New Year Morning Reads–2020

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I recommend my method of reading for only one person:  Me.  It might work for you, but most likely, everyone will find their better times, places, and selections that suit their style and needs.  But for me and for the present, this is how I am doing my morning reading time.  I am also using this as a way of promoting some of the all-too-many review books that I need to read, review, promote, and share.

One of my resolves for 2020 is to read and use more Bible commentaries.  Since I left the pulpit, I have largely ignored commentaries on the books of the Bible. Even when I was preaching, I was often hastening through a commentary more in search of a quick fix to my pulpit inadequacies than in growing in Bible understanding.  Amos, Jonah, & Micah is by JoAnna M. Hoyt and is published by Lexham Press.

This is a massive book and is a part of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) series edited by Wayne House.  Twelve volumes are currently available in this series.

I am studying the last part of this commentary–the Book of Micah.  I determined to read it from beginning to end and that meant plowing through the technical and background information.  Did I enjoy that part?  Not much, but I agree with what Matthew Kim said in his book titled A Little Book for New Preachers (IVP).  He says that the preacher must immerse himself in the background and setting of the book.

I am now going slowly through the commentary portion of Micah, chapter 1.  Small bits of study each day so far.  It will take a while, but I am determined.

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Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity by Herman Bavinck and edited by John Bolt is published by Baker Publishing Group.

I was so excited when this volume finally came out.  I was even more excited when my copy arrived.  And then…it sat on the shelf, it got covered up by other books, it enjoyed only a passing glance or two.  In my feeble defense, I did plug away at the background information, usually on Sunday mornings.

A second resolve I have this year is to read the longer and weightier books that often get started, but never finished.  I like the thought of getting a 5 books read instead of 1.  For that, I must repent and change.

Now that I am into this book, I am truly enjoying it.

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg is published by Regnery.

This is the kind of book I love.  It is a survey of history, philosophy, and theology that all tends toward an apologetic defense of the Christian worldview I embrace, teach, and read about.

The gist of this book is a refutation of a long-standing trope that reason contradicts faith.  Along with that is the notion that faith is a heart and emotion based feeling while reason is spawned by the mind.  Of course, Christianity gets jabbed in the process.

Building upon the work of men in the past like Christopher Dawson and Herman Dooyeweerd, echoing works like Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and R. J. Rushdoony’s The One and the Many, this book reclaims Western Civilization and its accomplishments.  The thought patterns of the West built upon Greek and Roman heritage in part, but even those civilizations had to be filtered through the lenses of Christendom.

Today, I was reading the portions of the book about Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.  Like any short treatment, more can be said, but we have to be grounded in the grammar of the subjects before we can delve more deeply.

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

Here is another case of combined loves.  This book deals with American history, particularly the wars that have been waged, and it is written from a Christian perspective that examines the Just War Theory.

I recently discovered Mark Hall’s scholarship and writing as a result of reading Did America Have a Christian Founding?  Determined to read more of his writings, I discovered this book.

I am still in the introductory essay which Hall and Charles wrote.  This is good, but slow going.  More details later.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans by Robert Elmer is also published by Lexham Press.

I reviewed this book a few days ago.  I try to read only a page or two of it with the hope of making the Puritan prayers my own.

The Hanging God: Poems and The Fortunes of Poetry in the Age of Our Unmaking are both by James Matthew Wilson, one of America’s premier contemporary poets.  The Hanging God is published by Wiseblood Books, and The Fortunes of Poetry is published by Angelico Press.

I am reading these two works for a number of reasons beyond just my responsibilities as a book reviewer.  I am using these two works as therapy so that I can recover from the often disastrous graduate course I took in the fall on poetry and literary criticism.  Let us just say that the study of literature is in danger in the modern secular universities, assuming that my experience was common and not unique.

The Fortunes of Poetry is tough reading at many points, so I suspect that I will need to re-read portions or get instruction from someone named Wilson on how to assimilate the information.

Note to blog readers:  Please don’t speculate that I am neglecting the foundational parts of morning reading:  The Bible and strong coffee.  The Book of Common Prayer is also being kept close at hand so that this Presbyterian who is a member of a Baptist church will be a better Anglican. (Thank you Zachary Jones.)

Also, thanks to my sister-in-law Toni Lemley who gave me the coffee cup with the old pickup truck on it.  I am not going to stop using it just because Christmas is nearly over. I also got a wonderful picture of old pickup trucks from my other sister-in-law Marla Robert.

 

Favorite Histories Read in 2019

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Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War by James McGrath Morris

Here is a good example of why I don’t post the best books of the year in December:  This was one of the last books I read this year.  Outstanding account of two 20th Century American writers.  They met during World War I when both were serving as ambulance drivers.  For several years, Dos Passos was the successful and published writer who was helping out a young Hemingway.

Over the years, their friendship ripened, and both men published a number of books.  Hemingway surged in fame and fortune.  Dos Passos received the accolades of the literary establishment, but little by way of book royalties.  Hemingway, being generous as he often was, gave and loaned money to his friend who also married one of Hemingway’s life-long friends, Katy Smith.

Hemingway being Hemingway, he came to the point where he despised and slashed at his literary companion.  He could not stand the fact that Dos Passos got more appreciation from the very crowds that Hemingway hated–literary reviewers.  Like most things that EH touched, this friendship turned ugly before he killed himself.

I really wish this book had added another fifty or more pages detailing Dos Passos’s turn from the Leftist thinking to Conservatism.  The Spanish Civil War opened his eyes, even as it blinded Hemingway’s vision.  I love much about Hemingway, but he was vicious, nasty, cruel, self-centered, and more.  I lament not having read enough by and about John Dos Passos, his peer who is rarely regarded in these times but who was often viewed as EH’s superior in their times.

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Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals by James Longo

I mentioned having seen this book at Books-A-Million one day while teaching Humanities.  Later that same day, Joshua Carnes showed up in my classroom and handed the book to me.

What an outstanding book!  The Habsburgs are rarely regarded or thought of.  Francis Ferdinand is usually relegated to the brief discussion of the immediate outbreak of World War I.  I never knew that Hitler had any vendetta against the family.  Of course, it comes as no surprise that Adolf sought to harm the children of Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophia, both slain in the summer of 1914.

This is a sad story of a devote Christian family, oppressed and tortured, who nevertheless maintained faith and dignity.  (I reviewed this book last February.)

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War by Lynn Olson

Outstanding study of how the countries conquered by Hitler continued their resistance from the sole outpost of freedom–Great Britain.  So much here was new to me, in spite of a lifetime of reading on World War II.  So many unsung heroes and heroines.  Reviewed in March under the title “World War II in Books.” I am now a collector of anything that Lynn Olson has written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberty in the Things of God by Robert Louis Wilkin

Outstanding study of the development of Christian liberty of conscience.  I really loved this book.  Worth reading again and again.  Vital due to our lack of understanding of religious freedom and the misconceptions that assume that such freedom is the product of unbelievers.

Reviewed in May.

The British are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

The British are Coming, Volume 1 of the Revolution Trilogy by Rick Atkinson

I loved Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on World War II, love this book, and look forward to the next two volumes.  I must confess that my greatest comfort in reading this account of the American War for Independence came from knowing how the story ends.  In the midst of this book, I kept thinking, “We are going to lose this war.”

Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams

Lengthy, detailed study of the preparation and execution of the Normandy invasion. Review written in August.

This year was the 75th anniversary of the greatest military invasion in all of history:  The D-Day Normandy Landings in France on June 6, 1944.  This account was incredibly packed with both big picture explanations of the events along with the up close and personal accounts of those who were there.

I am sold on this author/historian which resulted in me buying his equally lengthy book on the Battle of the Bulge, titled Snow and Steel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt

Review written in September.

As expected, my favorable review of this book garnered me a few criticisms from my normally adoring public following.  Conservatives so dislike FDR that many cannot pause long enough to give him credit for anything.  I enjoyed this detailed, but still inadequate account of FDR the man and his faith.  Was he truly a Christian?  I am not sure that is a question for historians.  He was not shallow in regard to his faith commitment.  He had a life-long attachment to Christianity, was a long-time and faithful church member, was vocal about his beliefs, and was spiritually minded on the personal level and not just for political purposes.

His faith was diluted by the social gospel and more liberal elements then in vogue.  His life was concerning because of some of the moral failings.  Still, this is a good study of a complex and great man.

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Did America Have a Christian Founding? By Mark David Hall

Review written in November.

How delightful the discover of this book has been.  I became Facebook friends with Dr. Hall and have entered on the quest of obtaining and reading every book he has written or edited.  The topic of this book is one that I have long read and studied.  But, if I had only one book to read and consider on this topic, this would be the one.

The issue here is vital.  Like the Achaians and the Trojans battling over the slain body of Patroclus in The Iliad, our culture has been fighting over the role of Christianity in our history and culture for a long time.  By the way, Protestants have done some stupid things along the way, and those actions are recounted in this book.  Myths are presented and documented and then dealt with forcefully by that old sly trick of historians–going to the sources.

America's Religious History - By: Thomas S. Kidd

America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation by Thomas Kidd

Shame on me here.  I did read and enjoy this book, but I really should have completed my homework assignment and read the two volume American History by Dr. Kidd published by B & H Publishers.

I have long wanted to find a better American history survey than the one I use in my classes.  And Thomas Kidd is one of the brightest and most prolific stars on the stage of Christian historians.  I have a number of his books and am intent on getting and reading all of his works.

I did read this short history of religious faith in America.  On the one hand, Sidney Ahlstrom’s book, A Religious History of the American People,  has some advantages over this book.  However, Ahlstrom’s book is massive and much older; it is great for a long, serious study of the issue.  The strength of Kidd’s book is its brevity.  Many times, I was shouting “More, More!”  But I was often coming across ideas, people, and beliefs I had never heard of.  I would love to use this book as required supplemental reading for a college American history survey.

Reviewed briefly in “When Religion Meets History and Philosophy” in November.

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The Soul of the American Presidency:  The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen Knott

Excellent read that I reviewed just a week ago in December.

I wish I could say something deep, scholarly, and profound, but I will have to fall back on this response:  I thoroughly enjoyed and loved this book.  I read lots of politically related books and teach government.  I have studied Presidents ever since the election of 1964, in which I was–unknowingly–for the wrong candidate.

Did I agree with Stephen Knott at every step?  No way, but I found many things to reconsider, to re-enforce, and to reconfigure ways of thinking about the Presidents.  His heroes include some Presidents I find less lovable.  His villains include some of my heroes.  That was part of the fun, accompanied by pain, in reading this book.

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The Darkest Year: The American Homefront 1941-1942 by William Klingman

Fascinating and heavily anecdotal account of the wild and chaotic year after the U. S. entered World War II. How in the world did we ever win the war? Hundred of anecdotal details about the first year of America’s involvement in World War II.

Reviewed this book in May.

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Swimming In The Deep Waters of Theology

 

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One of the marks of a good book, in my experience, is the sense that while you are reading it, you know that you will need to read it again.  I am not talking about a book being unnecessarily obscure or difficult.  I am talking about a book having layers, having implications, having a depth that demands more than just the passing of the eyes over the pages.

On the one hand, swimming in deep water involves the same processes that are used in swimming in shallow water.  But the swimmer needs more resources, such as the ability to persevere, to tread water for a time, to come back up if the depth is too much to allow standing, and to not lose heart.  But remember that I am actually talking about reading, about which I have much experience, and not swimming, about which I have only desires and not abilities.

Krause Springs

I would like to highlight some recent readings that have depth.  Along with the books mentioned, I have an anxious stack of deep water reads that are calling out to me to dive in, regardless of the consequences.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans, edited by Robert Elmer, is published by Lexham Press. This rather recent publisher is working hard to become one of my all time favorites with their publications of works by Abraham Kuyper, Geerhardus Vos, and Groen Van Prinsterer.  But along with the venerable Dutchmen, Lexham Press is putting out a number of other outstanding and attractive books.

This book is of superb gifting quality.  It is a beautiful hardback book that would adorn any coffee table, shelf, reading table, or ungainly stack of books (as is the case with most of my own books).  I apologize for not giving heads up about this book before Christmas.  If you have enjoyed such blessing-filled prayer and meditation works as Valley of Vision, published by Banner of Truth, or Every Moment Holy, published by the Rabbit Reading Room,you will love this book as well. The title itself comes from a Puritan who said, “That prayer is most likely to pierce heaven which first pierces one’s own heart.”

I include this book with the deep water theologies for one reason:  It is a slow, very slow, methodical book to get through.  This is not due to technical terms, theological allusions and references, or convoluted prose.  I had to read the first prayer several times and for several days. This material is rich, while my prayer life and thoughts are poor.  I know that I could, as a book reviewer, kick it into high gear and knock this book out quickly.  And there are good reasons to survey the book as a whole; however, the book cries out, page after page, for me to slow down, think, apply, re-read, and attempt to make these Puritan prayers my own.

And, if you are new to understanding the Puritans, God has a great gift in store for you.  And this gift is not one that you will use up even over a long lifetime.

The Feasts of Repentance

The Feasts of Repentance: From Luke-Acts to Systematic and Pastoral Theology by Michael J. Ovey is published by InterVarsity Press.

After I received this review book, I questioned my judgment in asking for it.  I shied away for a short while, thinking that unlike so many delightful reads from IVP, this would not be a book of interest.  But one day, I devoted a few minutes to glancing at it.  What caught my attention, first and foremost, was a description of the man that I shared with friends.  This quote noted that Dr. Ovey, who had recently passed away, was ” a biblical and systematic theologian with a deep pastoral concern ” from Australia.  He was still working on this book when he died. “The word most often used of him after his death was ‘kind. ‘”

I was deeply touched by that and desired that whatever I might attain as to understanding and knowledge would be trumped by a reputation for being kind as well.  The description of Dr. Ovey, given in the preface by a friend and colleague, led me to slowly dive into the book.

The first few chapters of the book are exegetical and text related looks at the theme of repentance in Luke and Acts.  One of the riches of the Gospels and of the Bible in general is that a teacher or pastor can call attention to a particular theme and lead us back through the familiar texts with a new and greater appreciation.  Of course, I knew that Luke and Acts both say something about repentance, but this study brought the content of that home in a much richer, way.

Subsequent chapters delve more deeply into repentance as a theological, Biblical, and pastoral topic.  As stated above, this is stuff well worth reading a second or third time.  This book would most likely appeal to theology students and serious pastors (and I hope that is the only kind) who are never satisfied with what they know about the different aspects of salvation.

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Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ by Matthew W. Bates is published by Baker Publishing Group.

I arrived at this party late, which is no surprise for those who know me.  This book is a follow-up to Bates’s previous book Salvation by Allegiance Alone, which is also published by Baker.  Early on, he notes areas where the more recent book clarifies or adds to the other book, but I was not able to engage in that part of the discussion.  (That also happens when you arrive late to a party.)

This book presents some rather strong cases for rethinking and restating some familiar truths and beliefs.  This book locks horns, gently but aggressively with some of my theological mentors such as John Piper and the late R. C. Sproul.  This book calls for some unconventional, but according to Bates, Biblical ways of understanding salvation. And this book provides the strongest bridge I have encountered for Christians of all orthodox heritages to recognize one another as believers, and by this I mean that Bates’s definition and explanation of being Christian brings Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, Reformed folks and Arminian/Wesleyans into the same big tent.  By the way, he does this without glossing over what he views as errors among some of the groups.

The main contention of this book is that the Greek word pistis, which we commonly translate as faith, is better translated as allegiance.  Okay, so what?, you might ask.  The point is that faith is often defined, documented, and defended as a personal response to Jesus that gives us a ticket to heaven when we die.  In contrast, allegiance is kingly, more comprehensive, more communal and corporate, and more focused on both the here and now as well as a future eternal state.

We don’t just “accept Jesus” (I am cringing while writing that) and then go on about our way.  Of course, those who have long emphasized Lordship in the controversies related to that term or who emphasize a Christian world and life view have already frequently pressed the point that salvation is not just eternal fire insurance.

Christ is King, and this is the proclamation that should be made in our preaching, teaching, and lives.  Just as when the Allies liberated Nazi-held territories, they were proclaiming that the land areas and people were now under American, British, or French rule, so we proclaim Jesus as the one to whom we owe allegiance.  We recognize in this that our allegiance, like our faith, works, and intentions, are weak, often faltering, often failing completely, but we still acknowledge Christ as King.

Everyone, except for me of course, muddles the definitions and explanations of salvation.  Catholics are a particular target among us Protestant folk.  Although Dr, Bates attained his Ph.D. from Notre Dame and teaches in a Catholic institution, he delivers some pretty hefty gut punches to the Catholic scheme of salvation.  Yet, I find his overall approach quite appealing since I know Catholics who affirm everything that I say in the Apostles’ Creed and who do not say that their hope is based on doing enough good stuff or lighting enough candles.

I have had to give some careful thought to what Bates says about election.  His focus is on God’s  predestination of the Church, the body of Christ–local and universal–rather than on individual believers.  Ephesians 1, a favorite passage among us Calvinists, is the passage under discussion in the book.  Even a longtime Calvinist like me has to consider ways that Ephesians 1 speaks corporately and not of individuals.  I do admit that we all read too much of the Bible as though it was God’s Word specifically to me, myself, and I rather than to God’s people in time and history.  My experience in reading this book was not one of complete agreement with every point.  I had lots of “Amens,” but quite a few times when I had to file away what is said so that I can think about it, preferably in the light of Bible reading.  That is, in my opinion, the mark of a good book.

Plenty of reasons can be added to what I have said above for reading and discussing this book.  I have been tossed and turned by a number of theological controversies pitting this group or faction against that group or faction.  The gunfire has usually been intense, has often included lots of helpful insights, and yet has usually resulted in Christians plunging swords into the bellies of each other while letting the stinking world go to Hell.

But surely we can read, disagree, think, modify, and expand our understanding of salvation.  I am not a theologian, so I cannot let go of the rope swing (see pictures above) and plunge into these waters.  But I can be blessed by those tidbits of wisdom I latch onto as a result of serious reading or an idle thought that comes from this book.

Read it and let me know what you think.  My thanks to a young, serious theology student, Timothy J. Martin, for calling my attention to this work.

Alas, there are more deep waters awaiting me on my “to be read and reviewed” shelf:

Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History by Darrell L. Bock and J. Ed Komoszewski

The Victory of the Cross: Salvation in Eastern Orthodoxy by James R. Payton, Jr.

Divine ImpassibilityFour Views on God’s Emotions and Suffering edited by Robert J. Matz and A. Chadwick Thornhill

Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, edited by Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency by Stephen Knott

The past two years have been enjoyable times for reading political history.  Watching the news and keeping up with current events is another story.  I have enjoyed reading the following political books during this past two years:

Alfalfa Bill: A Life in Politics by Robert L. Dorman.  William Murray was a major political figure in Oklahoma history during the Twentieth Century, and for a time, he made it to the larger stage of American politics.  He vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1932, but was beaten by a man named Roosevelt.

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt.  I really enjoyed this study of FDR’s religious faith.  He was a complicated figure, and FDR was impacted by God even though we might all find areas of glaring inconsistencies.

Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  Ms. Goodwin is a well known and popular biographer of political leaders.  In this study, she parallels the lives and crisis of four Presidents:  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Fascinating and fun history, these men, like them or not, all had amazing stories leading up to and including their times in the White House

1917 Wilson, Lenin, and the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman.  This was a great book, but a disturbing one.  It left me disliking Woodrow Wilson more than ever.  I already disliked Lenin, but this just added fuel to that fire.

The True Flag:  Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire is by Stephen Kinzer.  This account of a literary figure and a political leader was quite good.  I love both men, but try to keep them at a distance.  The story here is not one that is flattering to Roosevelt.

Hamilton: An American Biography by Tony Williams.  Two things I remember about this book:  First, it is a good, brief survey and defense of Alexander Hamilton, the most controversial of our Founding Fathers.  Second, it was the beginning of a social media (Facebook) friendship with the author Tony Williams.  I now have all of his books.

In Defense of Andrew Jackson by Bradley Birzer.  Andrew Jackson has fallen on hard times in American society.  His presence on the $20 bill is soon to disappear, and he is routinely trounced by many.  But this book gives strong reasons why we should not be so quick to dismiss the man.

Churchill, Roosevelt, and Company: Studies in Character and Statecraft by Lewis Lehrman.  This book is a interesting look at the personalities, quirks, strengths, and weaknesses of the two men responsible for leading the Allies during World War II:  Franklin Rooselvelt and Winston Churchill.  But it also describes those men, whose names are in every account of the two leaders, who worked alongside FDR and Churchill.

I wrote reviews on this blog for most of the books mentioned above.  Please search for those reviews if you want to know more.

My most recent read on Presidents and politics is also the best book I have read during the past two years on these matters.

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The Lost Soul of the American Presidency: The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen F. Knott is published by the University of Kansas Press.

This book surveys a number of Presidents from the past to the present.  This is not, however, a mere survey of Presidential lives or biographical sketches.  Dr. Knott strongly contends that the model was established by President Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  A restrained and yet vigorous executive was conceived by Hamilton, and explained largely through his contributions to The Federalist Papers, and was executed through Hamilton’s mentor and boss, President Washington.

In contrast to Washington and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson pushed and prodded more toward a majoritarian style of leadership.  This entailed pandering to as well as discerning what the majority of the people wanted.  In part, this seems like part and parcel of what I tend to like about the early era of American politics. Wars rage between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians.  These battles enlist historians, political theorists, political scientists, and the American public.  Many people may not realize how often they are reciting a Hamilton mantra or a Jefferson mantra.  The main thrust of our time is toward Knott’s view of Jefferson’s vision.

The main concerns that Knott has is toward a style of leadership begun by Jefferson and then extended in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and from there expanded even more by Twentieth Century Presidents Wilson, both Roosevelts, and finally President Trump.  In part, it is based on using the Presidency as a means of dealing with personal vendettas. Knott gives praise to some Presidents who normally get less acclaim on the grounds that they were more careful to stick to the most basic duties, the Constitution, and not public opinion.  Some of his choices here include John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Gerald Ford.

Part of the fun of this book is cheering and booing as Knott works his way through different styles of leadership.  His praise of Lincoln, while careful, was not satisfactory to me.  And I was really furious at his dealing with Andrew Johnson, but he marshalled enough evidence to make me cry “Uncle” at several points.  I will still credit Johnson with being on the right side of the battle against the Radical Republicans in Congress at the time with acknowledging that Johnson was not ever bit the racist Knott says he was.

The last part of the book focuses on more recent Presidents.  Patterns and expectations devolve upon the holders of that office.  More often than not, those patterns and expectations are derived from the examples of more popularity-based and programs-based Presidents.  All recent Presidents get a score card from their first 100 Days in office.  This goes back to when Franklin Roosevelt took office and he signed a flurry of legislative bills into law.  The time context–deep into the Great Depression–gave momentum to this activity.  But Presidents still get measured in comparison to that standard.

All Presidents have had enemies, and while the Nixon White House was condemned for its “enemies list,” such lists exist in every administration.  Some Presidents, those that Knott is most critical of, went after their personal enemies as well as those who opposed their programs.  President Jefferson famously and nobly said in his inaugural address, “We are all Federalists; we are all Republicans.”  (Remember that Republicans of that time is the party that became the Democrat party in later years.) Shortly after taking office, however, Jefferson privately conveyed his wish to destroy the Federalist Party.  Andrew Jackson was the most vindictive man to hold office.  He entered office convinced that John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay had wickedly delayed him four years in getting there.  In time, he became a bitter foe to John Calhoun and every person in Washington who snubbed Peggy Eaton.  Deep in his psyche, he was loathsome toward the British and the Bank of the United States.

In spite of his spite, Jackson did quite a bit of good, in my opinion, not Knott’s.  I confess to having sympathy with some of Jackson’s rage, having agreement with some of his policies, and having some of the same suspicions as he had.  I also confess to having some sympathy and support for the current President, Donald Trump.  But Knott’s concerns about President Trump’s style, language, work pattern, lack of knowledge of the job, and unpredictability really uncovered some of the same, but not articulated concerns I have.

I know that when the President is criticized in conservative and Republican circles, people respond with “But Hillary.”  Mrs. Clinton was not the only alternative people had in 2016, and I am not talking about the near comic line-up of third party candidates.  The actions that forced us to choose between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were made in the cold snows of Iowa and New Hampshire and the myriad of primaries and caucuses along the way.  On that November election day in 2016, we were faced with two candidates who were prone to measure political actions by standards other than the Constitution, who were prone to vindictiveness toward enemies, who were quick to use harsh language describing those who disagreed, and who were bound to govern by appealing to their political bases far more than any moral compass.

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency is a history study.  But it is not just a collection of facts or interpretations over the past.  It is a call for some rethinking and debating about what we will do with this office in the future.  Is the soul of the Presidency lost?  Certainly, no one is going to win an election by promising to do less and less and to simply try to carry out the Constitutional mandates rather than election mandates.

The first step will be for us to read this book and others like it.  Agree with Stephen Knott’s assessments or disagree or both.  Political thought, which almost never occurs in the daily news accounts and discussions, will take us down the road to restoring civility and sanity to the process.  Books like this one give me some hope that all is not lost.

The Pastor of Kilsyth by Islay Burns

The Pastor of Kilywyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by The Banner of Truth, one of the best Christian publishers in our time.

 

I suspect that many well read Christian folks will see the title and author of this book and say, “Never heard of them.”  I was one such reader, having never heard of W. H. Burns, who pastored in Kilsyth (in Scotland) or of his son and biographer Islay Burns.  That is actually a reason for wanting and needing to read this book.  We can all fall for the very inaccurate idea that God has worked through Luther, Calvin, Knox, Edwards, and Kuyper in the past and is working through the big name pastors in the present, but the rest are merely filler for the Kingdom advances.

Having recently finished reading and reviewing A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry Matters in Forgotten Communities by Stephen Witmer, I have been thinking about the small, obscure, unknown, often undesired, and underrated areas of service in God’s Kingdom.  I confess to being in awe of the big names from past and present and astounded by the mighty works of Spurgeon, the Hodges, Kuyper, and others.  Rightly so, but that overlooks the many pastors, leaders, teachers, missionaries, and faithful Christians whose only written biographies are the dates on their tombstones.

There is another hindrance to this book:  Style.  First published in 1860, this book reads like all too many biographies of that time.  Many bore titles like “The Life and Letters of ****.”  The books are short on actual probing into the thoughts, struggles, and conflicts of the subjects, but are strong on their virtues, spiritual attainments, and often wordy letters and sermons.  This doesn’t appeal to the modern reader, nor does it dig much into the person being examined. Some might call it hagiography, which means writing of the lives of the saints.

This style does not suit modern scholarship.  It contains a lack of dimensions of the complexities of a person’s life.  It verges toward flowery and noble language.

But I commend these types of books.  The style may be a challenge for those of us who have been influenced directly and indirectly by the likes of Ernest Hemingway’s prose style, Freud’s psychoanalytical probing, and modernity’s quest to puncture every heroic figure from the past.  The biographers were never seeking to tell the untold secrets of their subjects.  They were writing biographies with pastoral intent.  Their Scriptural touchstone is Hebrews 11.

Cultivate a love of this style of writing.  Cultivate an appreciation of these types of biographies.  Cultivate a hunger for this type of spiritual nourishment.

I should add that the main motivation for me to embrace the book was the words on the dust jacket from Iain Murray:  “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  Add a second witness:  George Grant, a preferred author, preacher, teacher, who called The Pastor of Kilsyth one of the best book he read this year.

William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859) pastored in the Scottish community of Kilsyth for most of his working life. Islay Burns writes of his father: “He preached the Word; dispensed the sacred supper; warned the careless; comforted the sorrowing; baptized little children; blessed the union of young and loving hearts; visited the sick, the dying, buried the dead; pressed the hand, and whispered words of peace into the ear of mourners, carried to the poor widow and the friendless orphan the charity of the church and his own; slipped in softly in some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away; lifted up the fallen one from the ground, and pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners….”

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This very aptly constitutes the main and most necessary labors of the typical pastor.  Even if he is also a renowned scholar, even if he is employed elsewhere during the week, even if he has numerous other labors and distractions, these things define ministry.

Scottish church history is still a puzzle to me at points.  I don’t always understand the church structures and polity, the conflicts and divisions, and the customs that were all familiar to the Scots of the past.  This does not prevent the reader from finding many points of similarity between Burns’s day and ours.  However, there is a degree of intensity that recurs in these accounts.  My own spiritual life seems really paltry, weak, and thin compared to what the people in that day and time thought, believed, and said.  Maybe there is an exaggeration in the writing style of that time.  But perhaps there is a greater minimization of Christian living in our time.

So, we need regular workouts with books like this.  It should not be dismissed as quaint history, but be viewed as a plan for our own spiritual exercises.  God’s Kingdom is made up of the obscure, the forgotten, the little known, but what a blessing when one such pastor gets better known some 150 plus years after his life.

And what was said of W. H. Burns be said of many of us: “He was a peculiarly attractive representative of a type of the Christian pastorate which is rapidly becoming obsolete–that is of the quiet, steady, ongoing, conscientiously diligent and calmly earnest country minister, at once the father, the counselor, and the friend of every man, woman, and child within his parochial bounds.”

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A Big Gospel in Small Places by Stephen Witmer

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Born and raised about six miles out from De Kalb, Texas, I have spent most all my days in small places.  De Kalb, back in those prosperous days, had a population of something over 2,000 in the city limits, but most folks lived out of town.  I did spend two years languishing in Little Rock while I attending college at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  During my first year of teaching, I went to Avery, Texas, which was even smaller than De Kalb.

It was while I was in Avery that I read a short novel titled I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.  That novel tells the story of a dying young, inexperienced Anglican priest who is sent to a remote village in Canada to minister.  That story, with some obvious differences, beautifully resonated with me and my own experiences that year.  The priest in that story learns the culture, fears, habits, and struggling faith of the people he is called to minister to.

For the next sixteen years, I lived and worked in the rural community of Genoa, Arkansas.  I bought ten acres of land and built a log cabin on it.  That home is still the ideal in my heart and memory.  (I dream of getting that house back, but sadly wake up and remember that it burned a few years after I sold it.) Genoa School, where I taught history, was a rural school that still took a day off in November for Deer Day.

Since 2000, we have technically lived in the city limits of Texarkana, Arkansas.  We actually live on a five acre piece of land (call it a farm, if you are imaginative). There are people with cows and horses around us.  People fire guns at all times and no one notices.  We burn brush in our field and hope that the authorities don’t notice.

Since I left my parents’ home in 1976, I have been part of four different small churches.  All four of my past congregations would have fit into one of the larger churches in the area with plenty of seats left over.

The past couple of weeks, I have read Stephen Witmer’s book A Big Gospel in Small Places:  Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters.  This book is published by IVP.

Let me cut and paste the answer to your question: “Who is Stephen Witmer?  Here goes:  Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship, Massachusetts, and is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also the cofounder of Small Town Summits, an organization that serves rural churches and pastors.  Witmer is the author of Revelation: a 12-Week Study, Jonah: Depths of Grace, and Eternity Changes Everything. He has written for Bible Study Magazine, Reformation 21, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God. He lives in Pepperell, Massachusetts,  with his wife, Emma, and their three children.

As you can see from the bio, there are some real substantive reasons for me to dislike Stephen.  First, he is from, not just the North, but New England–Maine and now Massachusetts.  Second, he has an enviable resume and academic accomplishments.  Third, he is still young.

In spite of all that, I must confess to having really enjoyed this book.  I enjoyed it because it brought to light and reinforced a great need in the churches of our day.  Many young pastor-candidates should prayerfully and carefully read this book.

Granted, most people now live in the larger cities and suburbs of America.  Granted that the greater numbers of people, resources, activities, and ministry opportunities are in the larger cities.  The flyover parts of the country are large swaths of darkness from the window of the airplane as it gets beyond the east coast and heads west.

More can be said and noted about small town people.  Happiness for many a youth growing up in the confines of small town America is seeing that city limits sign in the rear view mirror (a reference to the Mac Davis song “Happiness was Lubbock, Texas in My Rearview Mirror”).  The city lures many away.  Most never return.  Some of those who stay don’t have very happy results.

There is a mythological small town America.  Some of us unthinkingly embraced it by thinking that Mayberry, North Carolina really existed.  For me, I embraced it wholeheartedly when watching “The Waltons” on television for years and then watching them again on DVD with my children.

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The Waltons went to church on Sundays, except for the dad.  They had meals together.  Every Thursday night they faced a life-threatening crisis, often tied to the Great Depression and the impending Second World War.  By the hour’s end, they had resolved the problem, finding the answers in faith, family, and traditional values.  As the show concluded, the family members called out “Good nights” to one another.

The problem is that small town America is not Walton’s Mountain from the television show.  While their lives were far from perfect, small town and country people with values rooted in the heartland are warped, struggling, failing sinners.  Some of the sin problems that are endemic in the cities of America are just as bad or worse in small communities.  Farm living and nice friendly neighborhoods do not impart grace.  (To what extent they may restrain sin depends on other factors.)

Most small community pastors are going to live and die in obscurity.  They are going to minister to a small bunch of stumbling and sometimes crazy folks.  They are not going to get rich, build a huge church, or establish a number of viable Christian institutions.  They may not even succeed as pastors (whatever that may mean).

There are enough warnings and exhortations in this book to scare many away who need to be scared away. They are given not as horror stories or “Do Not Enter” signs, but as check lists.  One should never enter the pastorate with unrealistic rosy expectations.  Optimism yes;  extreme idealism, no.

Pastors, students aiming at ministry, and church planters:  Read this book prayerfully and along with others with whom you can discuss it.

But what about the rest of us?  I mean those of us who are not pastors, not aiming to be church leaders, and not residing along the backwoods highways and byways of America?

This book still has lots to say.  First of all, we need to know about the greater challenges facing American Christians.  Millions of people live outside the major population centers.  They are not all “Good Country People” (to borrow from the title of Flannery O’Connor’s ironic story).  Second, the oft repeated idea that the faith was originally and strategically planted in the major cities of the Roman Empire is misleading.  There might be better reasons for planting churches in Dallas, Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas than Old Washington, Arkansas, but any idea that capturing the cities first is THE Biblical strategy is strongly refuted in this book.  Third, many of us live in areas that are not exactly rural or small town, but not exactly at the center of culture and modernity.  My city of Texarkana is a small city.  I live on five acres of land on the edge of the city limits.  I go to a small church.  Most churches are small churches.  Some of the best ones are very small.  So, the book applies here as well.

God’s blessings on this book and author.

A Big Gospel in Small Places

 

The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

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It was the probably the fall of 1977, and I was taking the second half of Western Civilization under Professor Henry Wood.  He assigned us a reading, with a “free will” choice of either Freud by R. J. Rushdoony or Nietzsche by H. Van Riessen.  Along with one other student, I chose the Nietzsche volume.  It was a slim book of some 51 pages, but it was not fast or easy read.  I think I must have read through it twice and underlined and marked it heavily.  Alas, I cannot find that copy of my book.  Mr. Wood quizzed me and the other fellow in a small goup discussion.  It was an exhilerating educational experience and resembled what I think happens in English college settings.

Nietzsche was part of a series of books called “Modern Thinkers” which was part of a collection called “An International Library of Philosophy and Theology.”  These books were published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, which also published books under the label of Craig Press.  I had already entered into that world that I have called Calvinia.  I had read John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits and A Theological Interpretation of American History by C. Gregg Singer, This Independent Republic by R. J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the Problem of Origins by P. E. Hughes, and the two books that sealed my future, Studies in Theology and The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner.

Although my future studies in college would contain much that was good, true, and beautiful, I did not experience the consistency, rigor, and direction of a real Reformed, classical, or Christian education through the classes I was taking.  In other words, I would take a fine college class, but have to study on my own to bring it into a perspective that was Biblical and Reformed.  I truly envy those today who are getting far better exposure to the greatest books and ideas through their college experiences.

James Jordan wrote of the Calvinistic world of the 1970s in his outstanding essay titled “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind.”

I think my take-away on Jordan’s essay was different than his main intent.  What it did was it reawakened my own mind–circa 2007–of the Calvinist thinkers that had impacted my life and imprinted their thinking on my mushy mind.  I immediately went into a book buying and reading frenzy, gathering up every Presbyterian and Reformed title from those years and authors that Jordan mentioned.  I gave a lecture series in Newport Newes, Virginia to a group that was titled “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers During the Wilderness Years,” another series in Alaska called “Dutch Thinkers,” and I wrote a number of essays, some published, on Dooyeweerd, Rushdoony, Singer, and others.

I was continually amazed at that time at how Bryce Craig, encouraged by R. J. Rushdoony and others, had published book after book that had little or no chance of reaching a wide audience.  And he published them with ugly covers and other less than appealing features. “Who was out there reading these books?” I wondered then and now.  Most Calvinists I knew read books on theology, the Bible, preaching, church, etc.,  but not on worldview issues, philosophy, and culture.

I am still bound and determined to acquire all of the books that are listed in the picture above.  I wish I could go back in time and get them for those prices.  Thankfully, P & R would send out sale sheets every month, so I did buy lots of them.  I probably have about half of the books in that picture.  That comes from the back inside cover of the Nietzsche volume.

All of that is prelude to this:  Presbyterian and Reformed shortened its name to P&R Publishing, and it has had much better cover designers than in the past.  P&R publishes lots of books with a much wider appeal than it did in those early days.  This is helped by the fact that the Calvinist reading audience or broader Evangelical reading audience is greater.

A few years back, P&R began a series called “Great Thinkers.”  Like the older “Modern Thinkers” series, these books are relatively short (less than 150 pages) and are geared toward serious, though not necessarily expert, readers.  And this is not another set of books about our favorite Christians, such as C. S. Lewis and company.  Many of the books are about thinkers who are not Christian or not Reformed, evangelical theologians.  If you impacted the greater culture and world of ideas, you might just be included.

I only have two of the books in this series:  Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint and, as of this week, Francis Bacon by David C. Innes.  As might be expected, I am in great distress and anxiety that will not cease until I have the whole series, including the forthcoming volumes.

I use Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? as a teaching tool to introduce my students to a wide range of theologians, political leaders, philosophers, artists, and other influential people.  To some degree, I am teaching them “just” a list of names, book titles, and movement.  This is Trivial Pursuit, random bits of information, and for sure, oversimplifications.  That is good.  That is where we start: Names, titles, movements, bullet points.

Then we move on.  I am all for the students (starting in high school and continuing through college) diving into all or large portions of the greatest thinkers and books of all time.  But even reading a couple of hundred pages of Calvin or Aquinas or Marx might not enable you to get the overall picture of their worldview.  And books about thinkers are often longer, more technical, and more difficult than the author’s own writings themselves.

Here is the beauty of these kinds of books:  Short, scholarly, serious, and readable.

Footnote:  I bought the volume Francis Bacon simply because David C. Innes wrote it.  His book Christ and the Kingdoms of Men is one of the best books I have read this year.