Newest Born of Nations–The Short, Unhappy Life of the Confederacy

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The Southern Confederacy was one of the most short-lived nations in history. It was also one of the most poorly planned and poorly defended nations and ideas in history. It was one of the largest self-proclaimed nations to ever be so totally subjugated in so short a time in history. Among nations of the world, it was a major failure as a nationalistic movement.

I say all of this as one who deeply loves the South, admires so many of those who defended the Confederacy, and struggles with the issues upon which the South could have and should have made its case. Although it would leave a huge gap in my book collection, a little more patience and prudence could have enabled the eleven states in the southern regions to have survived and worked through the issues confronting them. Instead, they opted to die in a blaze of glory, which left our heritage with more blaze than glory.

Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy by Ann L. Tucker, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Georgia, is published by the University of Virginia Press.

The 19th century was a busy time for nation building, for independence movements, for revolutionary actions, and for redrawing of the maps of Europe primarily and the Americas. Southerners were long expecting and thinking about the fissures and dividing lines separating their lands and cultures from those of the northern states. Despite so much shared history and so many common connections, there were tensions between the sections of the country. Again and again, these tensions mounted, often spurred by economic activities, often increased by additions of new states to the west, and often intensified by the issues relating to southern slavery.

Southerners looked to the examples and result of nationalistic movements in Europe for both inspiration and caution. The Irish were chafing against the control of their land by the British. Italian states were fighting wars designed to unite the boot shaped peninsula. A multitude of Germanic states were slowly moving toward a unified reich. Poland longed from freedom from Russia and other holders of Polish speaking lands and peoples. And some Southerners felt that the day would come when they too would find it necessary to re-enact the story of the colonies in 1776 and declare and fight for independence.

Just as that earlier War for Independence included Americans who favored staying under British rule, so the South had Unionists who feared and opposed the consequences of breaking away. Debate was, as is typical of deeply felt political ideologies, vigorous on both sides. And both sides appealed to the same European examples for confirmation.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was one of the greatest of patriots and fighters for his nation’s cause of the 19th century. He led the Italians in uniting their multiple states together. He also ventured into South America to help newly emerging nations there as well.

Southerners seeking an independent nation initially lauded him as an example. But Garibaldi was also so highly admired in the North that he was asked to join the Union in their fight.

James W. Quiggle, U. S. Consul in Spain, invited Garibaldi to join the Union’s fight. “Garibaldi replied that if he were not needed in Italy, he would indeed come first for the United States but only on the condition that he be appointed commander in chief of the U. S. Army and granted power to emancipate slaves. ” Certainly that would have created some fascinating history if it had happened.

As events unfolded, Garibaldi’s criticism of southern slavery turned the future Confederates against him. Besides, as the southern Unionist pointed out, his works were unifying a nation while the plan of the Confederacy was dismantling a nation.

The ideas behind the events make for interesting, but often less easily substantiated or less exciting reading. The successes of Garibaldi’s efforts to unify Italy and the long struggle of the Irish to win their freedom have inspired many a story, poem, and tale. The idea of nationalism, the philosophical underpinnings of such movements, and the clash of ideas form more ethereal history.

Those who long for another adventurous read of Stuart’s cavalry or Grant’s capture of Vicksburg will not be pleased with this book. Those who think that slavery was not even on the charts of causes of the war will be downright angered. This book is, in all honesty, a tedious and scholarly read. Most who would want to know the story would prefer a journal article rather than a 205 page discussion.

But Dr. Tucker leaves little room for dissension as far as I can see. Southerners stepping into a time machine would want to know the content of this book before venturing back to change history. Ideas have consequences (to quote Richard Weaver’s title for the millionth time), and poorly conceived ideas have dire consequences. The ideals that many Southerners touted regarding escape from tyranny and joining the free nations of the world were not accepted by other nations.

The end result was that the Confederacy never gained acceptance and recognition from other nations of the world. Would that have made any difference? Not likely, unless an army of British Recoats had been shipped to Canada along with a number of British battleships to break the blockade. Still there is a role that the international family of nations and international opinion plays in events. This failure of the Confederacy may have not been the camel’s backbreaking straw, but it did contribute to the overload.

The Burden of a Southerner Reading Histories

Here I am once again facing an overwhelming stack of books that I need to be reading and reviewing. Thankfully, one is finished and the rest have all been started. Not so good news: In spite of few actual work hours these days, I still have not been able to carve out enough extra reading hours in the day.

So, this post will feature some reviews and previews and commentaries on the books.

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Newest Born of Nations: European Movements and the Making of the Confederacy by Ann L. Tucker is published by University of Virginia Press.

Eleven states seceded from the Union in 1861 and waged a futile four year war to achieve complete independence. This story is the centerpiece, with all of its causes and effects, heroes and villains, glory and gore, of American history. But what happened in the then fractured United States was not unique in the world of that time.

Wars for secession, nationalistic uprisings, rebellions against a ruling power, revolutions seeking to overthrow the status quo, and fights for freedom occurred throughout Europe and Latin America. The event that preceded and gave the benchmark for all this was the American War for Independence. The French Revolution was another, and vastly different, attempt to change the the world, at least in one country.

Dr. Tucker’s book deals with how Southerners interpreted, supported, and critiqued the events in Europe during the decades leading up and including their own quest for nationhood. No two countries or stories are alike, and the Southern story is heavily weighted by the existence of slavery which was a tension within the greater fight for freedom and nationhood.

The United States had been dancing on this precipice from the beginning. There were plenty of other contributing causes to the Civil War, but the slavery issue was a disaster for Southern hopes and aspirations. One wonders how a free and independent Confederate States of America would have ultimately ended or fought within its own jurisdictions over the issue.

This book is a tough read. I do wish Dr. Tucker had not felt compelled to used the modifiers “white” or “elite white” before almost every use of the noun “Southerners.” She could have shortened the book by 20 pages by not saying what was obvious. Southerners did include enslaved blacks, free blacks, Native Americans, Jewish people, women, children, and others, but the powers that ruled would have been white, male, more likely Protestant rather than Catholic or Jewish, and wealthy people. I think readers would know that when talking about actions of government and debates that the participants, either Southern or Northern, were white.

That criticism aside, I am pressing on in this interesting study. It calls to mind several other books I have and have read, including Eric Hobshawm’s book Nationalism.

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The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America is by Timothy Egan.

I stumbled across this book in a used book section of a thrift store. Getting it for less than a buck, I had no idea how good the book would be. One the one hand, it is a horrible tale of a deadly fire that destroyed a huge swath of land in the American west and that killed a large number of people, mostly men fighting the fire, and destroyed several towns.

On the other hand, this book is a reminder of why I read, taught, and love history. As a story, a narrative, an adventure featuring both amazing people and ordinary people forced to do amazing things, this story is top notch. Central to the background of the story are two men–Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot. These men were two kindred spirits regarding their vision for the western forests and personal lifestyles. But there were plenty of heroes and heroines who were frontline fighters when the Great Burn of 1910 ravaged the west.

The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration

The Devil and Karl Marx is written by Paul Kengor and is published by Tan Books.

Having recently read Blessed Charles of Austria, call me a fan of Tan, Tan Books, that is. I have yet to get into this book, other than reading the enjoyable foreword by Michael Knowles. This quote stuck with me: “Ronald Reagan described a communist as one who reads Karl Marx and an anti-communist as one who understands Karl Marx. “

I think it would have been easy to begin ignoring Karl Marx just a few years ago. Other than being a historical figure, he seemed to have less relevance. But like most heresies, and Marxism needs to be seen as being a theological heresy, Marxism did not cease to exist. All it did was go dormant for a season so that it could show up with a fresh coat of varnish and an appeal to a new generation. Wait for more comments on this study.

Baptists and the Holy Spirit

Baptists and the Holy Spirit by C. Douglas Weaver is published by Baylor University Press. This book is subtitled The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements.

One might question why I have put this book in a post about history studies rather than a discussion of religious and theological books. But, the book easily fits in either category.

First for a bit of my personal reading history: I got this book a good while ago and eagerly read the first part of it. But the towering stacks of books and Covid and school shutdown and other stuff happened, and I stopped reading. Then I recently picked it back up, but instead of going back to where I left off, I jumped way ahead to read about the effects of the Charismatic movement in Baptist churches in the 1970s.

Second, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I am neither Charismatic, nor a Baptist. So, I have few warning lights blinking in my brain as I read. But I did become a Christian in the 1970s, and I did have several exposures to Charismatic Christians.

So, let me make a few observations. This book highlights on of the most difficult tasks in dealing with religion in general and Christians in particular. That is, it is hard to create a series of defining boxes and then place every prominent believer or denomination in one of the boxes. The whole concept of denominations is a slippery one. It is amusing that some Christians take refuge in saying, “We are NON-denominational.” To denominate is to name and identify, so non-denominational becomes as much as denomination as does any other term.

Then there are the terms that are added in addition to the denominational names. So, one is a missionary Baptist, a Five-point Calvinistic Baptist, a landmark Baptist, an evangelical Baptist, and so on. The same kind of thing happens with other denominations. So, I am a Reformed Presbyterian, but I might share much with a Reformed Baptist regarding Calvinistic doctrines, and he might share a belief in church government by elders or presbyters. Add in eschatological, worldview, role of women, and other issues, and one wonders how Christian history could even be written.

Back to the Baptist issue: Baptist churches are just that–churches. There is no such thing as The Baptist Church, and that term cannot be used either if one is talking about the differing groups of Baptist denomination. And each particular Baptist church has a bit of congregational autonomy. While there are guidelines that would clearly exclude some from claiming to be Baptists, the groups as a whole exercise a wide variety of particulars.

For a survey of a stack of books, I have already said too much. Suffice it to say that this is a fascinating study. I reckon some would glance through a few pages and conclude that all Christians are crazy. We believers have thought that same about ourselves. But for the Christian, there is a beauty and power seen even in the ups and downs, fits and starts, unity and chaos of the Christian Church through the ages. This book is a reminder of just that.

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Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World is by David Keys.

I don’t remember when or where I picked up a gently used copy of this book. But during my summer office move, I pulled it aside from the book being packed and determined to read a bit in it.

This book and The Big Burn, discussed above, were both started from one of my preconceived and now confirmed biases. (You will have to decide whether my confirmation bias is compatible with your confirmation bias.) We are often being told that current ecological and climate events are being caused by the actions of humans. We are the cause in our day and time of more and worse fires in the western United States and of global climate problems everywhere. This is science, we are told, and to doubt the interpretation is to doubt Science itself. (Use of a capital S is deliberate.)

This book deals with global climate disasters and plagues that wracked the whole world in the 5th and 6th centuries. In short, some empires and civilizations fell and others rose. Natural disasters upended cities and peoples. Plagues swept away thousands of lives. Fascinating history, with some insight, maybe, into current events and woes.

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A Military History of the Cold War 1944-1962 and A Military History of the Cold War 1962-1991 by Jonathan House are published by Oklahoma University Press.

In the kind of superficial explanations and bullet point teaching we all do, we explain that the Cold War got its name because the two side did not engage in actual battle, or a hot war. But that handy description is misleading. Thankfully, the Red Army of the Soviet Union was never fully mobilized and engaged in taking on the NATO forces in all out combat across the plains of northern Europe. Nor did the Korean conflict ever escalate into full-fledged war between the United Nations forces and Communist China.

But this long struggle involved many minor wars, skirmishes, “police actions,” and close calls. Both sides were armed to the hilt, but while both sides were able to refrain from using the nuclear options or Mutually Assured Destruction, they did confront each other via a variety of conflicts and pressure points.

I have only gotten to scan a bit in these two volumes. But Twentieth Century history is, according to my claim, one of my special interests. More later on these two volumes from Dr. House, who is not, I am sad to say, closely enough related to me for me to boast about.

Voter Fraud and History Books

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A classic biography, still incomplete, on how politics works and sometimes doesn’t.

Lyndon Johnson adopted as a motto: If you do everything, you win. He learned that political lesson the hard way when he slipped up a bit and lost a Senate race to W. Lee O’Daniel in a special election in 1941. A few years later, when he ran against the popular and principled Gov. Coke Stevens, LBJ won.

He did everything. LBJ cut his teeth politically speaking doing grass roots politics. He was the man who handed out $5 bills to poor Mexicans who were voting for the chosen candidate. There were county judges and particular parts of Texas where you had to curry favor to get the votes. And if the counting was running short on election night, a few extra boxes of ballots could be delivered.

Robert Caro’s four volumes, The Years of Lyndon Johnson should be a part of the canon for political theory, political science, and 20th century American history. (We still await the fifth and probably final volume of this set.) LBJ was talented, and he had his times where he was truly noble and admirable, but he was most often political, Machiavellian, scheming, cheating, lying, deceiving, and fraudulent to the core.

One of the setbacks in his political career was his rivalry and later subjection to the Kennedy’s of Massachusetts. By Joe Kennedy’s standards, even LBJ was a lightweight. Bribes, lies, payoffs, deceits, cover-ups, and Mafia connections were all used to get John F. Kennedy to the White House.

That story is told in several books about the Kennedy’s. In recent years, even those who fawned over the Camelot President have recognized that John Kennedy and company were pretty dog-gone devious when it came to politics (and women).

Among other books, I found The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh to be outstanding, or disgusting, or shocking, or all three. Hersch was not a conservative conspiracy-seeking anti-Kennedy writer. The family was just plain corrupt. The last standing member of the original group, Senator Edward Kennedy, “The Lion of the Senate,” was honored and praised and nearly raised to political sainthood, but both before and after Chappaquiddick, he was cut out of the same cloth as his father and brothers.

Politics would be tolerable if fraud, lies, and deceit were something that was found in the past and among just a few scoundrels among an overwhelming group of statemen. But time would fail us to tell of Richard Nixon, whose greatest calamity was getting caught, and many others who have set out to do good and ended up doing well.

Money and power are connected in politics. People will lie, steal, deceive, and worse over the most minor of events. As the stakes rise in human actions, so does the willingness to do evil.

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In some cases, like the classic novel All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the character Willie Starks, modeled closely after the Kingfish of Louisiana Huey Long, was a man who used ruthless means to actually do lots of things for the people. Granted, much of what was done was directed to helping the common people.

The story is so compelling that there have been two movie versions made from the book. A great companion volume to the novel is the biography of the actual Huey Long, titled Huey Long by T. Harry Williams.

Another fictional account of political “irregularities” is a short story by Kentucky author Jesse Stuart. I have loved Stuart’s writings since I was in high school, but it was only a few years ago that I read the title story in 32 Votes Before Breakfast. This short story is about a bunch of college boys who, as is typical, needed a few bucks, who are recruited to ride a bus from voting place to voting place throughout Kentucky and vote and vote and vote. And where did Stuart get the idea for this story? He actually was one of a group who did exactly that.

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Time would fail me to recount all of the stories I have read about political shenanigans. And besides all of the accounts I have read about, I have been at least halfway around the block in real life.

From three different sources, none of whom were condemning the practice, I learned that in southern Arkansas politics, one should recruit the African American pastors to transport their congregations to the voting booths. A little gas money–a couple of Ben Franklins–could assure that the votes would be there.

Thank God for American civility. Most of history is the story of murder, exile, threats, and worse in the ups and downs of political power. Work for King Henry VIII and expect to see your political opponents sent to the tower and most likely to the chopping block. Then expect to finally be the one mounting the steps and eyeing the hooded man with the large axe.

Defeated Presidential candidates, even those who were Presidents, defeated governors and senators, disgraced political leaders, and even political people who had to serve jail time are free to travel, speak, write, and even try to regain their lost political fortunes.

So, we are better. But the WHOLE IDEA THAT VOTER FRAUD DOESN’T OCCUR IS RIDICULOUS.

Or else, voter fraud represents the one area of human action where a few laws have cured mankind of sinful and illegal propensities. If it doesn’t happen, then we could have reason to think than people are evolving into better beings. If people no longer labor to steal elections, we have finally hit upon the right combination of penalties and rewards.

Today, is November 15, less than two weeks after the Presidential election. On the one hand, I really don’t want to join the chorus of wailing and raging against President Trump’s presumed defeat in the election. There are so many issues that have been controversial in this election season.

But if one does not think that voter fraud never happens, I wonder what other failures to grasp reality they are suffering from. Typically, the guys behind the scenes become aware of how many votes are needed, and then they “find” what they need to cushion a win. With mail-in ballots, with lack of voter identification, with big cities that have lots of political operators, with the abundance of money, with the abiding fact of Original Sin, why would voter fraud not happen?

Derek Webb (God have mercy on his straying soul) has a great song titled “Everybody is Crooked Deep Down.” The New England Primer states, “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All.” Ishmael, in Melville’s novel Moby Dick, said, “Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

The daily newspaper attests to horrible and endless crimes that people do. Why should we suddenly become squeaky clean when it comes to the vast oceans of power and money connected to politics.

Finally, why should we be surprised when both media people and election officials proclaim with an air of infallibility, “Voter fraud is rare. Voter fraud did not happen. Reports of voter fraud are not proven. There is no voter fraud. There is not voter fraud. There is no voter fraud….”

Literary Conversations Overheard

The Almost Collected Works of Jessica Hooten Wilson

One of the pleasures of having children in college is hearing them talk about the books they are reading, the conversations they have been in, and the professors and teachers they are studying under.

A few years back, my daughter TaraJane was talking with a college friend about a literature teacher at John Brown University. This teacher was described as very smart and very intimidating. TaraJane, if you will excuse my bragging, had made a point in a discussion one day in class and this professor disagreed. But, the professor contacted her sometime after class and told her that upon further reflection, she thought TaraJane was right. I was doubly impressed by the description of how exacting and shart this teacher was and her willingness to contact a student with such a concession.

Further information about this professor indicted that she was a great fan and student of such authors as Dante, Dostoevsky, and Flannery O’Connor. I began to form a conclusion: This teacher had to be Louise Cowan. Of course, that was impossible because Dr. Cowan died a few years before that time and before that had been a part of the University of Dallas. And I don’t believe in reincarnation or visits from the other world to the classrooms of today.

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But I was right, for the teacher had been a student of Dr. Cowan. I am one of the failed Louise Cowan students. I heard her speak on three different occasions. The first time, she was in her late 80s and the second and third times, she was in her 90s. I rank her alongside Greg Bahnsen, philosopher and theologian, as being among the smartest people that I have personally met and talked to.

Dr. Cowan was, one might say, the last of the Southern Agrarians and New Critics. By that I mean that she learned directly from the group of luminaries who turned Vanderbilt University into the Mecca of Southern literary studies. In time, she carved her own niche in the field of literature and the humanities alongside her husband Donald Cowan in their development of the University of Dallas, a Catholic institute of learning.

If I had known, if I had been aware of what was there, if I had been ready and able, I would have or should have crawled on my knees on broken glass in the 1970s all the way from Texarkana to Dallas, a three hour drive, in order to study under Dr. Cowan and M. E. Bradford. (I read their books as penance.)

Dr. Cowan’s study of literature and literary genres impacted a whole generation of teachers, authors, scholars, and professors in a number of colleges and universities across the land. In that last few seasons of her life, when her great mental faculties remained razor sharp and her insights revealed new groundbreaking thoughts to her younger colleagues, Dr. Cowan reached another aspiring literature teacher, Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson.

I should add that Dr. Ralph Wood of Baylor is yet another of the formative influences on Dr. Wilson. I have been acquiring some of his books, but I have yet to enter into the kindergarten stage of learning from him.

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The first book I got by Dr. Wilson is Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Doestoevsky. This book is published by Cascade Books.

The thought of devils and the demonic is a bit frightful at first glance. But be assured that the devil and the demonic is never absent from any piece of literary writing. Be it atheist or orthodox believer, the author of a piece of fiction is either going to bring the devil in as a character, influencer, plot creator, plot changer, environment, or presupposition. To borrow an idea from…Chesterton, I think…a novel that does not have the devil and the demonic in it would be truly an evil book.

Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic author from the 20th century American South while Dostoevsky was an Orthodox author from 19th century Russia. Both wrote self-consciously Christian literature. And both wrote about characters and situations that revealed sin, the corruption of the human heart, the devil, and the demonic. Although they were separated by geography and time, it is easy enough to put a few dashes of O’Connor into any Dostoevsky Russian recipe, and the truly Southern dishes of O’Connor are enhanced by a tablespoon or two of Doestoevsky.

The conversation of the above is carried on in Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevksy, and the Search for Influence. This book is published by Ohio University Press. In this continuation of the study of Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, another 20th century Southern author and Catholic, steps in.

This book begins with the somewhat illusive but interesting topic of how and if one author influences another. Certainly, most authors are well read and usually deeply immersed in the literary canon(s) of the past. And no author is entirely original in his or her writings.

In this case, Percy’s library, notebooks, and annotations reveal that he did feel the weight and work from the influence of Dostoevsky. Sidenote: Percy’s best literary friend was Shelby Foote, a fellow Mississippian. The two often discussed and argued the merits of Russian authors Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov.

Percy’s writings were more modern in theme and content. Dostoevsky’s style is less explicit and more to the tastes of us old time Victorians. But, the world ain’t pretty and people ain’t nice, so Percy displays the more realistic side of humanity.

A necessary companion volume to the book above and a necessary volume for anyone seeking to go beyond just the story lines of Percy’s novels is Reading Walker Percy’s Novels. This book is published by Louisiana State University Press.

This book is a discussion of Percy’s fiction, with a few notes and an appendix dealing with his nonfiction essay collections. Much of the material here is repeating the discussions of the Percy novels in the previous book.

I must confess that I was sitting quietly at the back of the classroom for this discussion. I have been gathering Walker Percy books for several years, but I still don’t have several of his major works. And, I have only read one novel–The Last Gentleman. Upon reading it, I was not overly impressed. Now understand that when you read a novel that is highly acclaimed and you are not impressed, the best thing is to shut up.

I had to let the novel soak in, and I had to start hearing what others have said about The Last Gentleman. I am not meaning to imply that a normal reader cannot have a worthwhile negative opinion of a classic, but my teaching experience and personal reading experience has taught me the wisdom of learning from others who like what I don’t initially like.

Reading Dr. Wilson’s work on Percy has moved me from being in neutral with my foot on the brake to putting the car into reverse. I need to read Walker Percy’s books. I need to finish a novel and reread what Dr. Wilson thinks about the novel.

Finally, I must confess that I have been hindered from better understanding her books by not having read Demons by Dostoevsky. I have read several of his novels and some of them more than once. When summer began, I was going to read Demons, but summer took me by surprise in this most insane year. I was battling too many changes and setbacks and surprises. Dostoevsky has had to wait. So has Walker Percy.

But when the day comes when I am back in the reading saddle, I will enjoy not only the novels, but the discussions found in books by Dr. Wilson.

Post Script: There is a new book out now titled Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited by Donald P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson. This book is published by Notre Dame University Press and sells for a mere $60. I sure hope to acquire a copy of this book by some means. Solzhenitsyn has long been a favorite. It simply has to be yet another great read.

Readings from Recent Weeks, October 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed Charles of Austria by Charles Coulombe.

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial by Franz Kafka.

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

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

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

The Importance of the Electoral College by George Grant.

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

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

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

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

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

Flight from Humanity by R. J. Rushdoony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The English Reformation by Alec Ryrie

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

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

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

The Covenanters by J. K. Hewison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without Excuse and the Struggle for Christian Apologetics

In my earliest days of Christian thinking, I became aware that there was a field of serious study called Apologetics that dealt with the defense of the Faith against arguments of unbelievers.  I came to understand that there were divisions and controversies among the adherents to different approaches to apologetics.  I sat on the sidelines and watched some of the debates, read some of the books, and only rarely attempted to engage in the more sophisticated issues at stake.

Central to all of this was the apologetic methods of Cornelius Van Til.  From his writings and teachings, the term Presuppositional Apologetics was the signifier of a Van Tilian position.  Of course, there was also Gordon Clark whose apologetic methods and philosophy resembled Van Til.  The differences between those two great intellects for God is not within the range of this post.  (Again, I recommend Douglas Douma’s excellent biography of Gordon Clark, titled The Presbyterian Philosopher.)

My main area of study was, from 1976 to 1996, history.  After 1996, I branched off more and more into literature.  Through all of those years, I was also a vociferous reader of theological books.  Theology and Bible study became even more important during the years 1994–2014 when I was a pastor/elder in a Presbyerian church.

Concerning the great apologetic war, I cannot actually identify myself as a Van Tilian.  To do so would entail much more serious reading and study of Van Til himself.  I have read several of his books and have lifted, studied, quoted, and applied numerous Van Til quotes and ideas in my own work.  But to describe myself, I would have to say that I am a Van Tilian-ian.

That term is awkward, but it accurately tells what I am.  I am a student of the students of Van Til.  Two of the key proponents and users of his thought were R. J. Rushdoony and Greg Bahnsen.  I met Rushdoony several times.  I have read many of his books.  I have listened to his lectures for hours on end.  Greg Bahnsen preached my ordination sermon, spent a couple of night in my log home back in the early 1990s, and fed me through his books and lectures.

Along with those men, I have read and profited from John Frame (who I met), C. Gregg Singer (a favorite Christian historian), Gary North, Gary DeMar, Francis Schaeffer (who somewhat followed his teacher CVT), and many others who have favorably noted, quoted, and referenced Van Til.

Without Excuse:  Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics, edited by David Haines, is published by the Davenant Press.  This collection of 13 scholarly essays is a refutation, critique, and counterpunch to the teachings of Van Til.  The battle over Van Til’s apologetic is not a new one.  It began at least as early as the time he first stepped foot into a classroom at Westminster Theological Seminary.

John Frame wrote an insightful essay some years ago titled “Machen’s Warrior Children.”  It surveyed dozens of theological conflicts that have arisen within the ranks of the Presbyterian and Reformed folks, particularly those associated with Westminster and the theological battles of the 1920s-1930s.  Van Til and his views has been one of the sources of these many conflicts.

I have read what seems like a dozen or more books that directly or indirectly weigh in on Van Til, presuppositional apologetics, and related issues.  I have, without enough effort and consistency, read Van Til himself.  Perhaps more pertinent to the Christian life, I have attempted to appropriate teachings and concepts of CVT into my sermons (in the past) and my classroom teachings (alas, also in the past).  I have borrowed heavily from those who have been labeled as Christian Reconstructionists or Theonomists who have themselves built upon CVT’s foundational ideas.

Without Excuse seeks to dismantle and redirect Christian thinking from the CVT model.  The essays are not for the faint of heart or those lacking background in Van Tillian thought, philosophy, and theology.  These essays are finely honed iron implements seeking to clash with other finely honed iron implements.  At this point, I am past the 100 page mark (the book is over 300 pages) and five chapters into the work.

I have found four of the first five chapters readable, although I would really need a second or third reading to adequately evaluate them.   “Moderate Realism and the Presuppositionalist Confusion of Metaphysics and Epistemology” by J. T. Bridges is a sheer cliff that I cannot begin to climb without my meager mountain climbing equipment.  In contrast, chapters dealing with some the roles of reason and logic, the teachings of Reformed pillars such as Turretin and Hodge, and Bible passages that raise questions about CVT’s apologetics are much more digestible (to change my metaphor).

What difference does all of this theological wrangling make?  If I, after 20 years of pastoral experience and 40 plus years of reading and studying these things, am limping along and struggling to follow, what about the rest of the Christian world?  And what about the pastor and the Christian teacher?

First, there are always priorities based on the day by day circumstances.  A person drowning does not need a course in oceanography or even something more practical like swimming lessons.  I would not expect on this Saturday for a preacher to chunk his notes on Hebrews 1:1-4 and prepare a sermon on the issues of metaphysics and epistemology.

Second, ideas have consequences, however.  Everyday for the pastor or teacher is not D-Day, Minus 1 before the sermon or lecture.  And not everyone standing on the sea shore is going to be drowning or rescuing those drowning today.  Van Til was well known for street preaching, visiting the sick, and telling people the gospel.  But in the classroom, he was training minds.  In Joseph Minich’s wonderful preface to Without Excuse, he lauds the presuppositionalist Christians for various areas of faithfulness and dedication to the faith.

Every event that is on the news today, every meme on Facebook, every battle cry in the streets of every city is a reflection of some set of philosophical ideas that were and continue to be discussed in quiet, book laden, academic surroundings.  Every verse of Scripture teaches or implies some series of philosophical ideas that either conform to our understanding of reality or jolt us away from our falsely contrived views.

Christians who are going to enter the world of thought, academia, ideas, philosophy, and theology must engage.  Some will engage more, others less, but all are called into active service if they/we are going to love God with all our minds.  There is no justification for surrendering vast areas of God’s world, which includes the world of thoughts, ideas, and philosophy.

Third,  I am, as stated above, something of a Van Tillian-ian.  Perhaps I have already invested too much mental capital into following Cornelius and company into my teachings and experiences.  Maybe I have lost too much of the plasticity of mind to be able to reform my thinking around a different apologetic paradigm.  Perhaps I am too loyal to Greg Bahnsen, who preached my ordination sermon, and R. J. Rushdoony, who impacted my mind radically, to jettison what I learned from them.  Perhaps, I just don’t have the philosophical mindset to follow the arguments.

Those are all possibilities, but I would still affirm the importance of the issues and the value of a book like Without Excuse.  I rejoice that God’s truth remains unchanged and unchanging, but that our way of grasping God’s truth is not fixed.  I rejoice in knowing that there are ranks and files full of young, budding scholars who are reading, writing, pursuing degrees, and taking captive every thought for Christ.

Davenant Institute and the Davenant Press continue to produce some really challenging, cutting edge works.  We don’t just have to pray for reformation, for we are experiencing it.

August Readings

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Someday, I still hope to live for a season on the coast.  I long to walk the shores each morning, hear the sea gulls and the lapping of the waves, and feel the slight taste of salt on my lips.  Someday, I will be posting all sorts of shots of books, sunsets, and surf.  This year, like last year and many previous years, it didn’t happen.

But this is a book blog and not a beach or travel blog.  I could recount my many troubles this past month, headed up by unemployment, but as I said, this is a place where you go to read about what books you could or should be reading.

Here is the lineup and commentary:

 

Authority, Not Majority: The Life and Times of Freidrich Julius Stahl by Rueben Alvarado

Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire by Richard B. Frank

“Nothing to do but Save Souls”: John Wesley’s Charge to His Preachers by Robert E. Coleman

Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of WWII on the Eastern Front by Constantine Pleshakov

 Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution by Jeff Broadwater

Sermons on Titus by John Calvin

Demons by Michael Heiser

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown

The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

Authority, Not Majority: The Life and Times of Friedrich Julius Stahl by Rueben Alvarado is, along with several volumes by Stahl, published by Wordbridge Publishing.

Understand, first of all, that this book is for the political philosophy kindergartener, like me.  I have several books by Friedrich Julius Stahl along with this one, all of which were published and are promoted by author, translator, and publisher Ruben Alvarado.

For decades I moved along happily without ever knowing that Stahl existed.  One of the problems of teaching classes, especially for teaching junior high and high school classes, is that one goes over certain material, what often reduces history to bullet points, without having to explore beyond the boundaries of major outlines and best known people.

Stahl, much like Groen van Prinsterer, was a major political thinker and doer.  He was an active member of the German legislature during the 1800s, prior to the time when German unification was achieved.  He was a Christian, but like Groen, that did not simply mean that he went to church on Sundays or had a personal relationship with Christ.  He was one who labored to think Christianly and apply such thinking to the current of political and social issues of his time.

Mr. Alvarado sent me several of Stahl’s works and the biography some years ago.  It slowly began to dawn on me as I witnessed his name coming up in some discussion groups that I needed to enroll myself into learning about the man.  The biography is sketchy, a bit confusing, and fragmentary.  That is not the fault of the writer.  There is not much in the way of stories and anecdotes about the man himself, and the confusion stems from my own lack of mental chronology and familiarity with people and events in German history.

In other words, this short biography needs to be read twice. And then I can start venturing into Stahl’s works.

Downfall: The End of the Japanese Empire by Richard B. Frank was “assigned reading” from my historian friend Tony Williams.

This past August marked the 75th anniversary of the events including the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan and Japan’s subsequent surrender.  The debate still rages on whether dropping atomic bomb was necessary to end the war. If you want a quick and easy answer, go elsewhere.  This book is detailed.  This book is packed with laboriously compiled accounts of bombings, military actions, political decisions, diplomacy, and more.  That is commendation, not criticism.  One would not want to have to take a test involving the particular facts and figures cited in this book.

I wondered at the beginning why Frank took so long in laboring over this work, but upon reading it, I see why.  This is not the more enjoyable narrative history found in works by Stephen Ambrose or Rick Atkinson.  You want the facts and options and varying angles of what lead to the defeat of Japan?  Go for this book.

Also, upon reading it, I wondered again how people ever endured World War II.

“Nothing to do but Save Souls”: John Wesley’s Charge to His Preachers by Robert E. Coleman is an enjoyable dose of Methodist Wesleyan theology such as we wish were prevalent among many of our brethren.

I found this book to be a great complement to the book Compel Them to Come In: Calvinism and the Free Offer of the Gospel by Donald Macleod.

While the two books and authors have different approaches and aims, both books reinforced each other in the compelling need for Christians to share, promote, preach, and teach the Gospel to all.  Wesley was a great man of God, and Coleman’s book is a call for all who bear the name of Methodist to take up his commission.

Stalin’s Folly: The Tragic First Ten Days of WWII on the Eastern Front by Constantine Pleshakov is a readable and astounding book.

Never talk about how bad things are in America right now (2020) or how bad our leaders are until you have read accounts of Josef Stalin and the Russo-German War in World War II.

Gripping, astounding stories.  It is amazing that somehow Russia not only survived the attack by Hitler, but mounted the resources to defeat him.  Stalin is one of the most evil, puzzling, bizarre, and manipulative rulers in all of history.

 Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution by Jeff Broadwater is published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Of the making of books about the Founding Fathers there is no end.  Quite popular are the ones that compare and contrast those men.  In many cases, they were friends, allies, co-workers, kindred spirits, and at times, enemies.  Jefferson and Madison are two quite amazing men, each considered by himself.  They have their fans and detractors to this day.

The two men were really close friends.  Some of their political thoughts and actions were united, but there are plenty of divergences in their thinking and legacies.  This book traces the many political issues and actions the men undertook both together and separately.

Madison’s role in the Constitutional Convention was the highpoint of his career, while Jefferson was far off in France at the time.  They corresponded, agreed, differed, hammered out issues, etc.  You cannot help but think what they might have done had they had more modern ways of communication.

Wherever you stand regarding these two men, this is a great study.

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

A more full review is coming soon.  This collection of sermons is one of the best books I read this year.

Demons by Michael Heiser is published by Lexham Press.

This book is not an easy read.  Heiser is not writing a spooky, for the curious, account of the demonic world.  Expect more Hebrew than you can handle and many detailed refences to Intertestamental Period writings.

This book calls for careful study and slow and repeated reading and consideration.

Two novels read in August

Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown

The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling

I picked up the Brown book for 50 cents.  It looked new even though it came out in the late 1990s.  The Rowling book is the third in the Harry Potter series which I am still trying to muster the strength to read.

Sorry folks, but I thought Brown’s book was much better than Rowling’s.

 

 

 

July Readings for 2020

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In my way of thinking and living, there is nothing quite like beach reading in July.  By that I mean that my current life has no actual connections to any beaches, sun, sand, surf, sea gulls, and waves lapping at my feet.  It has, since you ask, been one of the hardest months of my life.  I won’t rehearse the woes and calamities, including job loss, school closing, mechanical breakdowns, family health crises, and problems in our physical domicile.

But one thing that does connect me to beach reading is the fact that I did get to do some reading during the month.  The books, varied and sundry, will be discussed in turn in this posting.

Books Read in July:

  1. Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Amy Dockser Marcus

Back in March, I met a college student, Alex Perrin, who was a history major for a time.  He recommended this book to me.  I must admit to being a bit lost in the story as it developed in this history.  It was a reminder of how little I know about the history of the Middle East in the 20th century.  I have read 3 or 4 books on the subject, but as I often say, one cannot join the conversation in an intelligent way until they have read–and to some degree, mastered–at least ten books on a particular subject.  Side note:  A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin is my “go to” book on this subject and the one I need to read several times.

No contemporary news story exists in a vacuum. But going back to the roots can be a amazingly complex matter.  The factions–Arab, Ottoman Turk, and Jewish–who were involved in matters in Jerusalem are many and detailed.  Needless to say, the perspective of time give both sadness and amazement at what has and continues to happen there.  (Truth Disclosure:  This book was read in June, not July.)

2. Strays by Remy Wilkins

Remy Wilkins is an actual, real live friend of mine.  The fact that we never cross paths is irrelevant.  He is a young, still budding teacher, scholar, and author who lives in Monroe, Louisiana, attends the Presbyterian church his father pastors, and works in a classical Christian school.

This book, his first novel, is a delightful and engaging story of a young boy who gets caught up in a web of danger and mystery when he goes to live with his uncle.  I always have to confess, with resulting boos and hisses, that I do not prefer the type of stories containing elements of fantasy and Lewis-Tolkien-type Christian messages.  My preference is for the grittier Faulkner-O’Connor type of Southern realism.

However, I work to overcome such moral flaws in my reading.  The opening pages of this book shamed me severely and almost caused me to never write another sentence.  By that, I mean that Remy’s writing is well crafted.  By that, I also mean that I was jealous of his craftsmanship.

While this book might seem to appeal to the younger readers, adults and even old contrarians can read it with much pleasure.  I look forward to reading more of Mr. Wilkins’s books.

3. An Introduction to Theological Anthropology by Joshua R. Farris  (Not pictured below.  My books are all in disorder at the moment, and I don’t know where this one is hiding.)

This book is a theological heavy lifting work. I posted a review of it in conjunction with a few companion volumes last month.

While theology is primarily devoted to the study of God, we also have the need to study man (to use the older, now unacceptable term).  Man, mankind, people, anthropos are complex, wonderfully made, terribly distorted beings.  John Calvin’s Institutes begins with the point that we know God and ourselves as the beginning of knowledge.

I really admire this book and have been able to get to know the author through Facebook.  Much of the time while reading it, I found myself wondering “How would this preach?”  By that, I mean how do we who are teachers, pastors, communicators, etc. take the content and apply it to our audiences?  I believe this is a vital question, and the book doesn’t provide bullet points teaching for the masses.  Remember, it is heavy lifting.  And I do believe that sharpening and deepening our understanding of what we are, what the Bible says we are, and what the culture rightly or wrongly supposes we are–these are vital.

4. Reading Walker Percy’s Novels  and Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence by Jessica Hooten Wilson

Both of these literary studies are fine works and good reading.  Half of the enjoyment of great literature is interaction with others who have read widely and who share their insights and experiences.  I am still way behind on my reading of Walker Percy’s works.  I know, I know.  I claim to be a serious reader of Southern literature, but I am in Walker Percy kindergarten, sleeping on a mat.

This means that I will need to revisit both of these books when I get caught up on reading Percy and when I read, penitently, Demons by Doestoevsky.

5. Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes

This is a really good account of America’s War on Poverty during the 1960s and 1970s.  If you would like some solid right wing rants about guv’mint programs and how they fail, look elsewhere.  This work is detailed, maybe even laborious, and careful in its documentation of an era.

Shlaes has written some really valuable histories for our time, including her work on the Great Depression and her biography of Calvin Coolidge.  Add this to those for a powerful trilogy on true conservative historiography.

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

I love reading about political battles and election campaigns.  There has never been two more gifted, but totally different men vying for the Presidency than Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams.  They slugged it out in both 1824 and 1828.  This book does a good job of going all the way back through the childhoods and lives of these two men.  Great reading and great fun reading.

7. How to Keep From Losing Your Mind by Deal Hudson

The subtitle for this book is “Educating Yourself Classically to Survive Cultural Indoctrination.”  This book and author reminded me of Father James V. Schall who wrote several books with similar messages.  I have been struggling to provide myself with the meagerest of tools of a classical education for years.  I have been lamenting many of the things lacking in the college training I received.  I have been running and teaching in a classical Christian school until events forced its closure this summer.  This book is right down my alley.

Part of what is unique and helpful about Hudson’s book is that he doesn’t simply repeat the list of great books and why you should read them.  He devotes an equal amount of time to music and movies.  Granted, it is hard to read a review of a piece of music.  But when I listen to classical music, it is usually as background music and not as an active experience.  Hopefully, books like this one will fuel a few more fires for better education.

8. Compel Them to Come In:  Calvinism and the Free Offer of the Gospel by Donald Macleod

This book is a great series of sermons (though not actually that) and exhortations for Reformed folk to get busy about the task of witnessing, evangelizing, praying for, and reaching the lost.  If someone desires a bit more theological detail, J. I. Packer’s classic Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God remains a serious go-to book.  But this one is a powerful reminder to us Reformed hard-heads of what we really believe.

9. Shots Fired by C. J. Box

The dust jacket says that these are Joe Pickett stories, and a few of them are.  C. J. Box is a fun and gripping writer.  I loved these stories, even in a case or two where I objected to Box’s resolutions to the plots. Oh yes, the story titled “The Master Falconer,” featuring Nate Romanowski is worth the price of the book.

10. Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

Read several times before. Each time it is a delight. Especially pertinent right now.

11. The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine by Patrick Schreiner

This is a short book that deals with a neglected doctrine, as the title says.  I sometimes finish a book and think to myself, “This book is far better than my reading of it.”  The fact that Christ ascended up into heaven is really a staggering theological truth.  Along with our notice of and celebration of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, we should be noticing and celebrating His Ascension–and that on Ascension Day/Sunday and ever Day/Sunday.

Jesus did not just slip away.  He ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of God the Father.

Read this book, share it, preach it.

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Hodge and Dabney–Read Them While You Can

The 1800s in American history was a time of great Presbyterian theologians and preachers.  Most history surveys overlook these men and their messages.  Historians adopt the view of the poet Oliver Wendell Holmes whose poem “The One Hoss Shay” attempted to mock the demise of Jonathan Edwards’ theology.  Quite often Ralph Waldo Emerson is treated as though he were a deeply profound American born and raised philosopher.  His buddy Henry David Thoreau is likewise hailed as one of the bright lights of American history.

The final nails are put into the Presbyterian coffin during the Scopes Trial.  Less often noticed is the battle for Princeton Theological Seminary.  Mark Twain, who was often better than the historians at noticing the things that mattered, took more than a few swipes at Presbyterians.  Take down the massive pillars of American Presbyterian theology and the rest of the edifice of American Protestant Christianity would follow.

I am not, at this moment, out to blame the historians.  No one or no one thousand histories can cover everything.  Of course, the perspective of the historian does determine what to include and what to exclude.  This point still remains:  Anyone serious about understanding American history from a Christian viewpoint must go beyond the best known texts and authors.

In short, Presbyterian theologians were some of the most dominant thinkers of the 19th Century.  That dominance continued on into the 20th Century, but their voices and impact became less and less known.  But just as one would not attempt to understand the Age of Elizabeth I in English history without taking note of the Puritan movement, one should not attempt to understand American history without studying the Presbyterians of the 1800s.

This study and emphasis, however, is not just a topic for intellectual historians who are trying to fill in gaps or connect the pieces of the puzzle.  It is not what the Presbyterians said in the 1800s that concerns me most.  Rather, it is what they are calling us to hear in the 21st Century.

We need the old Presbyterians now more than ever.  Sad to say, after being ignored or glanced over for a long time, they are currently being excommunicated from Presbyterian thought and studies.  Especially disliked are those who not only had the “misfortune” of being born in the South, but who defended the South and the Southern Confederacy on a number of very nuanced and profound ways.

The reading list I would like to give on this topic is long and involved.  There are nearly 30 books that I call attention to in one of my past book reviews that dealt with Columbia Theological Seminary.  That review can be found HERE.

For now, I would like to recommend two books written by two of the great Presbyterian theologians from the 19th century.  I will struggle to avoid both being overly biographical or full of praise for these men.  Just know that these are two of the pillars of American Christian Reformed and Presbyterian orthodox thought in the 1800s.

First, Charles Hodge and Exegetical Lectures and Sermons on Hebrews.  This book is published by Banner of Truth.

The pastor, student, or teacher who needs an all purpose commentary on Hebrews needs to look elsewhere.  The Hodge reader who is familiar with his incredible commentary on Romans should know that this work is not in the same category.  It does contain comments on the text, and it is classic Hodge theology from beginning to end.

The first part of this book is exegetical notes on Hebrews.  Hodge is not giving exhortation or application, but is working through some of the Greek grammar details and other points of exegesis, or drawing out the meaning of the text.  For me, it was yet another reminder of how exacting, careful, and learned the Presbyterian ministers were in Hodge’s day.  For me, it was yet another reminder of how far my own education is from the standards of that time.

Non-Greek New Testament students like me will find this section interesting, but not fulfilling.  Greek students would likely be crying out “More! More!”  As a student and teacher of history, it is more confirmation of the education found at Princeton and the scholarship standards of the time.

The following section gives a number of sermon outlines.  A few if the outlines, but not all, come from another Banner publication called Princeton Sermons.  I believe that preachers and students can learn quite a bit from studying these outlines.  A similar work can be found in the B & H series called The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon: His Earliest Outlines and Sermons Between 1851 and 1854.  

Reading a sermon outline is a bit of a challenge.  It can be read quickly if one is simply trying to cover pages.  But I think the greater task would be to spend some time thinking on each of the outline points.  I think it would be a great lesson for aspiring preachers to take these outlines and fill in the gaps.  (But give credit to the original writer.)  Side note:  Hodge’s outlines are not bullet points.

The absolute best part of the new Hodge book is the all too few complete sermons from various Hebrew texts.  I remember thinking while reading one of these: “There is no way I could pack this much content into a single sermon.  There is no way I could grasp this much content in a single sermon.”  I am not speaking about merely being full of facts and theological information.  I am referring to the fact that these sermons were rich with content.  As Wesley said in another context, “I felt my heart warmly moved.”

One quote that I posted recently is worth repeating:  “It was the Spirit who made the sound ring in your ears long after the speaker’s voice had ceased, and which brought back the sound in the stillness of the night and repeated in a small, still voice the admonitions of the pulpit.”

The sermons themselves are worth the price of the book.  But the other parts are also helpful in giving both spiritual guidance and a standard to aspire to.  By the way, Banner of Truth has continued to put out or reprint books by Charles Hodge. His commentaries on Romans, Ephesians, and 1 and 2 Corinthians and his book The Way of Life are both available, as is a biography of Hodge by his son A. A. Hodge.

Dabney on Fire: A Theology of Parenting, Education, Feminism, and Government is edited and introduced by my friend Zachary Garris.  This book can be purchased from Amazon.

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The books by Robert Lewis Dabney are many, usually lengthy, and now often highly priced and out of print.  Thankfully, Zach Garris has made a handy, short, readable, and very pertinent collection of Dabney’s writings available in this book.

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One of the many strengths of R. L. Dabney was his ability to see the direction that the culture and world was headed in.  I think this insight, often called prophetic by those who study him, came from his Presbyterian worldview, vast scholarship, and personal experiences in being on the losing side of a major war.  I have heard many literary figures explain Southern literature as being the result of the South losing the War Between the States.

Let us sidestep, for the moment, the issues and controversies related to that war.  Often the greatest examples of human writing and thought come from people who have experienced the greatest hardships.  Arguably, any soldier from World War I could have written All Quiet on the Western Front, but the fact that Erich Maria Remarque was a soldier on the German side increased the power of that novel.

The War Between the States was followed by the period known as Reconstruction.  The standard history book then follows up with a period called “The Gilded Age.”  That catchy phrase refers to the surface appearance of gold on an object that is not gold.  Just as the world after World War I was not “safe for democracy” and the world after World War II was full of tragic courses, so that must be said about post-bellum America in the 1870s and beyond.

Dabney saw some bad consequences of ideas that were gaining the high ground in his time.  Repeatedly, his warnings about education have been mentioned, quoted, and listened to by many, except those in the educational establishment.  American education is in a crisis.  Right now, the crisis is centering around school closures and possible inability to open in the fall.  This is not to demean good teachers, faithful parents, or good effects stemming from the modern education system.  But Dabney was looking beyond just a few symptoms to the greater problems.  For Dabney, the problems stemming from a secular agenda would be astronomical.  Be warned:  He is not going to be nice in these essays.  But carefully consider all of what he says.

Dabney was also concerned about feminism.  It is routine to mock nearly all males from the 1800s regarding their views of women.  Granted, they were not perfect in their understanding of this or other issues.  I am thankful for the changes in culture and society that have granted greater opportunities for women in all areas of life.  I have recently read books by one of the best literary scholars of our time, Jessica Hooten Wilson, who was a student of THE best literary critic of our time, Dr. Louise Cowan.  I have been reading The Great Society by Amity Shlaes, who ranks among the greatest historians of our time in my thinking.

But feminism was in some of its root and is in some of its modern day fruit more than just a case of righting some societal wrongs.  We have found ourselves in a world of gender insanity in these days.  Hence, again there is the need to return to Dabney.

Concerning government, Southern Presbyterians had an oddly workable theological position.  Pastors did not see that their task was to instruct the government from the pulpit, but they were pastor/scholars and public intellectuals.  Hence, men like Dabney and his colleagues James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer used a variety of formats, usually written articles or public lectures, to address the government.

Dabney’s thought was conservative, but if a modern reader spends some time with Dabney’s writings, he will not find much to connect him to modern day talk radio “conservatism” or Republican party conservatism.  Once again, Dabney will make us uncomfortable.

Zach Garris gives a fine introduction that provides pertinent biographical and theological details about Dabney.  That is followed by reprints of four articles by Dabney on the topics listed in the subtitle.  This is a great way to get introduced to a man who will not be often mentioned in today’s culture–secular or Christian.

There is your assignment:  Get to know Charles Hodge and Robert L. Dabney.  Here are two books that will enable you to go well into that task.