J C. Ryle–Prepared to Stand Alone and Holiness

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There are three things right up front that commend the book J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray to me and hopefully to you.

First of all, it is a Banner of Truth publication.  For decades now, Banner has been publishing outstanding books by current authors promoting historic evangelical Reformed theology.  Along with that, Banner has reprinted hundreds of works by Christian authors from the past, ranging from John Calvin to John Owen to Charles Spurgeon and many others.  There are more Puritan books available today than there would have been during the heyday of the Puritans, thanks to publishing houses like Banner of Truth.   Add to that, their books are well bound and are beautiful additions to the library shelves in your home or office.

Second, the author of this book on Ryle is Iain Murray.  Mr. Murray has some incredible gifts as a writer and biographer.  Often Christian biographies are in the light and fluffy category.  They are written to inspire us all to do better.  If the subject happened to be a significant figure in history or theological movements, academics weigh in with biographies that are often technical, critical (in multiple senses of the word), and beyond the interest level of most Christian readers.  Murray hits the middle ground.  He writes for the Christian who needs (desparately) to know more about Christian history or Christian leaders of the past, but who is not an expert.

Murray’s first and foremost biographical study was his book The Forgotten Spurgeon.  It was not, strictly speaking, a biography, but rather a study of Spurgeon’s battles against several theological trends in his life and ministry.  My favorite Murray book is his two volume study of the life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  The second of those volumes changed my life.  His biography of Jonathan Edwards is first rate, but should be read alongside of George Marsden’s more academic biography.  Murray has also written accounts of A. W. Pink, John Murray, and John MacArthur.

A Scottish Christian Heritage and Heroes are both fun reads as well, and The Puritan Hope is a great study of both the Puritans and of eschatology (Murray is postmillennial).  Looking over a list of Murray volumes thrills me with remembering his past works, but also frustrates me since I am still lacking far too many of his books.

Third, the subject of this book is J. C. Ryle.  Ryle was a minister in the Church of England who lived from 1816 to 1900.  He was a prolific author, although he was also a very busy pastor and parish priest.  Twice widowed in his earlier years, he did not have an easy life.  His earlier career choice was the law, and he had suffered tremendously from economic setbacks that wrecked his father’s business.

At age 21 he was converted to Christ. He was, we might say, very nominally Christian or churched before that.  He later wrote, “If I had died before I was twenty-one, if there is such a thing as being lost forever in hell, which I do not doubt, I certainly should have been lost forever.”

During his career, he served as parish minister in several churches.  He suffered quite a few difficulties along the way, but managed to not only minister very ably to his congregation but also wrote tracts and other writings.  Understand that tracts in the 1800s sometimes meant books of a hundred pages.  Overall, Ryle literary output was tremendous.

It is very easy to think of a Church of England parish minister in the 1800’s as having a placid, quiet life.  Think of the ministers in Jane Austen’s books.  Other than their failed efforts to woo one of Austen’s heroines, they had fairly quiet country lives.

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That is not at all the world of J. C. Ryle. Of course, there were the beautiful old churches, quaint villages, tea with parishioners, but there were also battles.  The last half of the 1800’s was a war zone for the Christian faith.  Ryle’s theology, which was Biblical, enriched by the Puritans, decidedly Reformed and Calvinistic, and evangelical was under attack.

The more admirable of the enemies were part of the Oxford Movement.  Quite a few very scholarly and literary churchmen were gravitating (or running) back to Rome.  Some made the switch, while others labored to widen the theological options available within the Church of England.

On the other hand, there were the forces of Darwinian Naturalism, the higher critical movement, and the rise of various more modern philosophies and theologies that were not only on the outside of the faith, but were cropping up within.  Ryle’s own son, Herbert, bought into many of the “up to date, modern, cutting edge” theologies of his day.  (Any surprise that Herbert–also an author–is largely forgotten along with his works?)

Ryle, like his contemporary and fellow battler for the truth Charles H. Spurgeon, labored all his days against the unbiblical theologies, false gospels, and popular new ideas of his age.  He was not a philosopher or really a theologian in the technical sense.  Nor was he the debater of his age or the man who could answer the fool according to his folly.

Ryle’s gift was faithful, convicting exposition of Bible passages and doctrines.  His books remain valuable and can inform and convict the modern man as much or more than the original readers.

I highly, triply, recommend J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.

However, don’t even get close to that book unless you already have read from Ryle himself.  Banner of Truth has published many of Ryle’s books in fine hardback editions.  You cannot make a better investment for your library AND your soul than Ryle’s classic book Holiness.

But first, a warning and/or exhortation.  Reading this book out right, as in from cover to cover, is not necessarily the way to go.  Maybe some will disagree, but I recommend the slow read, the frequent re-read, and the careful handling of this work.  Even the introduction is red meat.  If you have read more modern books on spiritual disciplines and personal holiness, all such will be good primers or warm-up exercises for Ryle.  Regarding the more modern guys, I highly recommend the late Jerry Bridges and the current author Kevin DeYoung.  But again, Ryle is completely undiluted.

So, acquire Holiness and hopefully then grow in holiness.  Read it slowly.  Read the chapters out of order.  Pick it up and read a page or two almost anywhere.  Mark or write down good quotes.  Work the book over.  And, I am not just speaking to you.  I am speaking to myself as well.


The History Teacher’s Morning Devotional

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Many pastors and preachers are readers of history.  If the study of theology and the Bible is their vocation, history is often their source for relaxation as well as for extra help.  Stories from history support and add to sermons.  History is, in some ways, an extended commentary of Biblical truths.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I know of nothing next to the reading of the Scriptures themselves that has been of greater value to me in my own personal life and ministry than constant reading of the history of the church.”  Along with church history, biographies are a favorite of ministers.  But secular history, and I wince at that awkward term, is also useful for broadening a pastor’s perspectives, providing rich sources for sermon illustrations, and disciplining the mind.

Not only do many preachers read history, quite a few have written on historical subjects.  There is the field of history as a profession, involving certain academic credentials and labors, but history is not confined to the specialists.  Along with journalists, novelists, and popular authors dipping into the vast river of history, preachers sometimes write histories.

Along with history-reading-and-using preachers, there are also history teachers who borrow heavily from the fields of the Bible and theology.  I am talking about more than a history teacher who is a church member in good standing and who reads his Bible each morning for personal spiritual growth.  Some historians have dug deeply into theological matters for historical research.  This is more than just the realm of church historians.

Christopher Dawson was first and foremost a historian, but his historical works are shaped by his theological concerns.  The Dutchman Groen van Prinsterer was primarily a historian, but his conversion to Christianity radically altered his understanding and writing of history.

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Just as some (hopefully not many) preachers preach badly, so some people do history badly.  Beware of statements like “History shows” or “History proves” or “What we can learn from history is.”  History provides illustrations of everything.  Want to prove or buttress any argument?  Look around in the huge bin of historical examples.  Every cause imaginable has been put forth as to why the Roman Empire fell.  Every American President or political leader can be likened to some famous or infamous Roman.  Almost any era of history can be presented as a golden age or as an example of vice we should be careful not to follow.

In short, history does not prove.  Go to math class for proofs.  This does not mean that history is without lessons or practical applications.

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Today (July 19, 2017), I finished reading the book Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel L. Dreisbach.  It is published by Oxford University Press.This is one of the best books I have read this year and is one of the best studies of the Founding Era of U. S. history that I have ever read.  While it is true that we should not be taken in by credentials and academic titles, professional historians are held to higher standards than the rest of us.  There is much to be said for academic reputations and peer reviews.  Yes, mother sometimes knows best what to do for your stomach ache, but you still go to the trained, licensed doctor for serious medical conditions.

Dr. Dreisbach is both a scholarly historian and a Christian.  He has filled in a large gap in the conventional story of the sources of America’s freedom and establishment as a nation.  Certainly, the familiar names, such as John Locke and Montesquieu, are mentioned, but it was the Bible that provides the most quotes and references among the founders in their writings and speeches.  But was this just a ploy used to appeal to a Bible-reading public?  To some degree, yes, but the extensive use of Bible verses, references, and ideas in public and personal discourse indicates that the Bible was believed and adhered to as a spiritual or God-given source for political understanding.

In my Humanities class this coming school year, I will be teaching The American Story.  It is my favorite of the four Humanities courses, largely because I am better versed in American history and literature than the other subject areas.  But even the teacher needs both refresher studies and new realizations.  This book provides both.  I have been exploring the connection between the Bible and American history for years.  I am certain that I have read and studied at least a couple of hundred books on the topic.  (Many books included the topic but were not focused on it.)  If I were to provide a bibliography of ten or so books, this one would make the cut.  Unless I am forgetting some other vital book, this one might very well get first place honors.

If 234 pages of text were not enough to convince or challenge me, Dreisbach has an extensive section of notes with further details.  This book can be used, as the title of this post states, as a devotional read for the history teacher.  But this devotional will not be closed as the teacher then prepares for his or her labors in the classroom.  Whether quoted extensively in lectures or just used indirectly, this book will impact the teaching of history.

I received my copy of this book free for the task of reviewing it.  As such, I am not obligated to speak in favorable, much less glowing, terms about it.  But I am doing such because it is that good.





Good Books, Good Times

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My former pastor, Curtis C. Thomas,  once described what he thought physical activities were for me.  He described it as, “closing one book and opening another.”  Didn’t he realize that I also had to walk to the shelves, pick out the next book, and carry it to the reading chair?  Never underestimate my life of adventurous activity.

Today, I will highlight a few of my current morning reads.

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The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser, published by Lexham Press, $24.99. I started this book a couple of months ago.  But some of the late spring reads are halted for a time and then resumed with summer break.  This is a fascinating and revealing book. One would think that Christians would not need to be prodded and jolted into reading the Bible–of all things–with a supernatural worldview.  Surprise, surprise.  We do need instructions on this.  This is a serious study of the Scriptures and not a one-time quick read.

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Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers by Daniel L. Dreisbach, published by Oxford University Press, $34.95.  I am stunned every time I read from this book.  Sometimes Christians with more zeal than academic skill have oversold the Christian influences in our earlier history.  (I am guilty of this at times myself.)  Sometimes, in an effort to offset years of Christian influences being ignored while secular and Enlightenment thought was being highlighted, history was distorted.  Dreisbach is an academic scholar and Oxford University Press is not a small time Christian publisher.  And it is not that he was able to ferret out a few Bible references.  Instead the book is full of cases, quotes, and examples of the Bible drenching early American culture.  If the main text is not enough, he has enough extra material in the endnotes to make an additional volume.


Since reading Doug Douma’s outstanding biography of Gordon Clark, titled The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark  (published by Wipf and Stock), 

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I have been marveling over what all Clark did in his lifetime to promote sound, logical, and most of all, Biblical Christian thought.  Falling head over heels for Clark once again in my life, I suddenly had a profound thought:  I should read the big man himself.  Again.

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A Christian Philosophy of Education by Gordon H. Clark, published by The Trinity Foundation.

So I am enjoying getting back into Clark’s book on Christian education.  Christian schools or homeschooling families are found in almost every corner of the nation today, but Clark first wrote this book back in 1946.  That precedes even the writings of R. J. Rushdoony on Christian education.

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Beyond Calvin: Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition is edited by W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes and published by The Davenport Trust.

I received this book a few weeks ago, but just opened it up today.  It speaks to an issue of much concern to me:  Calvinists are fighters.  We are conditioned to contend for the Faith–and Biblically commanded to do so.  We learn the debate skills, Biblical arguments, intellectual approaches, and wide range of other (usually meaning false) options.  We are, as several historians have said, God’s marines.  I don’t know how many times I have heard a position referred to as “THE Reformed view.”  I don’t want to be accepting of any and every shade and variation of thought claiming to be Christian.  But we have spent far too much intellectual and spiritual energy fighting one another.

This book is made up of essays (adapted from talks) coming out of the Convivium Irenicum, an annual gathering of scholars, students, and pastors to “exchange ideas, deepen friendships, and apply the Reformed faith today.”

Count me in, guys.  I am looking forward to getting farther in to this collection.

Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man

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Watching television and movies keeps you from reading books.  Reading novels keeps you from reading serious non-fiction.  Non-fiction keeps you from reading theology.  Theology keeps you from reading the Bible.  Watching plays and reading dramas keep you from reading poetry.  Shorter poems keep you from reading epic poems.  Epic poems keep you from reading Plato and Aristotle.  Reading Plato and Aristotle keep you from reading….fill in the blank.

We are finite and busy and slow at reading, so whatever we are doing is keeping us from doing something equally good or better.  We are not only finite and limited, but we are all artistically inclined.  We are all users, admirers, and developers of art and artistic creations.  Some of the arts we deal with are such things as the finely finished report, the good meal, the freshly mown lawn, the washed and ironed clothes, the long studied and delivered lecture or sermon, or the pleasing hummed tune.

God looked on creation and said, “It is good.”  Even when our own creations are mediocre or even bad, we have the built-in apparatus to look on what we have done and say the same.  God has wired us to see art (connect that word to artisan and craftsman and not just painters) and order.  God has also wired us to comprehend, interpret, and think about art.  The wrestling fan who says, “Boy, that was a good fight,” is interpreting an art exhibit in a fashion similar to the art critic who comments upon Rembrandt’s use of shadows.

We can not do all the things we want and need to do.  And what we actually do is a series of artistic efforts and interpretations.

But let’s slow up a bit here and focus upon just a couple of things:  Science fiction, science fiction movies and television, and C. S. Lewis.  Here too is a door to a universe more wonderful and vast than we have imagined.  I say that as one who would not prefer science fiction or fantasy (which are two different genres) in books or movies.  But I am a C. S. Lewis fan.  On the one hand, I have done quite well in collecting most, but not all, of Lewis’ books, but then comes the books written about Lewis, including biographies, but more than just that.  Lewis was a wide-ranging and first class thinker whose ideas–including theological and philosophical as well as literary ideas–have impacted a wide range of disciplines.

The book Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man:  Finding C. S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Film and Television is edited by Mark J. Boone and Kevin C. Neece.  It was published this year by Pickwick Publications, a branch of Wipf and Stock Publishers.  It has a forward by Brian Godawa, who is something on the order of the Reformed theologian of movies.  Re-reading Godawa’s essay today convinced me even so of his knack for teaching us to view film as a worldview tool.  He writes, “Science fiction as a genre is most often an argument for or against current ideas or worldviews by showing their ultimate ends lived out in the future.”

Great statement.  While there is “nothing wrong” with just sitting back and enjoying a movie, it is just not possible.  Every film, like ever book or song, is presenting some sort of vision of reality or of ultimate things or of moral truths.  This is why we in the Christian school business have to keep honing in on the idea of worldview thinking.

The first chapter of the book is titled “Finding C. S. Lewis in Science Fiction Film and Television.”  The hook for me, however, is that this essay is written by co-editor Mark Boone.  Dr. Boone is part of an expanding universe of Christian thinkers who are carving niches in every area of academic life.  God is doing an intellectual Reformation in our age, whether the greater body of believers and the vast masses of unbelievers see it or not.  Boone’s first book is a study of Augustine, titled The Conversion and Therapy of Desire: Augustine’s Theology of Desire in the Cassiciacum Dialogues.  When I was studying this book last summer, I concluded two things:  First, this is a first rate study that is not a fast read, and second, Mark Boone is serious.

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Serious, however, does not mean grave, somber, and solemn with no application to folks that don’t dwell in safe academic zones.  (The hidden humor of that remark is that Boone spent the last year teaching somewhere in the Middle East.)  So, this book appeals to a broader crowd that still wants to think.  In this case, it involves a cross discipline jaunt:  C. S. Lewis’ short book The Abolition of Man and science fiction films.  Lewis’ little classic could be used in a number of courses and discussions, including education, literature, history, ethics, current culture, pop culture, and, of course, science fiction.  The case is made stronger by the fact that Lewis wrote some science fiction, his Space Trilogy.

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My biggest hindrance was lack of knowledge of most of the films.  I was familiar with one show, Person of Interest.  Artur Skweres wrote the essay titled “Between the Good and the Evil Samaritan: Person of Interest in Light of C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.”  I love that show and read the essay twice, but I don’t agree with it.  That is okay in a book of thought provoking essays.  I did realize that I was watching the show way too passively and have tried to be more alert to the deeper messages.  Skweres concerns about the workings of Mr. Finch and Mr. Reese may be right on target, and I may be wrong.  That is what is fun about these discussions.

Several chapters in the book are about the ever popular television series and subsequent films known as Star Trek.  Never watched either!  But I could benefit from sitting through a few hours of both so that upon rereading, the essays resonate with me.

Many of the films discussed are older.  As Brian Godawa points out, they are nearly all accessible now.  The issues, the ethical dilemmas and worldview confrontations, are old as well, and yet they are all throughly relevant and on the cutting edge.

Don’t try to read this book through from cover to cover (as I did–with a long break between the halves of the book). Read the foreward and first chapter.  Then read any chapters that pertain to movies you know.  Then use the other chapters to locate movies and read the chapters both before and after the film viewings.

With a group of interested folks–whether students in a class or a reading group–this could be a really fun book.


Hilaire Belloc–More Introduction than Rememberance

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James V. Schall is one of my favorite writers.  Hilaire Belloc should be one of my favorite writers as well.  I will blame Belloc for the distance between us.  He is out there on the perimeter of my reading world.  He is quoted by people I like.  He was a friend and peer to other authors I admire.  He wrote a host of books on a variety of topics.  He has just not intruded himself and elbowed his way past the other writers who have captured my attention.  Lord willing, there is still time, and Hilaire Belloc and I will soon become better friends, much closer, via his writings.

Until that time–soon, maybe–I will rely on Father Schall’s insistence that Belloc is one of the greatest essayists ever.  I will listen as he points to Belloc at the back of the room and tells me that I really should not wait for him to come to me, but should part the crowd and go to him.

Remembering Belloc is published by St. Augustine Press in South Bend, Indiana.  Our local bookstores, both secular and religious, do not stock publications from St. Augustine Press.  Were I to win an all expense paid vacation to Indiana, St. Augustine Press would be the first and maybe only stop on my list.  Being that the press and its books are in the Catholic tradition, some Protestants might recoil.  But as one who is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (October 31, 1517), I have learned to dig deeply and glean much from the rich theological, literary, and philosophical culture that produced Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Melancthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, and others.

Let the real and serious differences be debated elsewhere, I am willing to borrow, learn, share, and grow from great Catholic Christian thinkers like Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, Paul Johnson, Russell Kirk and his biographer Bradley Birzer, Hilaire Belloc, and James V. Schall.

Father Schall and I are old friends in a bookish sense.  I have corresponded with him in recent months, but most of the friendship is one sided.  Meaning, I have read his books.  Another Sort of Learning ranks as one of my all time favorite books on education.  All teachers should RE-read that book often.

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A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning is a part of the Intercollegiate Student Institute’s  Student Guides to the Major Disciplines series.  As the web-site says, this is “the one book you need to read as you head back to school.” I like it because you get the wit, wisdom, and reading suggestions from Schall in a short treatment.

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The Classical Moment is one of the richest collections of Schall’s musings, intellectual wanderings, and thoughtful walks.  Upon reading The Classical Moment, one will question Schall’s assertion that Belloc is the best essayist.  Okay, I will take his word that Belloc was the best in his time, but Schall is pretty high up on the list for our time.  This book is also a St. Augustine Press publication.

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And then there is Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taughta recent collection again published by St. Augustine Press.  I loved that book.  How can you not like a writer who quotes liberally from Aristotle, Aquinas, Burke, Tocqueville and the Peanuts cartoons?  Schall must have started reading and thinking even before he was born.  Add to that the many years he has lived and continued reading, sharing with students and friends, and writing.  A common Schall-ism is him remembering an essay or statement he read somewhere which he might or might not be able to find and which he then composes his own essay.

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Wait, there is Belloc still at the back of the room, and I was supposed to be talking about him.  While Schall remembers, rereads, and muses about Belloc essays, many of us are required to listen in and be introduced.  I am surprised that none of the chapters ended with the characteristic Schallism of a reading list.  But the book does contain a fine bibliography listing some twenty-five works (out of a hundred or more) that Belloc wrote.

Belloc wrote histories, some biographies, and poetry.  Primarily, he wrote essays and many of his essays, and some of his entire books, were about travel.  One of the best known is The Path to Rome.  (I am shamed to admit to owning, but not having read it.)  This work is not a theological discourse, although theology slips into Belloc’s writings, but is about actually traveling across Europe to Rome.  He often wrote about traveling, but he was not recalling the flora, fauna, and historical sites, but was using travel as the vehicle to think through matters.  Even if one is confined to a chair in the same old location, one can enjoy quite an excusion with Belloc and with his admirer, Father Schall.

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Hilaire Belloc, English author with a French heritage

Belloc lived from 1870 to 1953.  He is best remembered for such works as The Service State, The Path to Rome, and delightful and surprising poems gathered in such collections as Cautionary Tales for Children.  His life story is told in a short account in Joseph Pearce’s book Literary Converts and in greater detail in Pearce’s full length biography Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (both of which I have read and loved).

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The normal recommendation (which means, do as I say, not as I have done) is to go straight to the writer and not to those who write about the writer.  One should start with Belloc instead of with Pearce’s works or with Schall’s book.  Except, in this case, I commend beginning with Schall. That is because he himself is worthy of attention as a writer.  And if he, as a master essayist, says that Belloc is the best, then I am convinced and willing to move on.

In many ways, Remembering Belloc is like a conversation between Belloc and Schall.  Schall speaks, Belloc responds, then Schall adds something, and then Belloc adds something else.  I was the outsider, not always knowing the inside jokes, the depth of the story, or the allusions.  But I knew enough and recognized enough to know this:  I want to know both of these writers more and better.

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James V. Schall, political philosopher, writer, and essayist

War! Huh! What Is It Good For?

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War and the teaching of history go together.  It would be difficult to be a pacifist and teach history and impossible to teach the subject without covering the wars.  There are two extremes:  One is a militaristic, nationalism that exults in war and glorifies heroes.  The other is a total opposition to all wars and absolute insistence against any use of military force.

Those are, as I said, the extremes.  Between those two poles are many other points on the line.  Most people have an adversion to war in general, but a sense of support and pride for the wars and history of their own country.  There are a few cases in American history where our country engaged in wars that, in retrospect, seem totally unnecessary.  The War of 1812 is questionable, and were it not for the late battle of New Orleans, it would have to be considered a defeat.  The Mexican-American War was a resounding success, but the causes and conduct and settlement are not at all things to take pride in.  The Spanish-American War was completely unnecessary.  Vietnam was a series of blunders.

Yet it is difficult for Americans to oppose–from a historical perspective–the American War for Independence.  A case can be made, and even at the time, as many as one third of American colonials sided with the Mother Country.  It is pretty much a given that the Civil War/War Between the States was the irrepressible conflict and was necessary.  Some think it was necessary to oppose such things as slavery or secession, while others think it was necessary to support states’ rights.  Most Americans feel pretty comfortable–again in retrospect–over our engagement in World War I and World War II.  The reasons for entering the Great War of 1914-1918 are not so clear, but the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the later revelations of the extent of Nazi atrocities certain makes a strong case for U. S. entrance into World War II.

Sometimes, World War II, in spite of Ben Franklin’s saying, is called the Good War.  The crushing defeat of Naziism in Germany, the overthrow of Fascism in Italy, and the destruction of Imperial Japan were all positive things.  But the same war that crushed certain totalitarians paved the way for Soviet Communism to survive and spread throughout the world in both Europe and Asia.  Even the good guys, the Allied forces of the United States and the United Kingdom, had their less than stellar moments.  Wholesale bombings of civilians are hard to justify either morally or as a contributing factor to shortening the war.  (I don’t wish to imply that the Hiroshima bombing was unnecessary or impossible to justify, but it is up for debate.)

History teachers must not be like the overly militaristic and nationalistic teacher in All Quiet on the Western Front who is named Kantorek.  He praised the war that the Fatherland (Germany) had entered and encouraged his students to go fight.  History teachers need to raise questions.  Students may and should come away with different views on the justness of particular wars.  Jingoism, not a common word, refers to extreme patriotism, especially in the form of aggressive or warlike foreign policy.  It is unbecoming of a history teacher and theologically wrong for a Christian.

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There are lots of powerful books, songs, and movements that have been anti-war.  As referenced above, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic work, All Quiet on the Western Front, is a powerful novel.  One could wish that it had been able to stem the movement that led to World War II.  It was written by a German, but could have just as easily been written by a Frenchman, an Englishman, or a Russian.  Reading it should have convinced the younger generation and what remained of the World War I generation to never lift up arms in battle again.  But, after a 20 year rest period–enough time to grow another young batch of boys–World War II started.

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Efforts to stop, limit, prevent, or soften war have been futile.  The Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war, but failed.  So did the League of Nations and the United Nations.  The case can be made that the greatest preventative measure to war is military preparedness, but that also opens up lots of debate.

As a Christian and a history teacher, I am obligated to confront the topic of wars in history.  I believe that my book Punic Wars and Culture Wars happens to mention a bit about war.  I admit to having a love/hate relationship with war, the military, military history, and conflict in general.  Having just finished Gone With the Wind, I found it much more pleasing than the books of Jane Austen (who is admittedly a better novelist) because of the Civil War and Reconstruction history in the book.

But every war from the past is stands before the judgment seat of history and ultimately before the judgment seat of God.  Every war is a sign of spiritual failure and sinful human nature.  Every war both highlights some incredible human actions (bravery, sacrifice, and even mercy) and some horrible human characteristics.

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A few weeks ago, I read A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, translated and edited by William Klempa and published by Westminster John Knox Press.  This is an outstanding book on several fronts.  In twentieth century Protestant theology, Karl Barth is one of the most influential and powerful figures.  Two of my theological/apologetic heroes–Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark–wrote serious critiques of Barth, warning Protestants of his theology.  Others took different positions regarding Barth.

At the outset, I am an admirer of and slight reader of Karl Barth.  I could not teach, debate, defend, or attack his theology.  I am wary, but appreciative of the man as a theologian.  This book of sermons is the first complete work of Barth that I have read.

Often, I am irritated, distracted, lost, or bogged down by long introductions in books.  To my mind, an introduction should “introduce,” not present a lengthy thesis.  But the introduction to this book, written by Dr. Klempa, is really informative in explaining Barth, World War I, and the theology of the time.  As a history teacher, I loved it.  As one who dabbles in theology, I profited from it.  As one who struggles to sort out German theological trends, I profited greatly by it.  It makes up about one fourth of the book, but it greatly adds to the book and gives lots of context for the sermons that follow.

From July 26 to November 1, 1914, Karl Barth preached fourteen sermons relating to the outbreak of World War I.  The first sermon shortly preceded the beginning of the war.  While many thought the war would be a short one, Barth’s November sermon was given as the war was settling in for its first of four winters.  Barth was living and preaching in Switzerland at the time.  Switzerland was neutral during the war, but the Swiss were, as usual, prepared for any eventuality.  Neutrality had not saved Belgium from a German invasion, and it was likely that the combination of Swiss preparedness and mountain landscape prevented Switzerland from being caught in the crossfire.

Barth’s congregation would have been very aware, fearful, and even partisan about the war as it began.  Barth saw the events as eine Gotteszeit, wie nur je eine, which means, “a unique time of God.”  He saw the war as a judgment of God, but also believed that grace would trump judgment. He was determined to use the pulpit to deal with the most relevant political issue of the time, but do so from the standpoint of a preacher in the pulpit.

Much of Barth’s motivation and angst came from seeing German theologians (some who had been his teachers) not only accept the war, but they sign petitions supporting the Kaiser (Germany’s ruler) and his war aims.  Mobilization of troops, the invasion of neutral Belgium, and the quest for domination of other European powers were all accepted and cheered on by many German Christians.

Like many sermons, Barth’s preaching varied.  Some of the sermons are great, while others were tiring.  Even some of his congregation complained (!) about his continual preaching on the war.  In some cases, he aptly applied Christian and biblical principles to the context, but at times, he was giving more political than theological commentary.  That faces every preacher when he attempts to bring relevance and current events to theological and pulpit matters.  In his book, Between Two Worlds, John Stott recommended that the preacher have one foot planted in the Word and planted in the world.

This book was instructive to me, as stated above, as a history teacher and as one who preaches.  It reminds me that often I am preaching a true message to willing hearers with no ability to impact the greater culture or change the direction of history. But preachers and history teachers have an obligation to point hearers to the truth.  For the preacher, the pointing is to the Word of God, which we try to faithfully expound and apply.  For the history teacher, the truth is not a particular opinion on World War I or some other topic, but it is a pursuit, a willingness to learn, re-learn and be corrected.  This book is an outstanding contribution to both processes.

Brief Notes on Books regarding War

War, Christianity, and the State and Other Essays Against the Warfare State was written by Laurence M. Vance and is published by Vance Publications.  This is the second and somewhat lengthier edition of this work.  Dr. Vance is a serious student of this and other Biblical topics.  He has very strong objections to America’s use, justification, and abuse of military power.  I think it would be fair to put him in the libertarian anti-war tradition.

I read from this book with a perspective that is almost totally different.  There is certainly a place for the rebuttal, answer, and critique of this book.  For me, that is not my particular interest.  I think that reading in order to simply reinforce your own views is dangerous.  It is also dangerous to read anything different with only an eye toward objecting, fault-finding, and overturning.  Maybe I am too generous and easy going. Or maybe I am trying to overcome years of being far too contentious.

The case can be made against many of America’s military ventures past and present.  That makes this book worthwhile.

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I accidentally stumbled upon the book The Imperial Cruise: A Story of Empire and War by James Bradley.  He is most famous for his books Flyboys and Flags of Our Fathers.  I found this book at Once Upon a Time Books in Tontitown, Arkansas.  It was not in the history section, and that is why I call finding it accidental.

This is a very informative, but disturbing account of American foreign policy toward Asia during the very late 19th and early 20th century.  It is also very critical of American and British attitudes toward other non-Teutonic races.  Many men I admire, such as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, don’t come out of this book looking very good.  That kind of pain is, again, necessary for the history teacher.  Great men were great sinners.  Our foreign policy blunders and racial attitudes of the past were terrible.  There is no golden age, apart from what God will usher in.

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Now, I can see the friends and followers abandoning me.  I recently picked up a cheap, used copy of The Twentieth Century by Howard Zinn.  It is a excerpt and expansion of his well known, admired and denounced, People’s History of the United States.  I am reading it for the perspective.  As Paul Johnson said (or should I say, “as the great Paul Johnson said”?), Zinn is to be appreciated because he does not hide the fact that he has a viewpoint and writes with a definite opinion and objective in mind.

Don’t give up on me, readers, I will soon be back to reading Victor Davis Hansen, Thomas Fleming, John Keegan, and other less troublesome historians.




Crossing the Finish Line; Back to the Starting Line

The Finish Line

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I confess that using athletic metaphors and illustrations makes me feel more physically fit.  So, instead of just sitting in a chair and reading, I am working out.  Instead of sitting at a keyboard typing, I am pumping up my heart rate.  The cup of coffee at my side is Gatorade in my mind.  Being in that mode and mindset enables me to share a few recent wins or finishes in the world of reading.  But every race won puts me in a new bracket, facing a new opponent, and needing to run harder, faster, and better.  (That last sentence nearly took my breath away.)

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Preaching Christ from Psalms: Foundations for Expository Sermons in the Christian Year by Sidney Greidanus was published this past year by Eerdmans Publishing Company.   With 615 pages, this book is moderately list priced at $40. Normally, I might complain about that sticker price, but I offer no objection.  First, book buyers routinely know how to search out the best prices on the market.  Check with Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Christian Book Distributors, and other sources for good pricing.  Go to Allbookstores.com  for more comparisons.  I really encourage  Christian book buyers to buy from Christian book sellers and strongly urge you to make some (as in many) purchases from independent and small-fry book sellers.

That being said, $40 is a reasonable price for what all this book contains.  I started reading it last December.  I read and read, and for a few months put it aside.  Last month, I picked it back up and persevered to the end.  It is a labor, but it is the labor of mining gold.  I would buy this book just for the quotes and footnotes Greidanus included.  I would buy it just for the introductory chapters on the Psalms.  I would buy it just for his sermon expositions.  I would buy it for all the extras–theme, organization, context, uses in worship–he includes.  But a couple of Andrew Jacksons will net all of these things.

Whether one wants to use this book for preaching through the Church Calendar, or for some topic sermons, or for personal spiritual reading, this book is top shelf.  “If I were a rich man,”  I would buy a case of these books and hand them out to all preachers, teachers, and theologians that I know.  I am betting that this book wins high honors on the “Best Books of 2017” that I award each year.  I am convinced that I want to acquire and read more of Greidanus’ books.

The Taste of Sabbath: How to Delight in God’s Rest by Stuart Bryan is published by Canon Press.  Pastor Emeritus Mickey Schneider gave me this book a few years back.  It drifted from stack to stack and then was lodged somewhere in the deep recesses of my study building/book barn.  Last week, I was needing some study on the topic of the Sabbath because I was approaching two Sabbath encounters in Jesus’ life from Matthew 12.  For different reasons–some say Providence, others say disorder–I did not find this book in the study until it was too late to read through it.

I did begin it last week, and since it is a short book, it is now finished.  The Sabbath issue scares me a bit.  I have been in the middle of or on the edges of such discussions for nearly 40 years.  Christians have staked out at least 4 major positions on the relevance/irrelevance, abiding validity of/ending of, acknowledgement of/seriousness of what was the Jewish day of worship as it appears in the 10 Commandments.  I have held to–with varying degrees of commitment–at least 3 of the 4 major views.  (I have never been convinced to worship on Saturday.)

In the Reformed tradition, there is a lot of weight and weighty theologians in favor of what is sometimes called the Christian Sabbath and even the Puritan Sabbath. Each and every Sabbath concern is not addressed in this book.  It is a very positive, uplifting, and informative book that holds to an abiding, but changed Sabbath.  It is convicting, without being crushing.  Pastor Schneider, well known for his love of the Christian Sabbath, described this book as one of the best on the topic.

The fact that I read the greater part of it (and it is only 105 pages long) after my sermon is indicative of the fact that our thoughts on God’s Word and application do not end with the doxology at noon on Sundays.  Fine study.

The Starting Line

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Two books down.  Many more to go.

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Like the Shepherd: Leading Your Marriage With Love and Grace by Robert Wolgemuth with a foreword by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is published by Regnery Faith.

Last summer, I took my wife, daughter, and sister-in-law to North Little Rock to hear Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth speak.  My wife, Stephanie, and sister-in-law, Toni, had long been followers of Nancy’s “Revive Our Hearts” ministry on the radio and had read her books as well.  I was interested in seeing her as well, but figured it would be a meeting dominated by Christian women. It was, but I wasn’t the lone male in the crowd.

Along with having instructed women in ways of serving God for years, Nancy Leigh DeMoss, as she was previously known, surprised the Christian world by getting married at age 56.  Prior to that, she was serving in the much neglected ministry that singles can and should have in the Christian community.  For years, she had been advising wives and mothers.  Her instructions were solid and Biblical.  After all, the central figure in the Christian faith was a single man.  (Guess who?)  Paul the Apostle may have been a widower, or he may have been single.  Many great servants of God, such as Augustine from of old and John Stott more recently, were single.  So was J. Gresham Machen, and for most of his life and writing career, so was C. S. Lewis (and John Murray).

Nancy married Robert Wolgemuth, who had lost his first wife a few years earlier.  They knew each other from their Christian ministries:  Both were writers and speakers on Christian living issues.  Mrs. Wolgemuth is a powerful and convincing woman of deep faith.  But she is a small wisp of a person who is easily overlooked in a crowd.  In contrast, Mr. Wolgemuth is a large man with powerful features.  His size and demeanor are intimidating.

To my surprise, both Robert and Nancy were at the meeting and both shared some of the experiences of being newly weds!  Biggest problem seemed to be that Robert rises early in the morning to write, while Nancy is a night owl.  Both were incredibly gracious and friendly to their listeners and readers.

Last spring, I bought my wife a copy of Nancy’s book Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together.  This is clearly a “woman’s book,” but I enjoyed the few times that Stephanie read aloud from it during our family times.

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I was glad to acquire a copy of Robert’s book when it was recently published.  I am reading it this week to help prepare my mind and thoughts for this coming Sunday–Father’s Day.  Of course, his book is on being a husband and not on fatherhood.  While those topics are different, I am convinced that the best thing I can do for my kids is to be a good–let’s hope better, much better–husband than I am.

The guiding metaphor in the book is the husband being the shepherd to his wife.  I am sure this book will not please too many feminists, but that is not the point.  I figure this book will offend, hurt, irritate, and slap me.  I need this book to sink in.  Great to be starting it now.  I will keep you posted on my progress.