has published.  His productivity simply astounds me.

On the one hand, doing a promotional review of a Peter Leithart book is both certain to succeed and to fail.  Leithart, as well as his friend and mentor James B. Jordan, have lots of fans, followers, and students who would buy print copies of their grocery lists if such were available.  I understand, for I am that way about certain authors.  On the other hand, there are those who immediately link Leithart with various positions he espouses or with people he is associated with and would flee from any suggestion of reading his books.  I am not able to address either group, and that first one probably has already devoured this book.

I am not equipped to be contentious or even capable of deep critical thought.  When my wife and I go to a concert and listen to skilled musicians, we talk about them on the way home.  I am usually saying things like, “They are really good.”  My wife, on the other hand, is saying things about the technique,  interpretation, dynamics, and execution of the music.  I nod and assume she is right and try to figure out if she also thinks they are really good.

There are many theologians, philosophers, political and social commentators, literary critics, and historians that I learn from without being able to plunge to the depths or climb to the heights of their thought.  Nor do I reject them because of a point of contention here or a quibble there.  I write this post, therefore, to ask readers to glean the pages of The Theopolitan Vision.  If you want to know which sentence caused me to cringe or which paragraph put a grumpy face on me, message me.  Overall, the book was encouraging, enlightening, and much needed among God’s people.

Many years ago, I was reading heavily from books emerging from the various corners of the Christian Reconstruction (Theonomic) movement.  For a time, the centers of these productions were coming forth from Chalcedon in California, from Tyler, Texas (for a short season), and from American Vision in Georgia.  In spite of the many good and serious works these Recons were writing, there was an ongoing criticism.  It was that their books, and especially those of Dr. Rushdoony in California, were weak on the local church.

Maybe they were, or maybe they were just focused on some overlooked areas of Christian cultural engagement.  A movement will tend to morph in several directions.  There are always those who try to maintain the original ideas and concepts, and then there are those who push the boundaries and maybe even redefine them. us

I don’t know the exact role of Peter Leithart from those Recon days.  There are quite a few Christians who found the Recon movement helpful without embracing it.  I think that defines me, and I think it defines such people as Leithart, George Grant, Andrew Sandlin, John Frame, John Barach, Mickey Schneider, and others.  In the second tier of Reconstruction authors was James B. Jordan.  For a season or two, he worked for Chalcedon, and then he departed. (Departed being a nice way of saying that he was fired.)  Dr. Jordan, an acquaintance of mine, greatly influenced Leithart.

Within the ranks of those who might have been immersed in Reconstruction thought in the 1980s, we now find many who now have a heavy emphasis on the local church, church life, and liturgy.  In our day, we find a wild enthusiasm for many elements of Reformed theology that is often joined with many contemporary, popular, and crowd-centered ideas about the Sunday worship service.  It is not all bad, but it is not all good either.  I pastored for several years in a Presbyterian church with a very traditional service, and after I stepped down as pastor, I was still in charge of the worship service.  I thought the order of service to be quite good, Biblically rich, and fulfilling.  Nevertheless, for a host of reasons, the church faltered, failed, and then closed.  I still love the liturgical practices of those days.

The Theopolitan Vision is not a manual for worship services.  Leithart would direct you to Jeffrey Meyers’s useful book The Lord’s Service for that (and I found Meyers’s helpful but not convincing). I would direct you to John Frame’s Worship in Spirit and Truth.  Instead, this book, as the title indicates is a vision of what church life should be.  Leithart directs a large part of the book to the role of the pastor, who is to be the prime (or maybe sole) worship leader.  He also presses upon the people in the pews how they are to worship and participate.

We can, so easily, minimize that hour or so we spend worshipping.  We can, while worshipping, find ourselves so distracted, so lulled by the repetition from week to week, and dulled by our own lethargy that we miss what a powerful impact worship has.  Every area of life and thought is to be brought under the dominion of Christ, but central to all that is church life and worship.

Leithart explains the vision as follows: “So the Theopolitan vision isn’t a vision of pastoral ministry alone.  It’s a vision of the church in the world and of the church’s mission in and to the world. It’s a vision of the church, the whole church, as God’s heavenly city on earth.”

There is nothing wrong with the sentiment of the song that says, “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be,” but if we are not experiencing something really, really close to that in worship, then “Houston, we have a problem.”

Of course, it is easy to read a book with some attainable, but rare ideals of church life and find yourself nit-picking the problems in your own congregation. (Avoiding in the process your own eye logging industry.)  Whether pastor or pew sitter, you will find your own church service, congregation, and church life wanting.  Leithart says that if you find your own church indifferent or hostile, pack up and leave immediately and find the ideal church.  No!  He does not say that.  Instead, he says, “If the church is faithful to the gospel, start by giving thanks for the congregation, pastor, and church….Thank God for their faithfulness, for their ministries and evangelism, for the truth that is communicated.” Amen!

I would love to see Christians reading this book who are not in sync with Leithart’s doctrines and practices.  I would love to see Baptist, non-denominational, charismatic, and people-friendly pastors and others gleaning from this book.  Many would read it and conclude, “Here is how we are going to do what he says.” That response, I think, would be quite joyous to me, and I think Peter Leithart would like it as well.

History, History Everywhere and Not Enough Coffee to Drink

The Heavy Laden Bookshelf should fire me as it chief book reviewer.  Problem is that that would involve me firing myself, and I don’t know who I could hire who would work as cheaply as I do.  But I am far too slow as a reader.  And I ain’t too swuft at getting reviews completed.  So, it looks like I am stuck with keeping me as my chief book reviewer.

Let’s look at some of the history backlog for a moment.  The nine standing books in the picture above have all been glanced over or started, but none are finished yet.

Editor to Reviewer:  Say something about the standing books.

Reviewer to Editor:  Well, I have finished and written reviews on the two that are lying down (Sand & Steel and Apostle to the East).

Editor to Reviewer:  There are nine books you have to get going.  Get some reviews completed.  At the very least, say something about them.

Reviewer to Editor:  Okay, I’ll try, Sir.

So here goes:

First up is Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown by Stanley D. M. Carpenter.  This book is Volume 65 in the Oklahoma University Press Campaigns and Commanders series.

Earlier in the summer, I read Rick Atkinson’s delightful The British are Coming.  I always wish that I were more focused and maybe even totally absorbed in reading about the American War for Independence.  The problem is that I harbor the same wish about another two dozen historical eras and I flit from historical branch to branch and never settle in.

General Charles Cornwallis is often relegated to a bit part in American history, and it is the role of a loser.  The name of Cornwallis is associated with Yorktown, defeat of the British, “The World Turned Upside Down,” and a number of other images that all spell out the word LOSER.  Of course, history could have easily turned in a different direction, but what if’s, while fun, are simply speculations.

The southern venture by the British Army seemed to have all the making of a success.  The possibility of rallying the southern colonies back to the British side, of rooting out the rebellion to the south, and succeeding in the classic “divide and conquer” strategy could have and maybe should have worked.

Cornwallis blazed a trail of Pyrrhic victories across the Carolinas and into Virginia.  Then matters only got worse as Cornwallis’s luck or fortune ran out.  Let’s go ahead and use the word they used then:  Providence gave the upper hand to the Patriot army and their French allies.

 

Very promising book.

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Spying Across the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by Tony Horwitz is published by Penguin Press.

My review copy of this book, which came out last May, included information about the author tour promoting this work.  Sad to report, Mr. Horwitz died just a few weeks after this book came out.

I had looked into one of Horwitz’s earlier books, Confederates in the Attic, and when my teacher Dr. Thomas Curtrer called my attention this book, I was immediately interested.  This book is a retelling of one story with a newer accompanying story.  The original story was that of Frederick Law Omsted, a journalist and architect (1822-1903), who traveled across the southern states in the years before the War Between the States.  His writings were combined into a volume titled Journeys and Explorations into the Cotton Kingdom, which was published in 1861.

Horwitz studied Omsted’s work and then began retracing his traveling.  By that, I mean that he ventured on a journey to the same places and updated us on the life, communities, and cultures across the way.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book.  Unfortunately for me, I keep letting it get lost in the dangerously high reading stacks beside my bed.  It is good, easy-going, and entertaining reading that can handily precede sleep.

Travel books were, perhaps, more popular in past centuries.  Writers such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were masters of such writings.  In our day, it is easy enough to either travel ourselves, or to watch documentaries, or to Google places across the land and become familiar with them.

But getting the feel of the culture is a more complicated matter.  The questions that I suppose this book raises are “What was the South like when Omsted traveled and observed it?” and “What has changed?”  Putting this book back to the top to read.  Thankful that the author was able to finish it.

Leaders: Myth and Reality

Leaders: Myth and Reality by General Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone is published by Portfolio/Penguin.

Leadership comes in all varieties, areas, and styles.  The subjects for this book are diverse and unexpected. The chapters cover the following people:  Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Maximilien Robespierre, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Zheng He, Harriet Tubman, “Boss” Tweed, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those who might expect leaders in a book like this to be solely political and military figures are to be a bit surprised.  Part of the attractiveness of this book is its diversity of subjects and the surprising inclusions.  When I started reading the book, I was astounded by the genius of Walt Disney.  On the one hand, I am not a big fan of Disney productions–past and present.  On the other hand, one cannot read about the man without marveling at his creative genius and drive. Coco Chanel was another surprise.  I began with having no clear idea who she was, and then made the connection with the women’s perfume Chanel #5.  Coco Chanel was a creator and marketer of fragrances.  This was an enjoyable chapter.  I would not want to read a lengthy book on Coco, but the picture of her skills was delightful.

I do hope to keep plowing along in this succession of accounts of various leaders and varied styles of leadership.  On a downside note, I was irritated in the beginning of this book where Gen. McChrystal detailed his dislike of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  He told of having put a framed portrait of Lee in the trash bin.  I buy the idea that one can find fault with Lee’s leadership at many points, but this smacked a bit too much of playing to the crowd-tastes of our age.

Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy by Benjamin Armstrong is published by Oklahoma University Press.

This is yet another, Volume 66, in the amazing Campaigns and Commanders series published by Oklahoma University Press.  Have I mentioned that I wish I had every single one of them?

One of the most amazing and maybe amusing facts of U. S. history is that our country waged its first two wars against the supreme naval power of the world.  The fact that we came out of both wars without being vanquished is a delight, especially when talking with friends across the pond.  Ton for ton and gun for gun, there is no way the fledgling American navy or lack thereof could have held its own against His Majesty’s Royal Fleets.

The subtitle explains a bit of how and why we muddled through.  The smallest of boats and crews can conduct raids.  Small boats, manned by daring men, can poke, jab, hit and run, and do some damage to the greatest of fleets.  Like a horsefly plaguing a stallion, the ability to sting here and there can be effective.

This is the story of such efforts.  Dr. Alexander is Assistant Professor of War Studies and Naval History at the U. S. Naval Academy.

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Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Conflict, 1917-1918 by Edward G. Lengel is published by the University Press of Kansas.

I first became acquainted with the writings of Ed Lengel last fall when I was on a World War I binge.  I was teaching about the Twentieth Century and came across his recently published book Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion.  My review of that enjoyable book is found HERE.

This book came out in 2015, so it precedes Never in Finer Company and also tells the story of the bigger picture of the American involvement in World War I. As I often mention, the First World War is so overshadowed by the Second World War that we forget how awful, long, and hard fought it was.  American involvement can be oversimplified in two ways.  First, the war starts in 1914, and then the U. S. enters in 1917 and more directly in 1918 and finishes up the mess that Europe had started.  A second way is to view the American contribution as a minor thing.  The German army was a spent force by the time the U. S. arrived, and the main work had been accomplished by the French and British.

History always lends itself to easy explanations until the digging begins.

Ed Lengel is quite an amazing historian.  He wrote several books on George Washington, and then he published three or four studies of America in World War I.  Next year, he will have a new book coming out on the Revolutionary War.  Recently installed as the Senior Director of Programs at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, he will probably whip out a few books on that war.

I will need to highlight these books a bit later.  I have too many books even to briefly describe.

Rosebud June 17, 1876: Prelude to the Little Big Horn by Paul L. Hedren is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Burton K. Wheeler of Montana by Marc C. Johnson is published by Oklahoma University Press also.

Competing Memories: The Legacy of Arkansas’s Civil War, edited by Mark K. Christ, is published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt is published by Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company.