The Essential Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

As an incurable reader, I often find myself stumped over what kind of book I need to read next.  My tastes range from theology to literature to history to politics to poetry to philosophy to biography and more.  I could almost paraphrase Will Rogers and say, “I never met a book I didn’t like.”  I have met a few that were not to my liking, but I am prone to find something of use in even the worst of readings.

My morning reading time is when I focus on Biblical and theological books.  If a book is devotional, without being fluffy, and enlightening, it makes for a good start for the morning stack of books.  I have about an hour to read and usually read a chapter or about 10 pages from each of 3 or 4 books.  (This method works well for me.)  After the book aimed at the heart, I am more ready for the book aimed at the mind.  So, a book applying Bible teachings might be read from first and then followed by a bit more weighty theological reading.  The preferred third book is usually more focused on Christian worldview thinking.  It might be on history, education, current issues, philosophy, or some other area.  It might or might not be a specifically Christian book.

This brings us to the topic of The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeney.  This book is published by Moody Publishers.

In light of the different types of books I like to read in the morning session, The Essential Jonathan Edwards can fit into any of the categories.  The breadth of the approach of the book itself is similar to the breadth of the subject.  Jonathan Edwards is acclaimed as one of the great preachers of all time.  He is also one of the great theologians.  He was also a prolific writer.  He is recognized for his contributions to the field of philosophy.  He is studied for his views on any number of topics, both those pertinent to his times and to ours.

As the subject of biography, Edwards’ life is also rich.  He lived in colonial America during a period that was just past the heyday of Puritan thought and just before the period leading up to the American Revolution and War for Independence.  I will assume for the moment that the term “American Revolution” refers to the change in thinking and outlook that developed prior to any shots being fired at Lexington and Concord, and I am borrowing this definition from John Adams.  Back to Edwards:  He was a major figure in the Great Awakening.  Along his labors were limited geographically to a small part of New England, his role through his preaching and writing explained, furthered, and cautioned against aspects of the revival.  He was the spokesman for this side of the Atlantic.

His marriage and family are models for both understanding American culture and for spiritual edification.  His tumultuous relationship with his Northhampton congregation is insightful into the workings of colonial communities and all too familiar territory for many pastors and their churches.  Edwards was briefly connected to the still new Princeton University and had been educated at Yale.  His life shows the richness of potential opportunities in the colonial period even accounting for the particular genius and gifts of the man.

The most scholarly and library-bound academic wanting to grapple with theological conundrums (like free will and Original Sin) can study Edwards alongside the more profound student of philosophy, especially the one interested in American contributions.  But the pastor can also find Edwards a helpful mentor giving encouragement to his soul as he prepares sermons and lessons for his congregation.  Again, the study of Edwards is a hall filled with treasures.

So where do you begin?  Or how can you access the wealth of Edwards’ life, faith, and thought?

The Essential Jonathan Edwards is an excellent place to begin.  The book contains an account of Edwards’ life, but it is only partially a biography.  Much of the focus is on the teachings of Edwards.  The book is heavy laden with quotes and lengthy ones at that.  It doesn’t take many lines of reading Edwards to realize that this guy cannot be skim read.  He is not impossible or overly technical, but his language is rich and detailed.  While the entire book reveals biographical details, the first section is more largely focused on his life.

The authors cover a number of larger and then more particular topics in subsequent chapters.  The second section of the book is on the topic of Beauty.  As has been noted, some of the higher, more liturgical churches focus on beauty in their church buildings and liturgies.  The Protestants who are more in the tradition of Edwards in terms of evangelical emphases have overlooked the topic of Beauty.  (As a former pastor, I am asking myself, “When did you preach on the Beauty of God, of Christ, of the Church?”)

The third section focuses on the Good Life.  This is yet another case of the authors bringing an unused phrase into Christian thinking.  Living the Christian life is the good life.  Man’s chief end is enjoying God forever, which does not mean that we start when we get to heaven.  Edwards wrote, “God in seeking his glory, therein seeks the good of his creatures: because the emanation of his glory (which he seeks and delights in, as he delights in himself and his own eternal glory) implies the communicated excellency and happiness of his creatures.” (Found on page 199)

The fourth section deals with a troublesome issue in Edwards’ ministry and in our times.  Statistics show certain numbers of people who are Christian by profession.  Church rolls show smaller groups of the same.  Yet nominalism, that is, being Christian in name only, is a huge problem.  Protestants like to think it is merely a Roman Catholic problem.  Within Protestant groups, one group will wag their heads at another for this plague, but the truth is that it hits ever section of Christianity and every church.  If you don’t know of where to locate the dangers of nominal Christianity, begin by looking in a mirror.  I am not saying that you and I are believers in name only.  But I do know it is a real threat to me.  Those of us in Christian works (and I teach in a Christian school) can easily confuse occupation with salvation.  The problem beset Edwards both in the times of his grandfather’s Half-Way Covenant approach and in his own dealings with a congregation that fired him.

The final section deals with heaven and hell.  Edwards is once again a needed instructor to our times.  Because Christianity offers so much in this world, we can easily undervalue what it teaches about the world to come.  And the doctrine of Hell is just uncomfortable.

I recently posted a blog review highlighting a number of books on, by, or about Edwards.  For the reader wanting to meet the great theologian, this is the book to start with.  For the reader who has already read a lot by and about Edwards, this book is also a great read.

Fiction Readings of Late

 

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First, I will begin with a defense for, a plea on behalf of, an apologetic regarding reading fiction.  On second thought, naw, I won’t.  The convinced are already singing in the choir and the unconvinced are trying hard enough to read all the non-fiction, biographies, histories, and theology they possibly can.  Still, I feel a bit of pity for the person who does not enjoy a good novel–often.

Second, I will describe in great detail the various shades, levels, degrees, and genres of fiction.  By that, I mean the literary classics, the newer works that are literary, the form-novels, escape reading, historical fiction, and so on.  On second thought, naw, I won’t do that either.

So, I will describe a few novels I have read of late and sing a bit of praise on their behalf.

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I first took notice of this book after seeing that an old friend from Monroe, Louisiana, Robert McBroom, was reading the book.  Like me, Robert is a southerner through and through, an Agrarian, and a Calvinist.  So, when I found a like-new copy of this book at a thrift store, I snatched it up and then piled it up with dozens of other books.  Then it occurred to me one day that I should read it.

Kristen Hannah is not a new author by any means, but she is new to me.  This is a great, though very sad–at points, story.  Set in Alaska in the early 1970’s and 80’s, it deals with a family undergoing a series of hardships.  Some of the hardships are environmental (surviving in Alaska), some are historical (PTSD from Vietnam experiences), some are social, some economic, and, even though Hannah may have not intended this, some or all are theological.

The key messages from this book:  The importance of community and of forgiveness. The harsh world of Alaska demanded community, and that can be seen as a metaphor for our lives here.  The people who bond together are an unlikely group, but each has his or her own gifts and strengths that contribute to survival.  Forgiveness is the overwhelming theme of the book.  In our world, forgiveness doesn’t always happen when and to the degree it needs to, and some of those who need forgiveness the most are never brought to the point where they see that need.

I don’t want to imply that fiction is read so that lessons or theological truths can be derived from stories.  But glimpses into life reveals lessons and theological truths.  And stories often convey those messages powerfully.

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Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall proved to be a very fine novel.  Set in the Civil War, two sisters go into the Confederate Army posing as men.  It actually did happen quite often in that and other wars.  This story is filled with pain, suffering, love, and attempts to make sense of life in a fallen world and in the midst of a brutal war.

Concerning the authors, Kathy Hepinstall is a novelist with several successful works to her credit.  Becky Hepinstall is a college history major whose contribution to this book was the historical details.  Amazing teamwork from these two Texas women.

I don’t purposely seek to read either historical fiction or Civil War novels, but I have ended up reading quite a few through the years.   My favorites are The Unvanquished by William Faulkner and None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon.  Of course, such books as Gone With the Wind cannot be ignored, and over the years, I have enjoyed teaching Killer Angels to many classes.

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Somewhere this past year, I was reading an article that recommended two Christian authors–Marilynne Robinson and Amor Towles.  I read and loved Gilead, Home, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson a few years back, and I have bought her essay collections.  I hope she wins a Nobel Prize for Literature soon.  Amor Towles was a totally new name for me.  I am still not certain why he was recommended as a “Christian” author.

This summer while making an mostly unsuccessful hunt in a used bookstore in Denison, Texas, I came across one of Amor Towles’ two novels–Rules of Civility. Diving in, I found the time, the setting, the characters, and the topic of the book uninviting. In other words, Towles is not a southern author.  His book is told from the viewpoint of a woman named Katey Kontent who is living in New York City in the 1930s.  The uninteresting book kept drawing me deeper and deeper into the story.  At some point, I realized that I was in the grip of a very skilled writer and a novelist with lots of promise.

I don’t have Towles’ second novel, A Gentleman from Moscow, but I am sold on his writings.

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C. J. Box is top shelf.  I have now read nearly all of his Joe Pickett novels–out of order.  I have nearly all of his novels in nice hardback editions, and one autographed copy of Winterkill (replacing my trade paper copy). Box writes murder mysteries and good ones.  His central character is Joe Pickett, who is a game warden, husband and father to three girls, and a often stumbling man who persists in finding the ugly truths others cannot see.  He also has an amazing friend named Nate Romanowski, who I want for a personal friend. The stories are set in Wyoming and in modern times, but the books have a powerful western feel.  In fact, Box and Pickett may actually overuse the term “Get western” when speaking about events that are about to involve a shootout or the like.

Is Box writing “literature”?  Probably not, but he writes good stories with a powerful human dimension.  As a character, Joe Pickett is a lot like Sheriff Walt Longmire over in neighboring Montana.  I wish those two guys–Pickett and Longmire–could team up at least once.  (How about that Mr. Box and Mr. Craig Johnston–if you are reading this blog?)

I started the Pickett novels somewhere in the middle and based reading on whichever books I had.  As is often the case with series, the earlier books are harder to find in hardback editions (unless one is willing to shell out some big bucks). Having now read all of the earlier books, I can soon get to his latest in the series–The Disappeared.

Again, love this author’s books, love Joe Pickett and his family.  And Box is a Presbyterian and the Pickett family are believers (although Joe sometimes cusses right smart.)

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Another writer that I have been working on getting to know is Alan Furst.  He is often proclaimed to be one of the best espionage writers.  Part of the attraction is that his books mostly set in the 1930s and then in the World War II era.  This sometimes means an unhappy ending as in the case of The Spies of Warsaw.  Despite the best efforts of French military intelligence officer Jean Francois Mercier, neither Poland nor France will be able to circumvent the history that actually happened during the years leading up to the attacks that began World War II.

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Perhaps this is enough for now.  I am looking forward to some future reads including The Resistance by Douglas Bond. I previously read Bond’s book War in the Wasteland, which is about World War I, and reviewed it on this blog.  I am watching the mailbox for The Resistance to arrive.  I also will be starting The Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer.  Both Bond and Dwyer are Facebook friends and brothers in Christ.  The Resistance and The Short Grass are set in World War II.  I am hoping that Lief Enger’s latest novel Virgil Wander is under the Christmas tree.

Also, I expect to be reading some Russian guys named Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn for school.

2-Book bundle-THE RESISTANCE & companion volume WAR IN THE WASTELAND

These two volumes are available from Douglas Bond’s website (www.Bondbooks.net) for $25.

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I have got to get this one read before the sequel comes out.

Shoot the Messenger–Unfinished Readings and Reviewing

 

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I read and review books.  It is my part-time job, but it pays no cash dividends.  I do get books out of the deal and pretend I am really working when I am reading and writing reviews.  At the end of the year, I find Scrooge’s words quite descriptive, “A year older and not a penny richer.”

But here is the bad news:  I don’t get everything read and reviewed as I ought to do.  I don’t mean the general sense that bookish people have of “too many books and not enough time.”  I mean that I don’t get assignments completed that I was bound to finish.  I receive some good books throughout the year that don’t finish.  I usually start them, often like them, and always intend to keep reading.  Sad to admit, they get lost in the stacks, the endless stacks, the growing stacks, the threatening stacks.

Let me highlight a few.  No ma’am, I didn’t complete the assignment.  But also I did not copy off of anyone else’s homework (review) and what I read was good.

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I have enjoyed reading Jonah Goldberg for several years.  He is sharp, witty, incisive, and independent.  He gives me hope that Conservatism will survive even the Trump years.  I got this book with great joy last spring and started it.  Then my son NIck grabbed it up and read it–fast and furiously.  “Write me a review,” I pleaded, but to no avail.  The first 50 pages of this book are great, and I do intend to get back to it.  Read the comments of David Bahnsen and others.

Goldberg writes from a purely secular worldview.  That was saddening, but was not the cause of my stalled out reading.  This is not the first book to use that title or to warn of the impending doom for our world and culture.  If we keep surviving the predictions of such books, it is because of God’s grace and longsuffering and because some people heed the warnings of books like this.

Get this book and read it.  If for no other reason, do it to shame me.

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While many theologically driven readers devour the works of Bishop N. T. Wright, I don’t share their enthusiasm.  Yet, I do read and enjoy his books.  Some are mind and soul shattering, while others are unconvincing.  But he always encourages a serious and careful look at Biblical teachings.  Paul and his writings are Wright’s specialty.  This book came with lots of promise.

But I didn’t finish it.  Again, shoot the messenger, not the message.  By that I mean, blame me, not N. T.!  This book failed because it didn’t fit the right niche in my reading schedule.  I usually read theological and Biblical works in the mornings, which is when I was reading on this book.  Yet, this work is a biography, and I read biographies and histories at night.  Wright at night!–to make another rhyme on his name.

Of course, the factual details of the life of Paul are scant, so much of this book is based on historical details with some speculation.  But it reads well.  It is still there waiting for me to read, but to read at night on this next go around.

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Failure on my part, plain and simple.  Years ago, I was reading R. J. Rushdoony, and he spoke of how Witherspoon was neglected by historians and Christians alike.  Some time later, a short biography came out on him, and I bought it and devoured it.  Many years later, Jeffry H. Morrison’s John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic appeared.  I read and reviewed it, and mention it in my own book.  It is an outstanding study.

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Then Sprinkle Publications published The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon.  In time, I purchased the entire 9 volumes of Witherspoon’s writings.

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Why did I drop the ball on the new and detailed study of Witherspoon?  I used the excuse that I was already past him on my Humanities class on American history.  Everyone has some excuse, but who believes us when we give these whining and pitiful answers?

I am stopping here for the time because there are still too many others that I have neglected.  Is there any hope?

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Jonathan Edwards–Recent Books on His Life and Thought

 

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John Piper has often recounted the story of one of his seminary professors advising him to devote his studies to the Bible and one theologian whose thought he would seek to master.  Piper chose Jonathan Edwards.  Other men of God that I know have done similar things. Baptist pastor Fred Zaspel has devoted lots of study to Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield and has written two fine books on Warfield.  George Grant has collected and read almost everything written by and about Scottish preacher, author, and theologian Thomas Chalmers.  Douglas Douma, still a young man, is rapidly advancing toward being the key authority on philosopher and theologian Gordon Clark.  Bradford Littlejohn has already produced a number of volumes on the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker.  And Joel Osteen has extensively studied and spoken about the theological insights of Joel Osteen.

I confess that I have been way too much of a gadfly to have mastered any theologian, philosopher, or historian.  I think I have some sort of advanced ADD because my interest and focus will be intense for short bursts of time, and then I am off in a totally different direction.  But I keep trying.  I also think that the advice Piper received was good.  And the choice Piper made–that of studying Edwards–was good as well.

The current popularity of Edwards is an amazing phenomena in our time.  It is the result of the contributions of at least four unlikely team players and a university and quite a few publishing houses.  The four men involved are Perry Miller, Iain Murray, George Marsden, and John Piper.  Miller was a historian and an unbeliever who went against the history department druthers of his day and decided to study Puritans.  He did not agree with Puritan theology or their worldview, but did find them to be worthy of more serious academic consideration.  He single-handedly revived Puritanism as a field of academic pursuit.

Iain Murray shares my characteristic of being widely focused on lots of key figures in church history.  Some years ago, he wrote a laudatory biography of Jonathan Edwards for Banner of Truth. Murray never wrote for scholars, but for thinking Christians.  He did not sugarcoat his subjects and create pious plastic figures, but his biographies were designed to instruct and model Christian living,  sound doctrine, and better preaching and teaching.  His biography won many over to Edwards or put more life into the pictures we had of this man.

George Marsden’s later biography of Edwards filled in the gap left by Murray by providing a more scholarly, academic study of Edwards’ life.  I don’t know of any two other biographies that better complement each other than Murray’s and Marden’s books on Edwards.  John Piper brought Edwards back into the pulpit and Christian conference.  With a style far from Edwards’ reserve and manner, Piper–with passion and emotion–shared Edwards’ thoughts, words, and ideas.  The fire that burned in Edwards’ life and beliefs might not have appeared so hot and blazing had it not been for Piper.

The university that came to the forefront is Yale which began the vast project of producing modern editions of Edwards’ writings.  Yale’s Works of Jonathan Edwards number twenty-six printed volumes and many more on-line volumes.  We often use blanket statements to describe modern secular universities and modern scholarship.  Truth is that many great Christian books are published by secular university presses.  Whether those behind the books share the lack of Christian beliefs like Miller or whether they are true believers and scholars is beside the point.  The books are there.

As you can see from this PARTIAL SELECTION from my own collection, I have accumulated quite a few books on Edwards.  If I could start over again, I might choose him as Piper did, but would probably still be a gadfly flitting from Edwards to Kuyper to Warfield to Calvin to more recent writers.  But I do intend to learn more of Edwards.  On one side of eternity or the other, I hope to get a greater vision for the grandeur of God and His saving work.

Here follows a few short comments on the review books I have (and am behind in reading) on Edwards:

Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to His Thought is by Oliver D. Crisp and Kyle C. Strobel.  It is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

One of the essential things about studying Jonathan Edwards is that the vast pool of Edwards’ thought and Edwardsian studies consists of a deep end and a even much deeper end.  Edwards was a first rate preacher, but also a top notch theologian and philosopher.  This study is not for the beginner, the novice, or the one who heard of Edwards from a Piper sermon and wants to know more.  This book requires strong black coffee, maybe with a shot of espresso.

Both authors have written other books on Edwards and have interacted with fellow scholars.  This book is on the deeper end of the pool.  In my morning readings, I prefer to start with a very accessible book that is ministering to both heart and mind.  After reading and while starting on the second cup of coffee, I can then trudge through this kind of work.

The opening chapter is on the intellectual context of Edwards.  Studies generally try to figure out where he is in the Reformed and Puritan realm and where he is engaging in more of the then-current Enlightenment thought.  Subsequent chapters deal with “God of Beauty and Glory,” “God of Creation,” “The Atonement,” and then two very inviting chapters titled “Becoming Beautiful” and “Becoming Edwardsean.”

Also published by Eerdmans is The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia, edited by Harry S. Stout.

This is not a read from beginning to end work, but is a work that can be dipped into randomly or used for specific research.  The list of contributors is a “Who’s Who” among contemporary Edwards scholars. That in itself is impressive to me.

Just flipping through the book, I come across articles about Calvinism, economic thought, Jerusha Edwards (Jonathan’s daughter), King George’s War, Mahican (Stockbridge) Indians, and more.

This book is a goldmine for the history and literature teacher (like myself) who teaches about Edwards and for the preacher and theology students who studies Edwards.

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America's Greatest Theologian

The Essential Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to the Life and Teaching of America’s Greatest Theologian by Owen Strachan and Douglas A. Sweeny.

I think that this introduction book is more geared to the student and pastorally inclined reader than the one above.  Edwards is not a lightweight, but he is worth the effort and a book like this will help the reader get a grasp on his theology.

Since I just got this book and have barely had time to read anything but the preface, I will hold further comments until later.  But the preface by the authors and the foreword by Piper have whetted my appetite.

Always in God’s Hands: Day by Day in the Company of Jonathan Edwards by Owen Strachan is published by Tyndale.

Who would have guess a hundred years ago that a day by day devotional reader consisting of Jonathan Edwards’ words with a brief commentary and Bible verse would be published?  This book is just right for all of us who want and need to be guided by Edwards, even if it is just being spoon fed in small portions.

I have for years complained about daily devotional books.  Granted there are plenty of sappy, light, fluffy, sugary devotional works that have been filling Christians with an appearance of substance.  But with books like this, even I must admit that the reader of a short devotional can take in some good theology.

Owen Strachan, the author, is the co-author of the book above and one of the contributors to the Encyclopedia.  

Be patient with me, gentle blog readers, for it may be well into the new year before I can come by with having completed or having read extensively in these and a few other books on America’s greatest theologian, greatest philosopher, and one of its greatest preachers.

 

Never in Finer Company by Edward G. Lengel

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Never in Finer Company: The Me of the Great War’s Lost Battalion by Edward G. Lengel is published by Da Capo Press.  See HERE for details.

Here is my experience in reading this book:  I have been teaching on World War I for the past month or so in my Humanities class on the Modern Age.  We have been reading from Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August.  Then the class read Erich Marie Remarque’s great novel All Quiet on the Western Front.  I have been lecturing, passing out maps, and showing a few documentaries as well.  To further my own reading, I read Douglas Bond’s novel War in the Wasteland, which I also reviewed on a previous blog.  Also, I read Michael Howard’s book  The First World War: A Very Short Introduction.  More books were and are being stacked on the desk.

In the midst of it, I had dug into Never In Finer Company, trudged along for 140 pages and realized that it wasn’t just a battalion that was lost in the Great War.  I was lost in the book.  I wondered if the book itself was the problem.  But, I started over.

Nope, the book wasn’t the problem.  It was the reader.  I quickly retraced the ground that had been lost while I retreated from page 140 back to the beginning.  The story began coming together much better.  (Too many irons in the fire, or books on the stack, had derailed my earlier effort.)  This book was being read during one of my favorite reading times in the day:  When I go to bed.  Reading doesn’t put me to sleep; instead, it brings a great closure to the day.

Often, I have a biography or book on history to read during this late night jaunt, and I have a page-turner novel.  I read the non-fiction and enjoy it, but get a little more delight out of the plot twists of the novel.  But this book began outshining the fiction reads.  As the Lost Battalion was holding its own against the Germans, while facing hunger, thirst, and imminent death, I was entranced with finding out what was going to happen to them.

If this had been a fictional account of soldiers in wartime, it would have make a first class story and could be an incredible movie.  But it is even better.  It really happened.

World War I is so overshadowed by the Second War.  The machines and weapons of WWI seem so awkward, the films portray men walking like Charlie Chaplin, and the sheer static nature of so much of that war leads to a sense of despair.  In World War II, soldiers where capturing something.  In World War I, they were wasting away in the trenches, or so it seems.

Americans began training for the war some time before we actually entered.  The nation entered the war with little actual understanding of the costs, the tactics, the enemy, and the course of the war.  The United States was woefully short of weapons.  As has often been the case, we did have the old “can-do” spirit and the assurance that the Europeans just didn’t know how to wrap this thing up.

When the American army was finally able to be its own military unit under General John Pershing, the prevailing strategic idea was “advance.”  I suspect that had we entered the war one to two years earlier, we would have had our own “Battle of the Somme” or Verdun (referring to British and French battles with incredibly high casualty rates).  When we did take to the field, the German army was largely already beaten or worn down, but it was more like a trapped and wounded grizzly bear than like a dead chicken.

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Advance was ordered by the Americans, and advance they did.  The “Lost Battalion” consisted of about 600 men who were part of the 77th or Metropolitan Division.  The battle was known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  It was a great victory–in the long run–for the Americans, but it was no cake-walk.  The Lost Battalion was surrounded by the Germans and completely cut off from supplies, reinforcements, a line of retreat (which was unthinkable anyway), and even communication.

The heroes included a couple of officers named Charles Whittlesey and George McMurtry.  Neither man was a soldier by profession. Both were conscientious, self-less, and unhumanly brave.  Of course, the soldiers on the ground were heroes as well.  Many were threatened with death–either directly or by infection–from lightly or untreated wounds.  All were hungry, thirsty, and without any comforts.

In the best of military traditions, city boy and country boy, Christian, Jew, and non-believer, educated and uneducated men melded together and fought for all they were worth.  I must confess to being thrilled when Lengel described one of the later attacks by the Germans.  The Americans, in danger now of running out of ammunition, were hurling curses across the field to their enemies.  They didn’t yield an inch.

Rescue finally came to what was becoming a center of media attention–the Lost Battalion.  Several soldiers were sent through the lines to contact the main American forces and guide them to the soldiers under siege.  One hero of the story was a pigeon, named Cher Ami, who was badly injured in her flight carrying a message from the battle back to headquarters.

As if this story itself were not enough, there is another part of the larger story that Lengel includes.  I supposed I have watched and used the movie Sgt. York three dozen times in my years of teaching history.  Alvin York was not a part of the Lost Battalion, but his heroic exploits, which won him fame and resulted in the movie version of his story, took place as the rescue was being effected.  York’s story is told here as well.

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I am all for honoring heroes and this book is full of them.  But life and history is never quite that simple.  There were commanders who were out of touch with what was happening.  There were cases where responsibility was shifted by those seeking to escape blame.  When the battalion was rescued, there were some who were ready to capitalize on the successes.

Post-World War I resulted in plenty of cases of men suffering from the effects of the war.  Again, this is often forgotten.  The Great Depression and World War II trumps the first war and the post-war period.  Yes, lots of men, like Alvin York, returned home, married their sweethearts, had a family, and worked.  But even his life was more complicated than that.  Some like Charles Whittlesay never recovered from the war, the memories of the death and cries of pain, and the feeling of guilt as a commander.

These men were a fine company, and this book, despite my initial bad start, is a really engaging account.

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Boethius’ Consolation and Gibb’s How to be Unlucky

How to be Unlucky is by Joshua Gibbs and is published by The Circe Institute.  List price is $15.99, but Circe Institute has it discounted to $10.99.

Part of the story of this book begins with the unexpected and still largely unnoticed revival, renaissance, and reformation of classical Christian education.  As a renewed movement, it has been going on for some 25 years and is still in its infancy.  Many teachers, parents, pastors, and scholars have gotten into the movement and have had to play catch-up for a decade or two.  It is not a monolithic movement, nor is it confined to one branch or denomination of Christianity.

At this juncture in history, there are adults whose education was in classical Christian schools.  Overall, the results are astounding and impressive, but not everyone with a diploma from a CCE school is a walking compendium of Latin, logic, and rhetoric.  Even with the best of training, donkeys don’t win the Kentucky Derby.  Even if I had had the same instructors as Michael Phelps, I still would probably not be much past my faltering efforts at dog paddling.  Gifts and abilities differ.  So do schools.  So do teachers. And certainly, so do students.

From my impression from the book, Joshua Gibbs would not have been nominated for “Most Likely to Succeed” by his teachers.  I suspect he was subjected to that age-old saw of teachers, “He is smart enough, but he just doesn’t apply himself.”  (Or as we say where I live, “He just doesn’t apply hisself.”)  That’s okay because the B and C students are and should be the prime focus of teachers.  Let’s face it:  “A” students learn and excel under even the worst instruction, teaching, and curriculum.  It takes some real teaching to reach other students, but then again, sometimes we don’t. Then life and career and other matters step in and the gist of the lessons from school finally take root.

Joshua Gibbs describes himself as a less than stellar student who then became a teacher.  But it was in his fifth year of teaching that he had a “conversion experience.”  I don’t mean that he became a Christian at that point, but rather that he became a real student and thus started becoming a real teacher.  He was instructing a Medieval class on The Consolation of Philosophy  by Boethius.  I know something of what happened to him.

There is, first of all, the experience of reading a book, particularly a classic.  Quite frankly, sometimes classics leave us feeling good for having read them, but somewhat lost as to what the what big deal was.  “It’s a great classic because other people have said so,” is my occasional reaction, without my actually using those words in a classroom.

Then there is the experience of teaching a book, particularly a classic.  Here the teacher gets better at the nuts and bolts of the book.  You learn, instruct about, and test over characters, plot, setting, background, the author, and other aspects of the book.  There is a gnawing sense of guilt in all of this.  I approve of making students learn the basic story line and the names of key figures in the work. I am all for memorization of facts and mastery of details.  And the driven students make “A”s on those tests, proving we are good teachers.  But is the heart of Hamlet the list of characters or the rise and fall plot found in a tragedy, or recognition of key quotes?

At some point, hopefully, the teacher falls in love with the book.  At some point, he or she gets captured by the text, gets carried away, experiences some sort of ecstasy, enters Narnia, gets lost in the cosmos, undergoes a transformation, or whatever phrase might describe it.  It will more likely happen to the students if the teacher has had such an experience, but that is not an absolute.

This is the point where the teacher or reader has not just read, taught, studied, or written about the book, but has actually bought, embraced, identified with the book.  It will not be the same for every work, for I don’t think someone could sustain the emotional intensity.

But this is what happened to Joshua Gibbs during year five of teaching and when he finally entered in to the world of Boethius the author, Boethius the character, Lady Philosophy, and God who rules over all.

Personal testimony time:  Never read Boethius in high school, college, graduate school, on my own, or in my first 20 plus years of teaching.  Had barely heard of it.  Then one year when I was teaching Medieval Humanities, I invited my well-read friend Matt Smallwood to come talk about the book to my class.  Matt forgot his notes and he rambled.  I followed his talks, but was also using the free time to focus on something else.  The class was not assigned the book, but my son Nick may have read it.  I made some notes and promised myself that I would read the book, but didn’t.

Four years later when Medieval Humanities cycled around again, we read the book together in class.  I enjoyed it and think the class did as well.  Then after another four year cycle, the next group read through it.  For some reason, the class just didn’t seem to connect to the book.  Blame the teacher, if needed.  But I never reached a personal point where Consolation became one of my books.  It was never like Faulkner, Homer, Dostoevsky, or others among my favorites.

Back to Gibbs:  He writes, “By the time I finished Consolation for the first time, I understood that every great work of literature could be used as instruction in virtue.”  This doesn’t mean tacking on morals or lessons to the stories, but rather fleshing out the issues, examining the heart challenges, and exploring the human condition in the books we read.

How to be Unlucky is not a commentary to be used for lecture bullet points on Boethius.  It does explain a lot about the book, the author’s plight (in prison awaiting execution), and the issues he was grappling with.  But it is an examination of how Gibbs used passages to think through his own life, to apply the issues to his students’ experiences, and how to see God and virtue in the midst of life in a fallen world.

I hope that when I teach Consolation of Philosophy again, I have the good sense to read this book alongside Boethius.  But How to be Unlucky can be read as a stand-alone book with or without reading Boethius simultaneously.  It is a delightful look at two lives–that of Boethius from the late Roman period and that of Joshua Gibbs in our own time.

 

Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing

Having become acquainted with Jay Stringer, I was able to receive a copy of his book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing.  It is published by NavPress.  It can be purchased from Hearts and Minds Books, which is where I first learned of this book.

Let’s just be honest:  I did not want to read this book and I didn’t like it.  For that reason, I highly recommend it.  I even think I need to read it again.  I certainly believe that pastors, counselors, school teachers, and many other folks should read it as well.

Here is why I didn’t like it:  I would really like to think and believe that sexual brokenness (which includes pornography use, sexual addiction, abuse from the past, marital unfaithfulness, etc.) didn’t exist.  Or, at least I would like to think that it only hits a few folks, especially those who are far from having any semblance of Christian or traditional values.  I prefer for such talk and topics to be out of sight and out of mind.  Let’s just think of good things instead.

But I have served as a pastor and elder in a church. I have taught students.  I have family, friends, and community.  I have been awake and sometimes brutally awakened.  People you and I know have been broken by sexual problems.  Damaged people, hurting families, fill our churches, sit in our classrooms desks, gather with us on holidays, cross paths with us daily, and live next door to us.  Some of the sexually broken and hurt people look at some of you from the mirror each day.

This is not a “some are weak and some are strong” issue.  We are all fragile pottery.  It you have not been cracked, broken, chipped, or shattered, it is only because God has graciously protected you on the shelf.  But some who are whole are perilously close to the edge of the shelf.  There is not falling and surviving.

I often say and truly believe that Sigmund Freud was one of the greatest blessings given to the Christian church.  I believe that he was wrong in his presuppositions, wrong in his overall worldview, badly wrong in his rejection of God, and wrong in his prescriptions.  But he did awaken the world to the impact of the subconscious, the role of memories, the impact of experiences (particularly bad and sexually warped experiences), and the connection of the psyche to the body and soul.

Jay Stringer “is a licensed mental health counselor, ordained minister, and nationally requested speaker on the subject of unwanted sexual behavior (i.e., extra-marital affairs, pornography, buying sex, and others).”  The book is based on many experiences in dealing with counselees and on research he conducted using responses from around 3,800 people.  He has not sat in a tower thinking through these matters, although he has given the contents lots of thought.  This man speaks from the trenches.

I wish I could compare this book with others on the same problems and compare its pro’s and con’s.  Dr. Dan Allender says that this book is “without rival, the best book on broken sexuality I have read.”  For me, and this is public confession of a pastoral sin, this is the first book I have read on this topic.  But again to call on church and Christian leaders, we need to be reading these kinds of unpleasant books.  Sure, there is someone in the church who is wanting some theological advice about the end times, but there are many people, I would venture to say, in every church who is or has been or will be damaged by sexual problems.

An emphasis of this book is that the church or community has to do more than just call down judgment on sinful behavior.  That being said, yes, we have to be faithful to the Scriptures and call sin what it is.  We have to preach repentance, a changed life, confession of sins, and restoration.  But the damaged people need more.  People with bad marriages or who have children running wild need more than an exhortation or rebuke from the pulpit.  Christian living is more putting on than putting off.  It may take 10 years to correct 5 years of bad marriage.  If a married couple both grew up in bad marriages, it might take longer.  The same is true for sexual brokenness.  It is not a case of “one repentance fits and cures all.”  Discipleship is a not a one-time treatment.

Much is often said about accountability partners for people struggling with sexual sins.  While there are benefits to such approaches, Stringer emphasizes how more is needed than someone to be your personal priest for confessional (that is my description).  People have to find renewed life, involvement, goals, dreams, and action pulling and pushing them toward these changes.

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There is no way I would set up myself as one ready to help others in this field.  Anytime when I was a pastor and we were dealing with brokenness, I felt so empty and helpless.  But being unequipped is unacceptable for the pastor, the teacher, and the concerned Christian.

As long as we are in a sinful world, we are going to have to confront books and topics we don’t like.  Yes, I didn’t like this book.  It is really good.  Get it and read it.

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