Crossing the Finish Line; Back to the Starting Line

The Finish Line

Image result for crossing the finish line

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

Image result for preaching christ from the psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Starting Line

Related image

Two books down.  Many more to go.

Image result for wolgemuth like a shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for wolgemuth adorned

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

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

Arthur W. Pink and The Sovereignty of God

Image result for abandoned presbyterian church

I stepped right into the middle of a great revival in the 1970s.  I didn’t realize it at the time.  I thought I was veering off the main road onto an obscure, overgrown, largely unused country road.  At the time, it seemed lonely, odd, and extreme.  Marching to a different drummer had long been a practice in my life, or rather a disposition.  So, embracing a theology that was little known, little understood, and yet often vehemently opposed was not that hard to do.  But it take a cost.  It was not without some sacrifices and some life changes.  Some were good, and some were painful both then and now.

Around 1972, I had become a Christian.  Before that, my beliefs were foggy, undefined, mildly theistic, prudishly moralistic, works-oriented (I thought I was a good person–even better than most), and not very Bible based.  Little by little, through an experience while watching a movie, by listening to Jerry Falwell, by attending an outdoor revival with an evangelical Methodist, I became–to use my term then–more religious.

Then I confronted Calvinism.  It was easy enough to dismiss Calvinism with a few easy swats, thinking it was a gnat.  But have you ever tried casually swatting at an elephant?  To improve upon the image, have you ever tried swatting a charging elephant?

I think it is funny that God used two men with less than formidable sounding names to turn me from a spiritual jellyfish to a Christian man.  One man bore the given name of Loraine and the other bore the surname Pink.  Think of the sound of it:  Pink and Loraine.  Doesn’t sound exactly like a devastating spiritual tag team.  But it was.

Image result for loraine boettner

Loraine was Loraine Boettner.  He was a rather shy, retiring fellow who wrote 5 or 6 books, lived his retirement years on a farm in rural Missouri, and sold his books for a pittance to eager young students of theology.  My first Boettner book was Studies in Theology.  It wasn’t one of the five points of Calvinism or the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God that did a mental and spiritual make-over for me, however.  Instead, it was the chapters in that book on the authority of the Bible, followed by an in-depth study and description of the Trinity, and another in-depth study of the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.

Image result for boettner studies in theology

I think I was a believer before I read–consumed!–those chapters, but they constituted a conversion experience as well.  My mother, knowing I was a history major (and I was in college at the time), saw Boettner’s Studies in Theology on my desk.  “Are you changing your major?”  I don’t know what I answered (and graduated as a history major), but I knew something was changing that meant that everything was changing.

Image result for boettner studies in theology

I next read Boettner’s block-buster book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.  I still remember thinking that the title sounded promising.  To my mind, I wasn’t sure what this lady named Loraine did to it, but I was glad that someone had re-formed the doctrine of predestination.  But, to borrow from Batman, “Pow” and “Bam.” There wasn’t much left to me after I finished the second of the Boettner books.

Related image

This revolution of thought and theology was all going on during the summer of 1976–the year of America’s Bicentennial.  It was during this time that I met my second Calvinist–Pastor Jimmy DeMoss.  A small man who is a tightly wound bundle of energy and an ex-Marine, Pastor DeMoss recommended The Sovereignty of God by Pink.  I think he just called him Pink.

It was many books later when I first acquired The Sovereignty of God by Pink.  Over the years, I ended up with quite a few books by Arthur W. Pink.  In many cases, his innumerable articles have been patched together to form a large number of collections.  He did several books in a series known as Gleanings, for example, Gleanings in Genesis, Gleanings in the Scriptures, and so on.  His little work Profiting from the Word is a classic “rip the layers off your heart” kind of searching and convicting work.  I rather grew to enjoy–and grow–from the cutting edge of the Reformation/Calvinistic/Reformed/Puritan approach of using the Bible to sear into the sins of the heart.  Pink’s book The Attributes of God ranks among his best.  As the title indicates, it tells us who the God of the Bible is.

I even have a volume of Pink’s works on order right now.  Hearing George Grant preaching on 1 John lead me to my usual question, “What are the best books on 1 John?”  To which Dr. Grant responded by mentioning a couple of authors, and then he said,  “The real treasure trove for this book (1 John) may be found in Arthur Pink’s massive work.  It is fantastic—as you might expect from Pink.”

Related image

 

With quite a few Pink books scattered throughout my library, I am convinced of his worthiness as an expositor, commentator, and preacher of God’s Word.  At the same time, he has his limitations.  He recognized that due to the voluminous amount of writing that he did, that his views sometimes changed as the years went by.  Also, Pink could often spiritualize narrative portions of the Bible and draw good lessons from them that are not actually present in the text.  And he could jab, and I mean jab hard.  In his day, the Puritan works lay hidden in old libraries and book stores.  The works of Spurgeon were ignored.  The teachings of the Reformers were unheeded.  The pulpits of the lands (for Pink labored in many English speaking domains) were captured by theological liberals and higher critics in the worst cases.  In the best cases, the pulpits poured forth Arminian theology and messages designed to salve the emotional aspects of hearers.

God gave Arthur W. Pink a tough personality, a cutting edge, and a stubborn streak.  A milder man, a gentler message, and a smoother approach would not have carried in his day.

Arthur Pink’s greatest work and most abiding book is The Sovereignty of God.  Some years ago, Baker Book House published the book in hard cover, and quite a few copies were sold over the years, especially after Pink’s views became more acceptable (again) and interest rose in learning about the sovereignty of God.  Then Banner of Truth published a slightly abridged version of the book in paperback.  As usual, Banner did a fine job of putting together the more user friendly edition of the book, which excluded a couple of more difficult to digest chapters.  Banner of Truth also published Gleanings from Paul (in hardback), The Life of Elijah, Profiting from the Word, and some Pink titles translated into Spanish.

Life of Arthur W. Pink

Another Banner of Truth work is Iain H. Murray’s fine biography of Arthur Pink.  I am always partial to Iain Murray’s biography, and even though it has been many years since I read the book (which has since been revised and enlarged), I still remember it as a great read.

Often the word “dated” is applied to older books.  Perhaps that word is descriptive of much of Pink’s works, for he lived from 1886 to 1952.  The theological issues and battles have changed; the reception to Reformed theology is much improved; and the availability of good books has vastly increased.  I am sure that Mr. Pink would be amazed at the popularity of writers like R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and John Piper.  Going against the grain, as Pink did; adhering to a theology out of favor, as Pink did; and stubbornly standing alone, as Pink did, is not as necessary as it was in his day.  Besides, some of the more recent writers are better able to convey the great doctrines that are often opposed without being disagreeable sorts of preachers.

We are living in a new age as far as Reformed theology is concerned, especially as it relates to the Doctrines of Grace.  But there is a need to go back to the sources.  We need to read and promote the books and authors that carved out a niche for Calvinism back when Calvinism wasn’t cool.

The great Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave this advice to a young man in ministry:  “Don’t waste your time reading Barth and Brunner. You will get nothing from them to aid you with preaching. Read Pink.”  I do believe there is profit in Barth and Brunner, but for the best and most direct spiritual benefit, I agree, “Read Pink.”

Kyle Shepherd is a young man in a hurry.  He wants to see yet more good resources available to Christians, Christian families, homeschoolers, and others engaged in directly confronting and toppling the culture.  As the founder of a publication ministry called Visionarion Press,  Kyle promised several months ago to reveal a major publishing venture that would make a foundational work in Christian worldview thinking available again.

My mind was racing through a number of great books that could be secret reprint, but I guessed wrong every time.  Kyle Shepherd then announced that the book was Arthur W. Pink’s The Sovereignty of God.  Even if you already have the book, you will want to get copies (plural) of this book for your library and others.  The new edition includes the following features:

Hardback, smythe-sewn binding to last for decades
Scripture & Topical Indexes
Unabridged
Modern typesetting for easy reading

Put this book high on your want list.  No, go ahead and put it in your cart and get this classic work today.

Contending for the Truth While Still Loving the Brethren

Image result for christian fights

I don’t know which is worse:  Christians fighting Christians, or embracing the idea that we should never talk about politics and religion because it divides us.  Christians must earnestly contend for the faith, and that means apologetic encounters with unbelief, but it also entails butting heads with fellow believers over differences.  Iron sharpens iron, but it does not do so when the two pieces of iron fail to get near each other and “dialog” (I cringe a bit over that word.)

I have been in many a Christian theological brouhaha.  Some were fun, some were mean, some inflicted wounds and causing pain for myself and others.  “Milquetoast for Jesus” is not a good stance to take, but neither is the tendency to see every hill as the place to die on and every difference as the fight unto death.

I am not without convictions.  Most of them are probably immovable due to 1.)  my age,  2.) the life/career/reputation investment I made to obtain those convictions, 3.) the practical benefits of not changing, and, most of all–hopefully, 4.) truly Biblical foundations and reasonable assumptions for those convictions.  I can repeat the creeds in church (Apostles and Nicene) without hesitation.  My biggest problem with the Bible is application, not accepting a total belief and trust in it.  I am more than comfortable with a number of descriptions that define me, such as Protestant, Reformed, Calvinistic, Presbyterian, Evangelical, and Biblicist.  I am deeply appreciative to and much influenced by Presuppositionalism, A- and Post-Millennialism, Theonomy, and more.  I have much admiration for and many take-aways from Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, George Marsden, Charles Spurgeon, R. C. Sproul, and many others.  I borrow heavily from Christopher Dawson, the Catholic historian, and others from his theological positions.

I think of Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til as uncles.  I love both and would fail any major examinations explaining their views and differences.  I think J. Gresham Machen hung the moon.  I believe Jonathan Edwards is even greater than John Piper thinks he is.  Francis Schaeffer, R. J. Rushdoony, and Gregg Singer all shaped my understanding of history and culture, and Greg Bahnsen was a personal friend and mentor.

All of that is said, to introduce my latest and newest Christian friend:  Laurence M. Vance.  Also, I want to call your attention to his many books found on his web-site: Vance Publications.

Image result for the other side of calvinism

This connection was started due to my interest in Dr. Vance’s book The Other Side of  Calvinism.  This is a massive hardcover book, heavily documented, that seeks to correct and/or refute what has come to be known as Calvinism or Reformed theology.  In nearly 800 pages with heavy documentation, this book examines both the history connected to Calvinism and the particular doctrines, commonly called the Five Points of Calvinism.

 

Understand me, I am a Calvinist and have been so since 1976.  I have never wavered, rarely doubted, long since stopped questioning, and have long since felt solidified in this position.  My hall of heroes are largely made up of Calvinists, and I have paid some heavy prices along the way for my theology.  (Blunders and stupid things done in the name of promoting Calvinism on my part–well, that’s another story.)

Image result for martyn lloyd jones          Image result for loraine boettner  Image result for charles hodge   Image result for b. b. warfield

Image result for charles spurgeon     Image result for a. w. pink      Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, suit and outdoor  Image result for gordon h.  clark

WTSPhotos_Box1_StudentLifeChestnutHill_WestminsterFaculty1930s001 Finished (3)     Image result for john frame and vern poythress  Image result for john macarthur

I grew up a-dreamin’ of bein’ a Calvinist
And lovin’ the Calvinist ways
Pursuin’ the life of my theologian heroes
I burned up my teenage days
I learned all the rules of a modern day reformer
Hold on to convictions strong
Just take what you need from the books as you buy them
With the words of a imprecatory Psalm.
My heroes have always been Calvinists,
And they still are, it seems
Gladly, in search of, but one step in front of
Themselves and their theological dreams.
(With Apologies to Willie Nelson)

So why would I want this book?  I am sure that Dr. Vance has gotten plenty of letters, maybe phone calls, e-mails, and other communications desiring to correct him. Quite frankly, I am not interested in that.  He’s a big boy (with the degrees and a number of books that show his scholarship) and, as said earlier, there is a place for the debates, exchanges, and kingdom labors to better hone the truths of the Bible. But such debates are not what I need right now.  If Dr. Vance and I were neighbors, I would hope that we would be seriously talking (and often laughing) together as we sought to take the Gospel to our neighborhood.

I guess I have a hundred or more books to answer things he says, and from glancing at his bibliography, he did not write and later revise this huge book without extensively researching the topic.

Without conceding a single millimeter to skeptics who say we cannot know truth, I do believe that my own capacity to know and understand–to use the Bible and reason as both Loraine Boettner and Laurence Vance contend–is always in need of further labor, refinement, rethinking, repenting, and growing.  As a someone whose life labors consists of teaching, preaching, writing, and endlessly talking, I want to primarily be a listener and learner and not just a mouth.

The issues that divide Calvinists from non-Calvinists (whether they are or wish to be called Arminians is another story) are important.  We are talking about the nature of God and salvation and the revelation of the Bible.  Maybe I have been wrong for many years, although I don’t think so.  Or maybe I have been right but have not properly understood the grounds of what I am right about or how to communicate it.  Maybe, I have over-complicated simple truths and over-simplified complicated truths.

I teach children.  I preach to people of all ages.  James 3:1 says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”  Do I dare stand in front of a group without carefully hearing and studying all sides to an issue?  Do I dare assume that agreeing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which I do adhere to, will get me off the James 3:1 hook?  No.

For that reason, I rejoice in having yet another hefty book to add to the shelves.  But it is one that is not just to give some balance to one end of the theological scale, but one to read, think about, pray over, and consider carefully.  So, thanks to Dr. Vance–in advance (no pun intended)–for your labors to write about your deep convictions.

And as Cornelius Van Til was fond of saying at the end of letters, “Soon we shall meet at Jesus’ feet.”  (Although I hope and pray that “soon” doesn’t mean before I get this and many other books finished and many other earthly tasks completed.)

Frank on the Prairie–And Being 12 Years Old Again

Boy reading forest

I was recently listening to a cassette tape  from the Easy Chair series that R. J. Rushdoony did, often with Otto Scott.  In this talk, Otto Scott commented on Homer’s Odyssey, saying, “When I read The Odyssey, I am a twelve year boy old again.”  I loved that comment, even though I did not read and love Homer’s epics until much later.  For me, it is such books as Jesse Stuart’s Hie to the Hunters  that recreates that feeling.  There were other books I loved such as Smokey–The Cow Horse by Will James and The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be by Farley Mowat.

Also, every time I teach through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I find myself wishing I could sneak out the window of the classroom and go join Tom and Huck on Jackson Island and play pirates all day.

Image result for tom and huck on jackson island

A few years back, my son Nate and I enjoyed reading Scout: The Secret of the Swamp by Piet Prins.  Published by Inheritance Press, out of Canada, this series told of the adventures of a young boy and his German Shepherd dog Scout.  In spite of being a German Shepherd, Scout is totally committed to the Dutch people and the Christian family he is a part of.  Inheritance Press publisher Roelof Jannsen brilliantly published this book along with his catalog together.  It led to several good book purchases, including more volumes of the Scout Series.

Image result for scout series inheritance press

The book with a hook. Read it and you will want all of the series.

You might be surprised that I grew up in a home that did not have many books.  I only randomly and haphazardly picked up hints and helps as to what to read.  In our house, we had lots of old Reader’s Digest magazines, along with Texas Horseman magazines, and we had a copy of a book called None Dare Call It Treason, which always seemed scary to me.  I did check out books from the school library, but never read the Hardy Boys, any Henty books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or other authors I should have digested before I went to high school.

Long life and a desire to learn calls for frequent repentance and acts of penance.  While I have acquired a decent amount of book smarts, there are still so many authors I barely know and book titles I may not recognize.  We won’t even begin to think about books I read that should be read again.

I recently received a beautiful little book titled Frank on the Prairie by Harry Castlemon with additional illustrations by Charles M. Russell.  The book is published by one of my favorite sources–the University of Oklahoma Press.

OUPress.Data.Entities.Image

The University of Oklahoma Press website states that they publish scholarly books, “especially Native American studies, classics, natural history, and regional interest titles.”  That is certainly true, and I have enjoyed many of the classical studies and the Campaigns and Commanders series, which has over 50 current volumes with more to come.

But they also publish books that the average reader, who has no academic pursuit in mind, can read and enjoy.  A few months back, I reviewed Horseback Schoolmarm, Montana 1953-1954, which I and my wife both thoroughly enjoyed.

Frank On The Prairie is also going to be a fun book.  (I am still early into it.)  It is a reprint (the original book came out in 1869) of an author of adventure books for boys named Harry Castlemon, who was the most popular author of boys adventure books in the late 1800s .  The review on the website says this:

The prolific author of the novel Frank on the Prairie, Charles Austin Fosdick (1842–1915), who went by the pen name Harry Castlemon, was one of Russell’s favorite storytellers. Castlemon’s book, which first appeared in 1868 as part of the Gunboat Series of Books for Boys, recounts the adventures of young Frank and his friend Archie as they travel across the Old West.

Charles Austin Fosdick, who wrote under the name Harry Castlemon

In this case, there was a boy named Austin whose uncle was Charles M. Russell, the man who was one of the greatest artists of the Old West.  Russell was also a fan and collector of Castleman’s “Frank Series” (there were at least 9 books about Frank).  Uncle Charles borrowed Austin’s book and later returned it with eleven watercolors and a pencil sketch detailing events in the book.

Western artist Charles M. Russell

I find myself astounded and in awe of that.  You see, I don’t really like loaning books unless the borrower is as careful as I am.  I sure don’t like when they mark up the book or do things to it.  (I don’t even want them to let sunlight get to it.)  But this would be like loaning a book of poetry to C. S. Lewis and having him return it with notes in it.  Or loaning a book on World War II to Churchill and him marking the places where he was present in the story.

This book is a great adventure story.  After all, if you have two young boys who are heading out west–the book depends heavily on Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail–and the book is not adventurous, then you ain’t no writer!

Add to that, the greatest artist of the Old West just happens to enhance the book with illustrations.  It just doesn’t get much better than this.  This fine book has been published now–illustrations and all–in a beautiful, facsimile hardcover edition.  This is a book for collectors, lovers of the Old West, lovers of boys adventure stories, and lovers of fine books.

Yea, it is not being given away, but it would be a great investment for any book lover and would be a great gift to young people who need some good reading.  It would also be good for all of us who want to feel like we are twelve again.

Proceeds from the book will go to the C. M. Russell Museum–The Art and Soul of the Old West in Great Falls, Montana.

Postscript:  Harry Castlemon wrote,  “Boys don’t like fine literature. What they want is adventure, and the more of it you can get in two-hundred-fifty pages of manuscript, the better fellow you are.”

Six O’Clock A.M. Seminary Classes

Image result for dawn at the river

I attend an early morning seminary class on theological subjects.  It begins at 6:00 a.m.  Yes, I know that Robert Murray McCheyne, Samuel Rutherford, Jonathan Edwards, and others would have already been up for hours by that time.  And I know that George Grant has already run 65 miles, written a chapter or two of a book, and read 3 books by that time.  But I am a challenged person.  I still think of the sixth hour as the middle of the night, so this is “one large step for mankind” in my case.

There are two companions in the classes with me.  On my right sits the student who provides lots of encouragement and incentive to read.  His name is Morning Coffee. He is usually strong, black, and bitter, with me sharing only the latter attribute.  But he does wonders in terms of helping me focus.

Image result for early morning coffee and books

Really helps open my eyes and unclog my brain in the morning.

On my left, all too often is another companion.  This companion, suffering from severe ADD, ADHD, hyperactivity, and a total lack of intellectual curiosity is Callie, the dog.  Contrary to appearances, she is not even a good listener.  She just wants to play.  She has an assortment of toys that she brings to me so that I can throw them, or use them in tug-of-war.  After doing that for a few minutes, she is content to fight with wolf-like ferocity the very hand that feeds her. One would think–upon seeing her–that she would be a good listener–but she is not.  Nor is she a good student or a help, but she forces me to be awake and pay attention.

Has little love for serious theology and is often a continual distraction. Forces me to really work at concentrating.

Currently, my class begins with a study on the Minor Prophets from a book titled The Message of the Twelve: Hearing the Voice of the Minor Prophets by Richard Alan Fuhr, Jr. and Gary E. Yates.  The Minor Prophets are the twelve books at the end of the Old Testament, starting with Hosea and ending with Malachi.

I, for one, experience lots of problems with reading and understanding the Minor Prophets.  First, the common attribution of them being “minor” seems to indicate that these writings are less important than other revelations in Scripture.  Second, the writings are short, often written in poetic form, and focused on local events of the time.  The historical context is often vital to making sense of the writings.  Third, since they come last in a normal reading of the Old Testament, they often get the quick read (as in, “I am hurrying to get through”) from me.

We often remember Jonah’s story, but that is because it is different in style than most of the other prophets.  We also tend to notice a few particulars out of these writings that relate to the birth of Christ or other New Testament events.  Overall, we neglect this rich source of Bible revelation. I must admit that when I first saw this book, I only noticed the title and not the subtitle.  I thought it was going to be a study of the Apostles.  There are some fine resources on the Apostles, such a study would be inviting.  But I am glad that I am now “signed up for and sitting in” a class that will help enrich my reading of those short orations that were given to call the people of God back to God.

This work is suitable for a Bible college or seminary classroom.  This is a serious analysis of the prophets with the first portion of the book dealing with common themes and structure of the writings.  I am just now ready to begin the portion that focuses on the individual books.

I will soon be starting a reading and study of  God and Politics in Esther by Yoram Hazony and published by Cambridge University Press.  This book is a sequel of sorts to Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, also a Cambridge Publication.  (My copy of the latter book is autographed!)  I first became aware of Hazony’s writings through Paul David Robinson’s comment in a discussion group a few years back.  Robinson is a Ph.D. candidate who hails from Northern Ireland, but is studying here in the U.S.

Hazony is a Jewish scholar and is the Provost of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Senior Fellow in the Department of Philosophy, Political Theory, and Religion.  Because of his Jewish perspective, the insights from his books are going to be way outside the box of a southern (basically fundamentalist) Calvinistic Presbyterian.  While there is plenty need for me to be grounded more and more in what I am already convinced of, I also need the challenge and mind-and-soul expansion that comes from reading Hazony.

I noticed a few weeks back that a local church has a women’s study on the Book of Esther.  I think that is well and good, but I also recognize that we all have a hard time with Esther, apart from the fact that it is a good story.  We also struggle with how to blend or separate religion and politics.  I suspect this book will be a bombshell in the most positive sense.

                                          Image result for hazony philosophy of Hebrew scripture

Speaking of politics and religion, I recently read a book titled The Individualist in Church & State by Frederic de Rougemont.  This book is published by Wordbridge Publishers.  I try to read everything Wordbridge publishes.  Run by e-friend (meaning we know each other via e-mails) Ruben Alvarado, a brilliant scholar himself, Wordbridge publishes a number of books on theology, politics, economics, philosophy, literature, and the connections between those fields.

I am convinced–more than ever–that now is the time for serious political reading and thought.  The last election–whatever one might think of the outcome–was the result of lots of shallowness on the surface, but lots of demographic, economic, social, cultural, and philosophical twisting and turning below the surface.  Christians were just as bumfuzzled as the rest of the nation.

Talk radio–with its few strengths and many weaknesses–cannot provide a foundation for Christian thinking about politics.  But these basic issues did not begin with President Obama and Secretary Clinton, nor with the previous Presidents Clinton and Bush and Bush.  There is a need to be more deeply grounded in the political history of Christianity.

There are many useful books from the past and about the past on these topics.  Just note that Wordbridge has also published Groen van Prinsterer’s Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution.  The great Groen van Prinsterer was not the lone European with a vision for a Christian political order.  One of the things that astounded me about this book was the appendix that covered the life of the author.  I was not sure I had ever heard of Rougemont before reading this book, but in his day, he was an incredibly prolific author and commentator on a host of theological and political topics.

Rougemont believed that “revivalist movements spread individualism into the church, which went from there to society at large. In turn, this led to the radical separation of church and state and the consequent triumph of unbelief in and through the state.”  (From the back cover.)  The argument in the book concerns another time and set of circumstances, so this book is not a picture of modern America or Europe.  But that only adds to its worth and necessity–see C. S. Lewis’ classic essay “On the Reading of Old Books.”

front cover                           

As I was thinking about The Individualists in Church and State, my mind shifted to a book I finished just today.  It is titled A Gospel Without Limits: Good News for Family, Church, Culture, Cosmos by my friend (who is more than an e-contact) P. Andrew Sandlin.  As a long time proponent, speaker, writer, and thinker for the broad concept of Christian culture, this book is yet another installment of what will hopefully, someday be a massive work on Christianity and culture by Sandlin.

The problem of individualism, or of salvation that is only a heart-changing issue, is a focus of this book.  Sandlin is building upon the works and influence of men such as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and others who saw Kingdom building as part of the Gospel.  Christianity impacts the family, and no where is such impact more needed today than in the family.  It may be a given that the Faith impacts the church, but the broader components of changing–not just slightly brushing up against–the culture is a key area of much needed Christian involvement.

The world or cosmos is not just a failed creation action of God that He will replace with heaven.  God is redeeming us to dwell in a new (re-newed) heaven AND earth.  Future–yes, but also present, here and now.

A Gospel Without Limits

I must also mention that I love Andrew’s footnotes and book references.  He and I share a lot of reading updates and book suggestions.  His reading background is extensive and his knowledge of theology continually astounds me.  I read the footnotes as commendations on books he and I both have read and value and as suggested reading assignments and purchases for the future.

Here are some of the books he quotes, references, or plugs in this book:

Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture.  Amen and amen.  Read and could profit from reading it another 10 times.  A blockbuster.

John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied.  Read this and other Murray books years ago.  John Murray is top shelf.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology.  Have but have not read.  Sandlin’s quotes and use of Van Til is a not-so-subtle suggestion that we all need to be reading that Dutchman often.

Stephen C. Perks, The Christian Philosophy of Education.  Perks is a pillar of Christian thought in England.  This book is first rate.

John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life.  Andrew and I agree that anything by Frame–even his grocery list–is worth reading.

H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism.  Great book that should be read after Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism.

Sam Storms and Justin Taylor, For the Fame of God’s Name.  Excellent collection of essays honoring John Piper.

David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant.  Have, but have not read.  However, have read and profited from many of Wells’ books.

Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster.  This is one of a very few books by Schaeffer I don’t have.  Pity me.

Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea.  Anything written by McGrath is either something I have or want.

Carl F. H. Henry, Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture.  We should never forget or overlook Henry.

G. C. Berkouwer, Modern Uncertainty and Christian Faith.  I bought and read this excellent volume on Andrew’s recommendation years ago. I continue to acquire books by the great Berkouwer, yet another Dutch theologian.

There’s more!  But all this, regarding those early morning seminary classes is enough for now.

My Classics Wall of Shame–Embarrassing Unreads

I will never forget a horrifying description a well-meaning pastor gave once about heaven at a funeral.  He spoke of the deceased fellow as one who always had lots of questions.  “Now,” he said as a way of consoling all of us, “All of his questions are answered.”  The thought that our minds would cease to wonder, cease to grow, cease to learn did not sound like heaven to me.

Another horrifying thought is the brevity of life, particularly the brevity of reading time.  There are so many new books coming off the presses, so many books I have accumulated over the years, and worst of all, so many classics, so many often-referenced books, so many definitive works that I have bought, shelved, looked at, dipped into once or twice, talked about in vague ways, BUT NEVER READ.

I often confess to my students in our Humanities classes that I should never have received a high school diploma.  I should never have received a college degree.  My masters degree in education doesn’t count because it was to upgrade my payscale and wasn’t much related to education.  Certainly, I should never have been hired to be a teacher.  Somehow, I was able to conceal a paucity of personal reading of the classics from my employers.  Strangely enough, I remember them asking a few questions and glancing at my college transcript, but they did not ask the questions that matter.

“Why is Beowulf the warrior so important to understand?”  “What are the factions today that Madison warned about in Federalist #10?”  “What was Augustine’s philosophy of history from City of God?”  I read quite a bit and that got me through years of bluffing administrators, boards, and even students.  Secretly, I knocked out key books here and there and someone survived.

But there comes a time to be open and truthful.  There are all too many essential books that I have not read.  I am currently compiling a list called “My Hall of Shame.”  It hurts to admit these things, but I am hoping that with these admissions, there will be grace from my friends (who may have never suspected these things) and recovery for myself.

 There must be 500 different editions of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  I have yet to find my personal copy in my library or in my children’s rooms.  Could it be that I had not only not read the book, but didn’t even own a copy of it?  That is disgraceful.

I put this book on the top of my Wall of Shame list, confessed the problem on Facebook, and repentantly read the book.  Let’s dismiss it right off the bat.  It is a children’s book.  It has all the stock characters of a boy’s adventure, such as pirates, a parrot, sword play, a fatherless kid who gets swept away in the adventure, a fought-over map showing with an X where a treasure is buried, and more.  Just children’s escape reading.

Unfortunately, my advanced age and many years of adult living failed me.  The book was good, and the story kept calling me back.  I started out reading one chapter a day.  Being near the end of July, I expected to finish the book at the end of August.  Then I bumped up the reading to two chapters a day, and then three, and then I was racing toward the end.  Most of the stock features in the book became stock features due to the book.  It was a wonderful adventure.

The copy that I read was an older edition–about the late 1950s–that looks like the picture below.  It belongs to a retired doctor that is the father of a friend.  I enjoyed reading it while thinking of Dr. Kendall as a young boy in Tennessee reading the book for class.

Now comes the next installment on my Wall of Shame.  Treasure Island, although projected as a month-long read, took less than 2 weeks.  This next book is projected to take a year or more.  I may fail.  I may only get 200 to 500 pages read.  Some books, usually not novels, can be very profitable if just read in large portions, but maybe not from cover to cover.  Books I have read extensively from, but not completely, are not on my Wall of Shame.

But this book had not been read in part.  Oh sure, I had read quotes.  Certainly, I had read other authors’ discussions of it.  Admittedly, I talked about the book, made my students aware of the book and author, and certainly acted like I was personally familiar with it.  I was living a lie.  It is like when a politician says, “I never sent classified email on my personal server.”  We can give the impression repeatedly, say the words often, and convince our hearers that we are what we really are not.

The book is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.  Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.  I could pour scorn on the poor student who referred to it as The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.  I have rolled my eyes when people parrot some feature of Rome and then connect it with modern America and then conclude that we are certain to fall.

To make matters worse, I have numerous copies of the book.  Note this:  Decline and Fall was a six-volume work.  Many editions combine it into one, two, or three volumes.  Many editions are abridgements.

Two of my favorite historians have talked extensively about the book.  Christopher Dawson, brilliant Catholic historian, not only has written about the book and author, but he was inspired by Gibbon to write history.  Dawson, in fact, was sitting in the very place in Rome where Gibbon got his inspiration.  Dawson set out to write a magisterial history on the same order, but with a Christian worldview. (See this article for this connection.)

Christopher Dawson

One of the many books where Dawson discusses Gibbon.

The other historian is Thomas Cahill and the book is How The Irish Saved Civilization.  We read this outstanding book in my Medieval Humanities classes (which will begin this year on August 29).  Chapter 1 is titled “How the Empire Fell and Why.” Gibbon blamed (or credited) the Christians for precipitating or furthering the fall of Rome.  Gibbon himself was a lapsed Christian.  Raised in a Calvinistic home, he flirted briefly with Roman Catholicism, but basically became a skeptic.  He was, by the way, a historian by hobby and was by profession a politician and a member of Parliament.

Cahill’s book is largely devoted to the work of the Irish, such as Patrick, but we often forget or never knew that Patrick was living during the latter years of the Roman Empire.  As its influence receded from Britain, Patrick and later others faced the daunting task of filling in the cultural, moral, spiritual, and political vacuum.  This book is one of my all time favorites, but it did not shame me–during the past 5 readings into picking up Gibbon.

I have now started…let me repeat started, started, STARTED reading Gibbon’s classic.  Let me confess something else.  I am reading a short, condensed version of the book:  It is only 1250 pages long.  But, I have to start somewhere.  The edition I am reading is the paperback Modern Library edition, pictured below:

I have the Great Books of the Western World edition:

Moreover, I have the beautiful Folio Society edition in three large hardback volumes and a slip case, and there is a hardback abridged version or two in my office at school.  I, however, am reading the bulky paperback version for convenience sake.  It is easier to carry around and use.  It is also easier to hide when people come over.  The more beautiful volumes say, “Literacy Alert.”  The paperback copy says, “I am trying to overcome a glaring deficit in my life.”

Decline-and-Fall-of-the-Roman-Empire-3-Volume-Set-by-Edward-Gibbon-Hardcover

Folio Society 3 volume slipcased edition

If I get far enough into reading the paperback edition, I might count myself worthy of reading from the nicer edition.  Like many classic and older works, Gibbon’s work has been reprinted numerous times in a large number of formats.

Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794

Several closing points:

  1.  Gibbon is a founding father and influence on the writing of history.  History is now a profession, but it was not such when he wrote.  He has influenced many of us who have not read him, but who embrace the Muse Clio (especially after the was converted and baptized by Augustine and Eusebius).
  2. Gibbon is a master stylist.  He is not writing technical history.  He is writing before the days of footnotes and peer reviews.  He was a man of the Enlightenment era with a writing style as verbous and multifluous as the best of writers in his age.  He is not simply writing chronologies or a fact sheet on Roman history.  He writes a story, filled with descriptions and details.
  3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not just about events that led to Romulus Augustulus’ resignation as emperor and putting a “Closed–Out of Business” sign on the office door of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D.  Gibbon’s work extends all the way up to and through the Crusades.  For that reason, the book is quite suited for my upcoming year of teaching about the time period from circa. 100 A.D. to 1500 A.D.
  4. The book is huge in more ways than one.  Of course, scholars debate, dispute, and reject much that he wrote.  But he set the bar and the battle for the meaning of history has been waged now for more than 2 centuries.
    1. Side Note:  The first of the six volumes of The Decline and Fall was published in 1776, which was the same year that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations and something or other happened in America.

I hope to update the progress in this book.  Being on page 38 right now has me quite excited about the prospects.

Daniel Silva, Gabriel Allon, and Me

Popular fiction, best-selling novels, escape reading or whatever term you use to describe such books, it does not matter. Such reading is a waste of time. Reading fiction, unless it is fiction that has attainted the status of being classic, is a distraction.

For those reasons–time wasting, distractions–and others, I make it a point to not read more than 20 or 30 such novels a year. I call them my dessert reading. These are books that promise to be page turners. They might educate and illuminate, but their prime calling is to entertain. We can make the argument that all good literature is designed to entertain, to create joy. But Dostoevsky functions like a investment banker. He says, “Bring me a sizeable amount of intellectual cash and I will find you some beneficial dividends.” Dostoevsky, by the way, pays quite high dividends, but you have to have the means to make the initial investment.

No casual investments here in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels.

Popular fiction is a give-away, a party, a place for freebies. The sign says, “Free fun, delight, entertainment.” I like investments, but I also like free. I teach mental investments all day long. I am telling my students to invest in history, in literature, in theology, and in thinking. After a day of brain market management, I enjoy sitting back and just receiving a fun dose of words and adventure.

This resembles my times of dessert reading. At least the book and coffee cup look similar.

Popular fiction often has its own rewards. One does learn about places, people, and ideas from even the lightest and trendiest of books. But that is like saying that you are eating chocolate cake because it has eggs in it and eggs provide protein. Or that you are eating ice cream for the calcium content. Just admit it, “I am eating this because it is good.”

Last night, I finished reading my fourteenth Daniel Silva novel. Titled The Heist, this is number 14 in a series about an art restorer named Gabriel Allon. I am tempted to say, “I read the books because they educate me about paintings and art restoration.” I am sure that Silva could have written one or two worthy novels about an art restorer, but Gabriel Allon is constantly interrupted from his restoration work.

The interruptions occur because the artistic beauty of this fallen world also needs restoration. Just as Allon meticulously removes damaged materials from paintings, he also meticulously removes damage from the world. Allon is a spy, a gunman, an agent of the Israeli intelligence service, which is usually referred to in the books as “The Office.” He is a patriot, a freedom fighter, a defender of Israel. To be such, he is often a killer.

Lots of evil people get their just desserts in the Gabriel Allon series.

Simply put, Gabriel Allon kills bad guys. Being that we are in a tangled world, where the black and white divide between bad and good is often hard to distinguish, Allon doesn’t have an easy task. But there are no limits or geographical boundaries to sin. Many of his targets are what we now call Islamic Extremists, Jihadists, or Radical Islamic terrorists. It might be a bit touchy in America to use such labels, but Allon and his nation deal with such threats often, both in fiction and in reality.

There is plenty of blame and evil to go around, without focusing totally on the Radical Islamic Terrorists. Allon’s work, investigations, spying operations, and killing fields involve his dealings with all manner of evil people. Some are former Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. These are a particular focus of Allon since his mother was the only member of her family to escape Nazi Germany alive. There is a bizarre world of connections between great art and the Nazi era. Prominent Nazis collected great art works, and usually “collected” means “stole.”

Russia abandoned Communism which was a blessing to the world, but it was not a spiritual revival or a turning from evil to good. Greed, money, and power motivates another large group of bad guys that Allon has to confront. Seventy years of KGB with its predecessor organization easily morphs into updated, ongoing ways of perpetrating evils within the confines of the former Soviet Union, which remains an Evil Empire. (Even in reality? Under Putin? Surely not! Note the heavy sarcasm.)

Swiss bankers protect evil men. Art thieves steal great works in order to fund themselves and promote evil. Shady politicians conspire to cover up misdeeds, and even the Vatican hides secrets.

The Gabriel Allon series is a series of pictures of the modern world, or at least some aspects of it. Granted, these works are fictional; the operations of the Israeli secret service are fantastic and often unbelievable; and Gabriel Allon seems to survive a series of mishaps that would have taken out anyone else.

While there are now 16 books in the series, a reader can begin anywhere. Saying that, it is better to read the earlier books. For one thing, it helps to establish the meta-narrative of Allon’s life and family background and the background of the recurring characters. In almost every book, there are brief recaps of Allon’s life and previous confrontations. These are good reminders for the long-time readers, and helpful connections for newer readers.

Best selling author Daniel Silva

Reading the books in order also enables the reader to watch Silva’s skills as a writer of thriller, spy-espionage novels improve. Characters that were flat in earlier stories develop and grow as the stories progress. They become like old friends, and we–the readers–smile when they show up in each story.

I think I started reading this series about 3 years ago. I learned of Silva from George Grant, who placed Daniel Silva on his list of favorite living authors, alongside of writers like R. C. Sproul and Paul Johnson. I wondered if I would like Silva since I already shared a liking for so many of the same authors as Dr. Grant.  That led to me starting to collect and read Silva’s book.

Popular fiction is easy to collect because many people read the books once and lightly and then pass them on. Most of the books I have were purchased in used book venues for a few dollars each.  A couple of the earlier works are a bit harder to find.  Thankfully, most books are only a few clicks away on the Internet.

I could have read the books at the rate of one or two or even three a month, but I usually spaced out the reading. The idea was to savor and enjoy them as long as possible.  I really had to work to restrain myself once I got to about the third book.  Here is the order of the novels.  I actually began with The Prince of Fire, and it was a while later before I was able to acquire the earlier novels.

Now comes the sad part. I have finished all fourteen of the Allon series books I own. There are two more, but I have yet to acquire them. I will have to try to survive until these next two volumes–one of which is brand new–show up somewhere for a pittance.

Published in June of 2015, I am still searching for the new or like-new hardback copy with dustjacket that is cheap.

The good news is that I have a few other books that can fill in the gaps until I am back with Gabriel Allon and his companions as he works on a piece of art restoration and the Israeli intelligence agency. There are still plenty of evil men and organizations needing a dose of Allon’s mixture of law and grace.

The most recent Gabriel Allon novel. I will have to wait a while before I get this book.

Post Script:  Daniel Silva’s first novel about Gabriel Allon, The Kill Artist, was the fourth novel he wrote.  The previous novels are seen below in reverse order of their publication.

Before the Allon series, Silva wrote 3 other books. I do have them and will be reading them soon.

Silva’s second novel.

book-unlikely-spy-lg

Silva’s first novel, which was set during World War II.