American History–An Incurable Passion

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American history  has paid the bills at my house for several decades now.  (Hey, American history, I would not object to you generating a few extra bucks.)  I have walked the breadth and depth of historical studies and found myself falling in love with many different ages, countries, and periods of history.  But when I fall back on my druthers, I had druther read, study, and teach American history than any other place, story, or phase.

I want to highlight very briefly each of the books above.  Most are review books lined up in my never ending queue of required readings.  Other are books I have shelled out the hard cash to purchase and really want to read.  Some have already been read through; some are being read; some have been started; but all are books I certainly hope to get read in the next few months. (Unfortunately, more books will show up demanding immediate attention.)

From left to right, I will identify and comment briefly on the books pictured above and below.

Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History  by Gillis J. Harp.  Outstanding study of a long relationship between the often changing ways that Christians have, for both better and worse, embraced every changing modes of conservative thinking.  I have reviewed this book on this blog.

The Price of Greatness:  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Oligarchy by Jay Cost.  More a survey of the economic and political agendas of these two men, rather than biographical studies of two sometimes allies, sometimes enemies.  Useful study of the hows and whys of early American economic successes and challenges.

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine.  Someone slipped a bit of UK history into my line-up of American history stories.  British history runs a strong second to my love of American history.

Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements by C. Douglas Weaver.  I am interested in looking into this story with no dog in the hunt.  American church and Christian history is a sub-genre of American history and is a consuming interest.

Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson.  Sent by Oklahoma University Press, this book struck me as one of marginal–at best–interest.  Then I read from the introduction and realized that this event–totally unknown to me–sounded incredibly interesting.

The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M Rein.  In spite of my best efforts to wean myself away from Civil War reading, I keep returning.  The western campaigns are still largely vague, in spite of having read Thomas Cutrer’s excellent study Theater of a Separate War:  The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865.  

The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University edited by John A. Regosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy.  While this might not sound like the most interesting book around, we must remember that Jefferson listed the founding of the University of Virginia as one of his 3 greatest accomplishments.

Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History, edited by Robert M. S. McDonald.  I started this book recently, but other readings rudely pushed it aside.  Through the years, many have written about and sought to interpret the life of Thomas Jefferson, and this book’s contributors dwell on how the man has fared through it all.

Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions by Caitlin Fitz.  I almost felt guilty for spending two bucks for this Goodwill find, for I have so many books on the American Revolution/War for Independence.  Then I discovered that it focuses on the subsequent revolutions in Central and South America in relation to our national experience.  Looking forward to this read.

Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes.  Having read Dr. Shlaes’s books on the Great Depression and Calvin Coolidge, I knew this was a must have.  Bought it with a Christmas gift card.

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael P. Winship

and

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall.

I love colonial American history, the Puritans, the Reformation and its impact on American and British history.  What is there to not be excited about with these two books?

America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It by C. Bradley Thompson.  I have been interested in this book since I first heard about it from Bradley Birzer.  After reading the opening, I am more interested than ever.

Conceived in Liberty:  The New Republic, 1781-1791 by Murray Rothbard.  Years ago, Dr. Rothbard wrote a multivolume history of early America.  Only now is this last volume, painstakingly deciphered from Rothbard’s handwriting, made available.  Rothbard is anything but conventional and predictable as a historian, and that is what makes him interesting and challenging.

Dreams of El Dorado: A HIstory of the American West by H. W. Brands.  The settlement of the American “West” has not been one of my main priorities in my studies, but as I am learning from this book, it is a fascinating story.

Lest anyone think these are all of my current history–American mostly–books that are screaming to be read, I assure you the stack is still very high.

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Philosophy 101 Claimed by Christ

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A clueless, naïve college freshman walks into a classroom.  The course is Philosophy 101.  The bearded, intimidating professor, decked out with a bow tie, tweed jacket, and an armful of books walks in.  He announces that this is a course on the study of PHILOSOPHY.  As he passes out the syllabi to the students, he goes on about some of the benefits of taking the course. Then comes the clincher:  As he walks back up to the front of the room, his stentorian voice rings out, “Write this on a sheet of paper:  I don’t believe in God.  Postdate the paper for May 12, 2020.  For by that date, and by the time you are taking the final in this class, you will not believe in God.”

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Wow!  How many times have I heard this kind of story? And there is even a movie made about it.  And even Einstein is resurrected with words put into his mouth answering the atheist professor.  And many a scared young Christian has feared either going to college or taking philosophy, and maybe he has been scared about confessing to his parents and pastor that he is studying philosophy. I am sure it actually happened somewhere.  I am sure that there have been professors who maybe had an agenda for discounting belief systems in their students.  I had lots of college profs who seemed to have little regard and even less understanding of Christianity, but if any were trying to dissuade me, I didn’t even realize it.  (Most teachers I have ever had have had a genuine appreciation for any serious students.)

To tell the truth, I would actually be more frightened if I were an atheist, agnostic, or skeptic about entering a philosophy class than I am afraid as a Christian about the field, the study, and the teachers of philosophy. If there is one area where Christians today are waging war, one area where we are capturing the high ground, one area where the vast treasures of the past thought are being uncovered in our favor, one area where we are winning, it is philosophy.  CHRISTIANS ARE DOMINATING THE FIELD OF PHILOSOPHY.

Forget end times, tribulation, despair and decline, retreat, and hopes for being raptured as a last effort to save a shrinking band of surviving believers.  Christians are winning cage matches, tag team matches, philosophy-mania, and more. This is not to imply that there are no battles to be fought.  This is not to imply solidarity among Christian philosophers and philosophy teachers.  This is not to imply that philosophy has morphed into a praise and worship team. “In this world, you shall have trouble.  Be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world,” said Jesus.  Let’s paraphrase, “In the study of philosophy, you shall have trouble.  Be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world.”  Not escaped, sidestepped, or retreated from, but overcome. I assure you that if you are a Christian and are wanting to study philosophy, the resources available to you are vast and growing.  And these are not little booklets written by non-philosophy types like me.  (My background studies are in history and literature, and I am, at heart, a junior high and high school teacher.)  We are talking Ph.D., peer reviewed journal contributions, top name colleges, and books as dense or readable as you wish.

There are many fine books on the market aimed at Christian college students introducing the field of philosophy.  Alongside that, there are the secular presses that have hundreds more–new and old–to choose from.  For many, beginning with a book like R. C. Sproul’s The Consequence of Ideas is a great foundational work.  For those wanting to see how a writer without Christian presuppositions approaches the topic, there is Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind.

Most of the introductory books will be largely a historical survey of the philosophers and ideas that have come and gone through the ages.  Some, in contrast, will focus more on the issues that have engaged philosophers.  Every history and literature teacher, along with every pastor and Bible student, should have a hefty stack of such introductory books.

In this review, I would like to highlight John Frame’s We Are All Philosophers:  A Christian Introduction to Seven Fundamental Questions.  This book is published by Lexham Press, a favorite publisher of mine.

This small hardback book is a great accompaniment to any of the historical survey-type intros to the field.  Frame is a theologian with a solid philosophical background. He studied at Princeton and Yale, as well as studying theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary.  Frame is a student of Cornelius Van Til and a prolific author on theological topics.  His larger work on philosophy is A History of Western Philosophy and Theology–a magnum opus in the field.

A History of Western Philosophy and Theology - By: John M. Frame

Concerning We Are All Philosophers, here are the seven questions:

  • What is everything made of?
  • Do I have free will?
  • Can I know the world?
  • Does God exist?
  • How shall I live?
  • What are my rights?
  • How can I be saved?

One might think that these questions are either irrelevant (in regard to what everything is made of) or merely religious (as in regard to questions about God and salvation).  Everyone has to confront what everything is made of.  If we are merely material stuff, then lots of other questions get answered differently than if we are being with material bodies and non-material souls.

The question of God’s existence is the one that shows up in the stories and anecdotes concerning the fabled atheist Philosophy 101 profs.  At its heart, the question goes beyond just a Ray Comfort Man-In-The-Street evangelistic interview.  Is belief warranted, rational, and certain, or is it merely hunches and hopes.

The question of rights gets to the heart of many of the political agendas that are being debated in the current election year.

Avoid these seven questions (which I don’t think is possible) and you avoid life.  And if you give wrong answers?  Then we go to history class and prepare by taking a major anti-depressant.

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Eleonor Stump’s book The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers is published by Marquette University Press.

Dr. Stump is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louise University and is recognized as a leading expert on Thomas Aquinas.  This short book is based on lectures she gave at Marquette University.

All through the years, philosophers and theologians have borrowed from each other, but also battled each other.  A theologian poring over the Bible and a philosopher poring over philosophy texts can and have reached different conclusions, given varying explanations, raised different questions and provided contrary answers.

But is that an insurmountable divide?  Are these two fields separated by the guiding presuppositions?  Is the Christian who enters philosophy bound to always be a philosopher who is a Christian rather than a Christian philosopher? This question has been discussed numerous times.  It is a great question with lots of implications for al of life.  Dr. Stump gives some strong reasoning why we should not feel compelled to put our Bibles aside while studying philosophy.

If you took note of the picture posted at the top and bottom of this discussion, you will see several other fine Christian works on philosophy.  The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy by Steven B. Cowan and James Spiegel, published by B & H Publishing Group, is a fine and weighty study on the issues one studies in philosophy.

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism by C. Stephen Evans is published by IVP.  It is a survey of the history as the title says of famous philosophers, schools of thought, and major ideas.

Philosophy: A Christian Introduction by James K. Dew, Jr. and Paul M. Gould, published by Baker Academic.  I became aware of this book after reading and loving Dr. Gould’s book Cultural Apologetics.

Final comments on the two books by Dr. Frame and Dr. Stump:  Both are small, short, nicely done hardback books.  Great for carrying along on a trip or a meeting where you might just find a few free minutes.  Frame’s book is a good “learning to swim” book, while Stump’s book is a serious plunge in the deep end of the pool.  Even the most serious students need to get a refresher on the starting fundamentals of philosophy, and even we beginners need to be exposed to some of the depth of the subject.

 

 

Lexham Press’ Best of Christianity Today

 

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I was born in December of 1955 and Christianity Today first went out in October of 1956.  It would be many years before I gained even a shadowy awareness of the rise and travails of Evangelicalism within the Christian faith.  I was raised in the Bible Belt and most of my elementary teachers attended either the same Methodist Church I attended or went to Baptist churches in the community.  We prayed in school or at school events and the Christian undercurrents were still going strong.  In time, I became aware of a preacher named Billy Graham, mainly because his televised Crusades interrupted the regularly scheduled evening line-up of shows.

In my college years, 1974-1978, I became increasingly aware of the issues that had confronted Christians in previous decades and that were continuing to confront Christians.  Early on, I came to know enough well read, usually college educated, Christians so that I never believed or assumed that the mind and the faith were on different spheres.  My goodness, all it took was one struggling read through Gregg Singer’s Theological Interpretation of American History and R. J. Rushdoony’s This Independent Republic for me to embrace the powerful floodlight of the Calvinistic worldview.

At times, over the years I subscribed to Christianity Today.  My lapsed subscriptions were usually due to my paltry funds for magazines.  Also, I did not have easy access to the magazine in a library since public schools didn’t subscribe to many publications and certainly not a Christian one.

Along with my occasional reads from the magazine itself, I would hear and continue to hear about and read criticisms of the magazine.  Is it any wonder that a publication that seeks to speak for a large segment of professing Christians receives lots of criticism?

Most often in these times, I only hear about the magazine if something is published that outrages Christian conservatives or if an article appears that “we” really like.  The cover posted above highlights an outstanding article in the magazine by Dr. Louis Markos that praises the work of classical Christian education. As a teacher in a classical Christian school and as a fan of Dr. Markos, I loved the article.  There have probably been quite a few other articles that I would love, as well as some I would totally disagree with or just be indifferent to.  By the way, the conflicts related to Christianity Today are not new.  R. J. Rushdoony locked horns with the editors many decades ago when they published an article about William Faulkner.  And in this case, I respectfully and fearfully disagree with Rushdoony.

In the early decades of the magazine, the towering figures in the Evangelical world were being published in the magazine.  (Yes, in ever area, we always can enjoy sitting around complaining about kids nowadays and how the old days were better.)  Without creating or demanding theological conformity on every point, Christianity Today attracted lots of top notch Christian theologians, authors, and preachers who wrote fine articles addressing current issues with ancient wisdom.

Lexham Press has been wooing and winning my heart for several years now with their publications of great works by some of those amazing Dutchmen such as Geerhardus Vos, Abraham Kuyper, and Groen van Prinsterer.  If that was all that they published, I would be plenty happy with them.  (And even happier when the day comes when I buy the entire set of Kuyper’s works.) But they keep doing more and more.  I feel like a young theology student in Geneva during the days of Calvin and Farel. (Besides having many good pastor/theologians to listen to daily on podcasts/morning sermons, the printing presses were going non-stop in that town.)

One of the most attractive, irresistible, and enduring series of late is called Best of Christianity Today.  

First came Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essay of John Stott.

Alongside of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott was one of the greatest preachers and writers on Christian theology in the British Isles and across the English speaking world during the Twentieth Century.  I have probably a dozen or more of his books, but not near all of them.  He was solid in theology, a fine writer and stylist, and a powerful communicator.  As with everyone (except me), there are errors or glitches in his theological understanding, but the man was a giant. And while quite learned and educator, he was not a theologian who wrote for theologians.  He was a pastor, first to those within earshot and then to those who read or still read his works.

Second in the series is Architect of Evangelicalism: Essential Essays of Carl F. H. Henry.

Carl F. H. Henry was never the effective, easy communicator that Stott was.  But he was regularly regarded as being one of the serious heavyweights and key intellectual Christian thinkers of his times.  Like his teacher Gordon Clark and like some of his contemporaries, such as Rushdoony, Francis Schaeffer, and Henry Van Til, Henry taught lots of Christians how to think, how to expand their minds beyond church issues, and how to confront cultural and philosophical issues of the times.

Henry’s main work is a massive six volume set called God, Revelation, and Authority.  Few will be those hearty enough to plow through the volumes.  In fact, one admirer said of Henry, “It is too bad that no one has translated his works into English.” (An obscure joke since he wrote in English.) For a time, it seemed as those interest in Carl Henry faded away, but I detect a renewed interest in our times.  Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism:  Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry awakened my interest in him several years ago and sent me scurrying to my library to rediscover several read and unread volumes I owned.

Any book that is highlighting the writing of the giants of the past, even the recent past, are a blessing to the Christian community.

The third volume in the “Best of Christianity Today” series is Basics of the Faith: An Evangelical Introduction to Christian Doctrine, edited by Dr. Henry.

This volume is a collection of articles by a host of authors who constitute the “Who’s Who of Evangelicalism” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Contributors include Philip E. Hughes, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, and many more.  While not a systematic theology, the essays cover a series of topics one would find in ST.

The key benefit in this book, as well as the series, is that these are relatively short essays.  Many readers are daunted by heavy books, long chapters, and the high mountain ranges of theological and Christian study.  But we can all read an article, an essay.  Of course, no short essay can cover the vastness of a topic, but we are finite.  The magazine and these writers were speaking to the Christian community.  You will likely dislike the fluffy Christian books as much as I do. You may break out into a sweat or hives when trying to negotiate with the contents of a serious, somber, searching theologian who is assuming that you have attended as many seminary courses as he or she has.

Here is the middle ground.  Add to that, these books are beautifully hardback works that adorn the shelf as well as fill the mind.  And for those of you who like, and I hate to say it, there are digital copies availabe to adorn your digital devices.

Great series.  Must haves.  Easy accessible reads.  Admirable authors.  Lovely bindings.  Thank you Lexham Press for this publishing venture.

 

New Year Morning Reads–2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Swimming In The Deep Waters of Theology

 

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

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

Krause Springs

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

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

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

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

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

The Feasts of Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Soul of the American Presidency by Stephen Knott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the source image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When History Meets Religion and Philosophy

I sometimes decide to intentionally read several related books and to study a topic in depth.  Usually, I never get past the first book in the plan.  However, I often find that I am reading several related books over a short period of time that all complement each other on the topics at hand.  This has been the case with three recent readings.

I read and reviewed Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark Hall just a few weeks ago.  While reading the book, I used a Youtube session where he discussed his book for my government class.  We skipped over and examined the chapter on religion and the courts in our textbook.  Dr. Hall took me along familiar paths and showed me new things.  This book is a much needed, compact, direct hit on the myths that permeate our textbooks and society.  While dealing with the Founders, it is as or more relevant than the evening news for understanding American culture.  He is not advocating “turning the clock back” or trying to impose some sort of Puritan theocracy on the current nation.

But ideas have consequences, as we often say.  So do history lessons.  Teach the wrong lessons and you get the wrong consequences.  That underscores the importance of this book. Did America Have a Christian Founding? is published by Thomas Nelson.

I am currently about two-thirds through America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation by Thomas S. Kidd.  This book is an excellent survey of the religious experiences of the peoples who have lived in this country.  I have no idea how Dr. Kidd, who is pouring out books right and left, manages to cover as many topics over a period of several hundred years as he does.

Of course, if someone wants to know about a group, religious leader, or event in depth, this is not the book.  It is a fast and furious survey, hitting the key events, naming significant leaders, and including the vast spectrum of beliefs both Christian and other.  This would be an excellent book to supplement a college American history course.  By the way, Dr. Kidd has written a new and highly touted history of the United States.  I wish I could have read something like this earlier in my own career.

America’s Religious History by Thomas S. Kidd is published by Zondervan Academic.  There is also a video available where Dr. Kidd lectures over the contents of the book.

In a related, but far more challenging area is The Declaration of Independence and God:  Self-Evident Truths in American Law by Owen Anderson.  This book is an in-depth study of the philosophy that led to the self-evident claims in the Declaration of Independence.  As a student of history, I am continually embarassed and shocked by how little I was exposed to the philosophical debates and concerns through the ages.  Sad to say, historians will tend to fall back on “this happened and then this happened and then this next thing happened.”  True enough, but not enough.

For all of the faults and simplistic contents in Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?, it stands out for weaving in–imperfectly–the philosophies, ideas, worldviews, and presuppositions of the ages of history.  This book by Dr. Anderson narrows that topic down to the ideas contained and presupposed in the Declaration of Independence.

I wish Dr. Anderson would write a book that basically surveyed the philosophical ideas that have impacted different eras of American history.  In part, he has done this.  Jefferson relied on certain beliefs found in sources like John Locke or Thomas Reid.  But Ralph Waldo Emerson and others changed the rules of the game. Darwinism brought further changes, as did beliefs coming out of liberal theology and more recent ideas.

So, when the topic of when a fetus becomes a person arose in the Roe v. Wade case, the climate of the court and the times did not lead the justices to examine what Jefferson or the Founders said and accept them as the final authority.  But Jefferson’s formulation itself was lacking.  What is exactly self-evident?

Dr. Anderson’s book raises the bar of the studies of American history as presented in the first two books.  I am still grappling with his teachings and writings.  The fault, alas, is in the reader and not the writer.  Nevertheless, I feel a real gap in my own understanding has been revealed.  Glad to have read this book and look forward to reading it again.

The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law by Owen Anderson is published by Cambridge University Press.