So You Want To–the first two installments–by Brian Daigle

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Brian Daigle is a big man who writes small books.  There is a method to his madness.  I am proof of the pudding, for I have read his small books.  But the main appeal is that he is writing these books to target people who are looking for a plan of action.  Brian, by the way, writes from a plethora of experiences.  He has started and leads a Christian school in south Louisiana.  He has spoken across the land to educators and interested parents.  Also, he has read deeply and widely in all the areas associated with classical education.

The classical Christian school movement is still relatively new.  Relatively because it really started picking up steam in the 1990s.  A number of now older men and women found themselves questioning education, Christian school alternatives, and the needs of our children.  Names started popping up all over the place; that is, names like Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, John Milton, and others who were known for their writings in literature and other areas were also people who addressed education.  There was a question that arose regarding not what these people wrote or said, but how were they educated?  Hence, an obscure essay by a woman mainly liked for being a murder mystery novelist suddenly became a cornerstone for a movement.  I am referring, of course, to Dorothy Sayers and her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.”

Many of us dove into classical Christian education little prepared, little aware, and less equipped for the task that needed.  But as G. K. Chesterton, another favorite in CCE circles, said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”  So, we began doing something worth doing and often doing it badly.  But, hop in the pool and flail your arms long enough and you just might learn to swim.  Then, find a swimming coach and watch amazing things happen.

Twenty plus years after the reawakening, the 95 Theses posted to the door of modern education, and we are still a small movement.  But people keep having babies and going to church.  Some, not enough, see that what is taught in church and in the Bible and what is taught on the other days of the week ought to mesh together.  If one is to trump or undergird the other, it should be the church and Bible, rather than the school and culture.

Here is where So You Want to Start a School is needed.  I strongly advise you not to run before you walk, or to start a school before you know what it is that you are starting.  And the “you” I am using better be the plural, as in “Y’all” (meaning “You all).  A bad Christian school, started because of public school violence or Common Core Curriculum or evolution in textbooks, might be worse than the disease.  This book is 65 pages long.  That is just the right length for you to read 3 times before talking to other concerned people.

You will make mistakes in starting a Christian school.  (Some involve hiring practices; some involve admissions; some involve thinking this can be done without paying teachers; some involve doctrinal confusion; and the list never ends.) So, at least make sure that you have worked through the issues in this book and can head off or minimize the lurking disasters.

On the other hand, there are Christian schools that have been around for a while.  Sometimes, I hear of a Christian school that is “just like our schools use to be.”  Well, if “Happy Days” (the television show) is your model, go for it.  Public school with a chapel, public school with a Bible class, public school where evolution is not taught, and the like may be enough for you.  (And I think we should have a serious talk, if so.)  And above all, if you are motivated by having your kids kept in an environment where only “our kind of people” are present, referring to race, let me make this clear:  You are in sin.  But I digress.

Some Christian schools or people associated with them have seen some of the features in the classical Christian school movement and find it attractive.  First of all, don’t add the word “Classical” to your school or curriculum.  I can call myself General Ben House, but that doesn’t change the fact that I have never spent a day in the military (and have not shot a rifle in years).  Second, don’t think that your school can do what it does, but just add a classical track onto its curriculum.  If it is Latin you want to teach, or logic, or if you want to add a few more classics to the reading list, do so.

Transforming a traditional Christian school into a classical Christian school is more than a few minor adjustments.  Read the book.  Brian got carried away and wrote 79 pages this time.  Plan on it taking a year or so for you/y’all to get acclimated to what you are even talking about.  There is a cost involved.  Compare it, if you will, to transitioning from being a single guy to a married man with four children.  (That process took me 11 years.)

Thanks Brian Daigle for taking up the standard and leading the next generation of classical teachers, boards, and schools.  How about a book called So You Want to be a Classical Teacher?  next?  Or, So You Are Finding Classical Education Difficult?  Short books, with Calvin’s preferred “lucid brevity”:  That is your calling, along with the 94 other things you are doing, for now.

 

Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant

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You cannot escape the presence of Thomas Aquinas.  He dominates discussions theological and philosophical.  Besides often being heralded as the theologian among Catholics, there are plenty of Protestants who are admirers and students of Thomistic thinking.  Norman Geisler and R. C. Sproul both professed a great love and appreciation for Aquinas.  Will Durant grumbles about it, but lists Aquinas as one of the top ten thinkers of all time.  Peter Kreeft has taught many to swim in the shallow end of the Summa Theologica by writing a book called The Summa of the Summa and then a shorter one titled A Shorter Summa.

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Quite often we learn of Aquinas from the passing references.  In the midst of a chapter on the Middle Ages, or the Church before the Reformation, or in surveys of philosophers and thinkers, Aquinas is neatly summed up in a few sentences or maybe even a paragraph or two.  And quite often the bullet point one line explanation is that Aquinas was a Catholic theologian who took the writings of Aristotle and wove his theology into Aristotle’s Greek philosophy.

So, read Aquinas and you get Christianized Aristotle.  Or you get Aristotelean Christianity.  At any rate, the Christian world was left with a muddle until the Protestant Reformers came along and took us back to the roots.

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Now, I don’t have any quarrel with the Protestant Reformers and certainly rejoice in the truths they quarried from their intense study of the Bible from sources as close to the original as possible.  And I don’t doubt that there are aspects of Aquinas that I would disagree with and/or find as less consistent with the Bible.  But we need to beware of the brief explanation of detailed, voluminous, and weighty theologians that are summed up and dismissed in a few sentences.  The summaries may be right or wrong, but for sure, they get repeated over and over again until they are accepted as the official explanation.

At this point in my career, I don’t expect that I will ever read deeply into Aquinas.  I do need to read some of his writings, and I do need to read some serious studies about his theology and philosophy.  Summa Theologica is regularly counted as one of the great works of theology.  Some of his other books are often mentioned as well in a number of places.

For these reasons, I am glad to see books like Never Doubt Thomas:  The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant by Francis Beckwith appear.  Never Doubt Thomas is published by Baylor University Press.

Dr. Beckwith is eminently qualified to speak on the topic of Thomas Aquinas.  Growing up Catholic, he became an evangelical.  In some cases, some of his Catholic leaders could not answer his questions, and in some cases, he did not follow what they were suggesting.  His interest in Aquinas was peaked when he discovered that  one of his mentors, Norman Geisler, was an admirer of Aquinas.  Geisler was not alone among Protestant theologians who have high regard for Aquinas.  R. C. Sproul considered Aquinas, along with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards, to be a favorite theologian.

In this book, Beckwith grapples with several issues where he thinks that Aquinas’ thinking is a needed help for Christians today.  First up is the topic of Natural Law and Natural Theology.  I confess to being a novice here and in many other areas, but I continue to read from theologians, philosophers, and friends who are addressing these matters.  It may seem like a minor matter, but I am convinced that it would not be discussed so often by serious Christians were it peripheral.

The next major issue addressed is “Aquinas as Pluralist: The God of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.”  This was my favorite chapter.  I did, and I think I still do, disagree with Dr. Beckwith and, by extension, Aquinas.  But this chapter was so well written and so helpful that I found myself greatly appreciating it and wondering if I am wrong.  I do think that the question is one that has to be nuanced, expanded, and explained when we discuss it.  And neither Beckwith nor Aquinas is saying that a person is alright being either Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.  That chapter does what good writing and thinking ought to do.  It makes us re-examine our own thoughts and question our own formulations of issues.

Beckwith then addresses some concerns about Intelligent Design.  In short order, issues regarding Creation and how God created and matters relating to evolution and Darwinism are addressed.  Personally, I don’t mind the claims of Creationists.  By don’t mind, I mean that I find the arguments compelling and compatible with my reading of Scripture.  I know that Creationism is a minority view even within evangelical circles.  People advocating Intelligent Design have been useful allies and incredible scholars, in my opinion.  I have never wanted to fight the public school battles over what is and what is not allowed or advanced in science classrooms.  My view is that teaching Creation or Intelligent Design or exposing students to such views are well and good, but unless the Incarnation is proclaimed, public school education is essentially atheistic or agnostic.

Beckwith, again via Aquinas, unearths some problems with Intelligent Design.  His recurring contention is that Aquinas has some ways of addressing the issue that are more helpful in the debate.

The last chapter really surprised me.  Beckwith grappled with and opposed some of the Protestants who love and use Aquinas.  He believes that the late Dr. Geisler and Dr. Sproul both went a bit too far in making Aquinas a proto-Protestant.  Again, I am sitting on the sidelines watching a debate where I know little about the content and what is being contested.

Sometimes, we read books and come away fully convinced or reassured of what we believe.  That experience is a good one, but not quite adequate.  I don’t even know how much I don’t know about Thomas Aquinas.  With my studies in history and literature and my advanced age, I will not likely become even a first grader in the school of Thomistic thought.  But I do hope that some of my students will advance beyond me.  I don’t want to be the one sentence expert; that is, the person who dismisses a great and profound thinker with a one-liner that is itself inaccurate or misleading.

I will end with a quote from Beckwith and then one from Thomas himself.

Beckwith writes:

“No serious Christian–especially one with philosophical dispositions–can read Aquinas without being impressed by not only his intellect and philosophical acumen, but also his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture, which permeates every page of his monumental Summa Theologica.”

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

“Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct to please you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and a hope for finally embracing you.”  (page 113)

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Never Doubt Thomas

Previews of Current and Upcoming Readings–Or Justifying Book Hoarding

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There are always more books to buy, acquire, read, start, review, re-read, shelve, stack, and hoard.  It is a hopeless quest.  And I continue to persevere and continue to fall behind.  Let me give out some comments on a few books that are on my book stacks and have book marks somewhere near the beginning pages.

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I love biographies and biographical studies.  These two books cover aspects of the lives and ministries of two very different servants of God.

The Pastor of Kilsyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by Banner of Truth.

Banner of Truth has long been known for publishing or reprinting biographies of pastors, theologians, and other Christian figures.  There is a predictability to their works of this sort.  Book collectors and hunters who are generally in the British Isles continue to comb the old libraries and collections and find long forgotten gems.  W. H. Burns is not a well known figure like George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon or other men in pastoral history.  His obscurity is a selling point.

Even in our day, there are many fine, faithful, and gifted publicly known pastors and teachers.  Thank God for these men who are in the limelight and who are preaching weekly and teaching even more often to faithful and large groups of people.  But how many pastors are there out there who are speaking to congregations of less than 100 people?  Or, in some cases, less than 50 people?  The work of God’s Kingdom depends on the faithful local pastor even more than it depends on the man whose name is well known in the Christian world.

Iain Murray, a man responsible for so many good books he wrote and more that he got published, says that this book is “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  His endorsement alone is enough for me.

Never Doubt Thomas:  The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant by Francis J. Beckwith is published by Baylor University Press.

We learn by small increments.  Names, key facts, descriptive phrases, and a few other mental bullet points make up much of the foundations for learning.  Learning begins by simplifying, and simplification is, by its very nature, distortion.  The name of Thomas Aquinas appears in virtually every study of European history or theology.  He was and is the linchpin for much of Catholic theology, but he is also reckoned to be one of the biggest names in philosophy, especially Medieval philosophy.  While philosophers come and go, there are still many who self identify as Thomistic scholars.

The simplification says that Aquinas took Aristotle’s writings and fitted them within Christian doctrines, thus creating a syncretism of sorts that was both Catholic theology and Greek philosophy.  The problem with such simplifications is that the largest work of Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologica, runs into multiple volumes, and there are other books as well that he did.  He was a profound and vast thinker.

Many of the authors I have read over the years gave short shrift to Aquinas.  Granted, they were not writing about him specifically or in depth, but I picked up the mode of dismissing Aquinas and anyone who claimed to be in his camp.  “Fools rush in…” as the saying goes.

There are a number of respected Protestant theologians and philosophers who hold Aquinas in great esteem.  The list includes Alvin Plantiga, J. P. Moreland, Carl Trueman, and most notably, the late R. C. Sproul.  Sproul listed Aquinas as one of his five favorite theologians, with the others being Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.

I welcome this book and this study.  I am too little informed in Aquinas to give a sound yea or nay.  I figure he said plenty to serve as grist for the anti-Thomistic mill, but I suspect he was solid in many areas.

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As a further effort to understand Aquinas, I am looking forward to reading Scott Oliphint’s short study Thomas Aquinas from the Great Thinkers series now being published by P & R Publishing. I suspect that this book may not be as favorable to Aquinas as Beckwith’s study.  I will comment later on how thrilled I am that there is a new Great Thinkers series being done by P & R.  I have read some of Oliphint’s works.  He is an apologetics professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and is considered to be an expert on Cornelius Van Til.

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Enduring Divine Absence: Modern Atheism by Joseph Minich is published by The Davenant Institute.

I have gotten to know Joseph Minich a bit better over the past few months through Facebook connections and messages back and forth.  I was impressed with him as a young, dedicated, and sharp philosophy teacher and Christian man.  Now I am reading his engaging and short work on atheism.  I always approach these books with a bit of hesitation.  For whatever reason, I have always been too simple minded to be an atheist.  Lots of sins are attractive, but denying God has just never been a vulnerability for me.

Nevertheless, there are many who grapple with this issue personally, academically, socially, and evangelistically.  The issue is not as simple as “You are stupid if you don’t believe in God.”  (Although, I admit that is my basic presupposition.)  Minich gleans from a number of scholars, both believers and unbelievers, is setting for his case.  I especially enjoyed reading his comments today on John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies.  I am trying to reappraise my negative feelings about that book after reading Minich.

This book is published by The Davenant Institute.  I hope, soon, to post a whole article on their flooding the market with powerful and weighty books.

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Cresap’s Rifles: The Untold Story of the Riflemen Who Helped Save George Washington’s Army was written by Robert L. Bantz, Karen E. Cresap, Nina Cresap, and Champ Zumbrun.

I am continually going back and studying the American War for Independence.  That war competes with both the World Wars and the War Between the States for attention in my mind, but it does attract a share of my reading.  One of the things I realize continually is how little I know of the lesser known details of that war.  As this book’s title says, it is an “untold story.”

The American riflemen were one of the main reasons why the small and struggling Patriot army was able to survive year and year and finally witness the defeat of the British.  The British army, and the mercenary Hessian forces as well, were outstanding on the battlefields of America (and Europe).  In certain types of set fighting, their skills, discipline, and methods were superb.  To back that up, one only needs to look at such books as Matthew Dziennik’s The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in North America  and Matthew H. Springs’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America.

The Kentucky Long Rifles, as they were sometimes called, were game changers.  The rifled barrels, especially when used by able frontiersman, had a range that exceeded the traditional muskets.  Small numbers of these riflemen were able to offset the balance in between the European and home-grown American armies.

This book is filled with pictures and personal details as well.  Michael Cresap was not well when he got called to raise up riflemen and trek across the country to join Washington’s troops.  Our freedom was not easily won, and this book chronicles some of the cost.

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A Guitar and a Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters is edited by Robert Hicks.  I am delighted by this book for two reasons.  First, I like…make that love country music, especially the older versions that are without question truly country.  Second, I read Widow of the South by Robert Hicks of Franklin, Tennessee several years ago and have gathered up every book I can find that he has written.

Thanks to Phyllis Buckman for thinking of me and giving me this book.

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Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence by Jessica Hooten Wilson is published by The Ohio State University Press.

This book is going to simply be too good.  I know that because it combines two of my greatest loves–Southern literature and Dostoevsky.  Add to that that is was written by Jessica Hooten Wilson.  I first heard of Dr. Wilson from my daughter, TaraJane, who was attending John Brown University.  As TaraJane kept describing the style and intellectual challenge of this teacher, I kept thinking that it was a reincarnation.  Only the late Louise Cowan from the University of Dallas could be that incredible.

Sure enough, Dr. Wilson studied under Dr. Cowan and imbibed the same approach to literature and love for many of the same authors.  Earlier this year, I read Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  That was a great study of two Christian authors from different times and circumstances.

I say this too many times about too many authors, but it must be said again of this author:  I want to buy and read everything that Jessica Hooten Wilson writes.

Fiction: Some Fun Reads

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I was completely distressed recently when I heard a literature teacher in a graduate level college class say that she could not remember when she last read a novel.  My working assumption is that the only reason to be a literature teacher at any level is to enjoy reading the novels, short stories, poems, and plays that we love over and over again.  Along with that, reading new or unread classic works is great because one can be sitting down reading and all the while contending that one is working.

My reading tastes range a bit widely, and I wish the ranger were even wider.  One area of particular delight is in reading novels.  For many years, I distanced myself from almost anything that was recent and certainly anything that hit the best seller lists.  That is not a fatal error, but there is a problem in assuming that because so many things of our age are bad that, therefore, everything current is bad.  Good novels are still being written.  Are they great? Are they destined to be classics?  I don’t know.  Few books make the cut of being classics, and even the most respected lists contain some howlers and omit some worthies.

A few years back, I was lured by George Grant into the deep recesses of the intelligence agency of the Israeli government.  Since that time, I have found myself locked into more and more intrigues, conspiracies, thwarting of terrorist attacks, and rescuing of victims of bad cartels, drug and weapon lords, and other international bad guys.  Thankfully, all of this stressful activity was confined to reading the novels of Daniel Silva and his series of Gabriel Allon books.

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My most recent Silva read was The Other Woman.  I feel like I could be one of the reviewers who always says someting like “Silva’s Best” or “He keeps getting better and better.”  Some of this stems from being more and more familiar with the whole story of Gabriel Allon, his wife and children, his co-workers, the foreign operatives among both allies and enemies, and especially such regulars as Ari Shamron (and his stinking cigarettes and Zippo lighter), Uzi Navot, and Eli Lavon.  The good news is that I have the next Silva novel, The New Girl, waiting on the bedside table to be started during the next mental crisis in my life.  (Word of caution to married Silva readers:  Be careful of someone hearing you talk out of context when you are speaking of The Other Woman and The New Girl.)

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When the dangers of international espionage are too much, I prefer to get away from it all.  I then head off to Wyoming, to Twelve Sleep County, and enjoy the scenery and the hunting seasons there.  Of course, Joe Pickett always shows up, and Joe seems to be a magnet for trouble.  I speak here of the Joe Pickett novels of C. J. Box.  I would love it if Joe Pickett and Gabriel Allon ever teamed up to deal with international terrorists who left some dead bodies on the hunting trails of Wyoming.

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I was coaxed into a hunting trip by John Pendergraft who subsequently got me hooked on C. J. Box.  From the first page of the first book I read, I was totally enthralled by his writing, characters, plots, and descriptions.  Joe is a family man with a host of normal family problems and concerns.  Joe is also a game warden who would be well served if he only issued citations to folks who were fishing without licenses (excepting the former governor of his state).   But Joe always gets tangled up in some horrible crime that exceeds merely shooting an elk out of season.

My most recent Box read was Wolf Pack.  That book was a chilling read.  I began to wonder who, if anyone, would survive from Joe’s world.  As amazed as I am by Box’s Pickett novels, he has also done quite a few other books in the same murder mystery/hunt down a criminal genre with other characters, who are also living in the American West.  Before I read Wolf Pack, I read Back of Beyond.  I wonder now if it may just be Box’s best book.  And, I think I have one more book by him that I have not read.

CJ Box speaks at at the Douglas County (Colorado) Library on THE BITTERROOTS tour in 2019

I have managed to get hardback copies of all of the Joe Pickett novels minus one.  And I have even got an autographed book or two, but I will not be satisfied until I am standing in front of the man himself, cowboy hat and all, and getting some of my copies signed.  His latest book, Bitterroots, is on my wish list, but I don’t have it yet.

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The distinctions between literary novels and escape reading can be helpful, but limited in usefulness.  I read, along with the spy and murder novels, some novels that are more “literary” and which have more thought-filled development.  Those last four words terrify me, because a novel absolutely must have an element of enjoyment to it.

Bradley Birzer mentioned a few months ago how much he enjoyed the novel Armstrong by H. W. Crocker III.  This book was published by Regnery Fiction, which is a branch of Regnery Publishing, one of the most solid publishers of conservative books.  I got the book and started reading, little by little, during my short, sleepy afternoon reading break.  After the second chapter, the book got put aside for other pressing matters and because I was not very interested.

Then one night, a few weeks ago, I picked it back up.  Started the second chapter again and was somewhat interested.  Then I went all the way back to the beginning and read–over the next week or so–the whole book.  It was delightful and a hoot.  I am not normally attracted to a novel that is described as “delightfully funny,” but I got drawn in.

To retell the story a bit, General Custer actually survives the Battle of Little Big Horn in this novel.  He then escapes from an Indian tribe and begins a series of adventures that entail a wide array of wily characters, outlaws, and odd fellows.  The story gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.  On the cover it says, “The Custer of the West Series,” so I hope that it is the first of many.

More recently, I read Lief Enger’s third novel Virgil Wander.  Several years ago, I stumbled upon a copy of his first novel Peace Like a River.  I thought it was probably a western since the cover featured a man on horseback.  Shortly after that, I was unable to sleep one night, and I picked up that book and started reading.  I love it.  Gave away copies of it.  Told people about it.  When So Brave, Young, and Handsome came out, I picked up a copy, read it, and like it, although I was not as moved as by the first book.

Last Christmas, Virgil Wander was on my want list, and it found its way under our Christmas tree.  But I held on to it for months before reading it.  When I started it, just a few weeks ago, I kept thinking that maybe Enger had bottomed out on this one.  But slowly, I began getting involved in the weird, quirky, but loveable ways of the main character Virgil Wander and his host of friends.  They are an odd bunch, just like all the rest of us.  Before I was half way through the book, I was longing each day to catch up with what was going on.  All in all, a very good and perceptive read.

I picked up the novel Fallen Land by Taylor Brown last week and read it this week.  It had two chief appealing attributes:  It was priced for a dollar at a Dollar Store and it is set in the Civil War.  I knew nothing of the book or author prior to this.  This is Brown’s first novel, and for a firster, it was very engaging.  Once again, I found my life caught up in the characters.  But this time, I was not in the Israeli intelligence community, or on the hunting trails of the west, or alongside Sheriff Armstrong (George Custer) or watching old films with Virgil Wander.  I was trying to escape from bounty hunters (who were ex-Confederate guerrilla fighters) along with a young man named Callum and a woman named Ava.  The flight was across the barrens of the lower Appalachian area and into and across the swath of burned out territory left by Sherman’s Army.  This was a good book.

I guess I will never be a real literature professor or teacher because I am still reading.  Hope to start reading A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The New Girl by Daniel Silva, and some books by the recently deceased Herman Wouk soon.

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A Christian and a Democrat–Franklin D. Roosevelt

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A Christian and a Democrat:  A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F.  Woolerton and James D. Bratt is published by Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Merely mentioning the names of Franklin D. Roosevelt in many of the circles where I am involved raises immediate irritation, ire, and objections.  Although he has been gone for nearly 70 years, even people who were not alive during his time are roused to disgust when he is mentioned.  For some, the opposition is due to his New Deal Programs.  Others are suspicious of his handling of World War II from our entry into the war to conduct of the war and on to FDR’s actions regarding the conclusion of the war.  Then there are others who have great concerns over the idea that he was a near dictator, that he was in office to long, that he was conniving, and that he was reckless in his disregard of the Constitution.  Finally, there are plenty of concerns about Roosevelt the man in his private life, especially regarding his unfaithfulness to his wife Eleanor.

Every facet of FDR’s life and Presidency is up for discussion, subject to examination, and open for strong passions.  In my own case, I find that very few Democrats seem to be interested in FDR in any sense.  For them, Democrat Party history reaches all the way back to maybe Bill Clinton.  Perhaps, I simply don’t know or hear from enough Democrats.  But for conservatives–ranging from Reaganites (like me) to more Libertarian types to Christians with political interests–FDR is much more a topic of interest and opposition.

Here is my own autobiography:  I developed an interest in Presidential politics in my young age and quickly adopted FDR as my favorite President.  I was raised in a Southern Democrat home where politics was rarely a topic of conversation.  For most of their years, my parents voted straight Democrat.  (My Dad strongly disliked Hubert Humphrey, but he still voted for him.) I began straying from the old ways when I gravitated toward Richard Nixon in 1972.  It was when I entered college that my whole perspective changed.  Calvinism took a huge chunk out of my previously held and unexamined political thoughts.  One of Johnny Carson’s guests on the Tonight Show helped seal my political fate.  That guest was William F. Buckley, Jr.  A few days after watching that part of the Tonight Show, I checked out Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.  

Much of my understanding and teaching was critical of FDR on several fronts.  Yet I never got past a certain admiration for his considerable political skills and for his personal triumph over polio.  As an orator, he was first rate.  As a radio speaker, he was the man of the hour.  As a skillful executive, he was among the best.  None of his gifts diminished his flaws and failings.

An important truth for a history student (or scholar) is that we are not being called upon to vote for, approve, condemn, or justify historical figures.  We are called upon to first understand them.  From a vast factual base, we can try to interpret what they did and why.  Admittedly, we will often have an agreement with their actions or a sympathy for them or a personal liking for them.  Writing hagiolatry (the worship of saints) or writing hit jobs are not the work of serious historians.

When I first saw the book A Christian and a Democrat, I knew this was a book I wanted to read.  It is a part of a fine series Eerdsmans publishes called The Library of Religious Biography.  I have several of the volumes of that series and previously reviewed Damning Words: The Life and Times of H. L. Mencken by D. G. Hart.  The biographies range from the expected religious leaders, like Cotton Mather and Billy Sunday, to unexpected and often political figures, like Thomas Jefferson and William E. Gladstone.

FDR was raised in the Episcopal Church where he remained an active member all his life.  The Book of Common Prayer was always at his bedside, and his copy was well worn.  He was schooled at Groton and was heavily influenced by Endicott Peabody who drilled his charges in academic and spiritual exercises.  FDR sang hymns, even played the piano at services, labored to help the needy and the young, served on the board of his local church, and always included worship services before his taking oaths of office.

One of my favorite pictures is of FDR and Churchill onboard a ship at the Atlantic Conference in mid-1941.  They are in a worship service together and are singing “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Whatever else one might think of these two men and their staffs and military joined in worship, this much is true:  Never would there have been a picture of Hitler and Mussolini worshiping together.

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Roosevelt’s faith was pronounced and public.  Perhaps more than any other President, he spoke of faith in his addresses and quoted Scripture.  He even led the nation in prayer via a radio address on the occasion of the Normandy invasion.  His was not merely a public and for political gain faith, but was a part of the essential man himself.

Theologically, what was he?  FDR’s faith was shaped by the traditional cadences, prayers, and services of the Episcopal Church.  His instruction was infused with lots of Social Gospel content.  In some ways, the Social Gospel that he absorbed was of the better sort.  By that, I mean that he had a strong commitment to acts of service in the community, among the poor, and help to people in need.  He read quite a bit through the years, but was not a serious reader of theology or of Christian doctrine.  He was active in church as a participant and a lay leader, but said little that could contribute to a statement of faith.  From the book, one picks up little or nothing about his take on theological issues of his day or upon the details of his beliefs.

I suspect that he heard many sermons that were tinged by liberal theology, Social Gospel teachings, then-modern deviations from orthodoxy, and Neo-Orthodoxy.  I never got the sense from the book that FDR absorbed or embraced those teachings.  While relatively well read and well educated, he was not a deep thinker.  Did he believe the fundamentals of the faith?  Did he accept the historic teachings of the faith?  He seemed to be a faithful follower of his church’s teachings and traditions without any comments on them.

The historian cannot probe the heart.  Even the man in the pew or pulpit has to be careful when doing that.  I have trouble probing my own heart, much less that of anyone else.  Of course, we can evaluate what a person professes and how he lives.  That assumes that we can know and hear and see enough of the person’s life and words.

Roosevelt was, at least for one period of his life, unfaithful in his marriage to Eleanor.  Theirs was not a model marriage, although politically they were extremely helpful to one another.  Dr. Woolverton says that FDR was remorseful over his adultery which occurred early in the marriage.  He never mentions or alludes to other cases of unfaithfulness.  One can add FDR’s  other sins to the list, if he wishes.  FDR was notorious for lying, but again one has to look carefully to see when he was outright falsifying the truth or when he was concealing things or being canny for political purposes.  I am not trying to give him or any other politician a free pass to distort truth, but am referring to cases where FDR was compelled to mislead or not answer completely when asked about matters that were sensitive due to the war.

A later chapter in the book deals with FDR’s fascination with Soren Kierkegaard.  An Episcopal minister was invited to dine with the Roosevelts.  At that time, Kierkegaard was not widely read or known, but the evils of World War II had awakened an interest in him by more people, including this minister, named Howard Johnson.  Johnson explained Kierkegaard’s views of sin and evil to FDR who found it all fascinating.  It appears that FDR basically accepted a Cliff-notes-like understanding of the Danish philosopher, but that he found it all helpful in understanding the evil of the Nazis.

To sum up, what difference does it make?  This is far from a summary question, for the relationship of an individual with God is the most important question of all.  And the relationship between a national leader and God is vital.  How FDR responded to both domestic crises (the Great Depression) and international crises (World War II) were shaped by his faith commitments.  What a man believes and how he acts or governs are connected.  None of this means that believers are better leaders or that faith leads to perfect policy positions.

All in all, this book is a fascinating study of a complex and religious man.  This book needs to be supplemented by other more broad biographies of Roosevelt, but it does have a useful focus on a part of his life that will not likely get adequate coverage in the standard biography.

 

Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction

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Here is the truth of the matter:  We are all new Christians.  It doesn’t matter if you were converted last Sunday or fifty plus years ago.  We are all arriving at the party (okay, let’s say fellowship meal) long after it began.  This means that we are going to be constantly surrounded by a discussion where we are lost as to the issues.  We miss the inside jokes.  We don’t understand the words and concepts being used.  We don’t know who the others are talking about.

Christianity has been running strong for over 2000 years.  (We could extend that time even longer and include the Old Testament saints.)  The most basic and important means of catching up is reading the Bible. But no one does or can read the Bible without help.  During all the years the Christian faith has been spreading, there have been teachers and preachers whose gifts and ministries from God has been helping people understand, see, and apply the Word of God to all areas of life.  As in any field, there are good and great examples.  Some people have been so dominant in the field of Bible study and theology that their names and influence continue to this day.

I know there are plenty of people who are simple folk and who are busy with jobs and families or maybe hindered from pursuing the Bible and theology in depth.  I am not judging nor condemning them.  But people who can read, people who master computers, video games, sports trivia, and other mind-centered fields of interest can also get grounded in the Bible and theology.  This is not being said in order to just fill in some intellectual niche in the life of educated people.  Instead, this is a great need in the Church.  It is a great need in the local church you are attending.

Most of us are part of churches or church traditions that are small creeks.  In so many ways, a creek can be a really fascinating place.  (I lament no longer owning land that had creeks running at both the front and back of the property.)  But if we never explore and find the river that the creek flows into, we are missing something.  And that river itself then leads to a bigger river and on then to the ocean.

 

Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction by Kenneth Richard Samples is an invitation to explore past the pleasant creek and see the flowing rivers and vast ocean of God’s Kingdom through history.  This book is published by Reasons to Believe, a Christian organization devoted to strengthening believers in doctrines, apologetics, and a world-view of Christian thought. Ken Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, along with being an adjunct instructor of apologetics at Biola University.  He has authored several books prior to Classic Christian Thinkers, including Without a Doubt and 7 Truths That Changed the World.

Classic Christian Thinkers covers nine Christian scholars:  Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis.  Of course, part of the fun of this book is raising questions like “Why did you leave out (fill in the blank)?” or “Why is (fill in the blank) included?” I admit to be a glutton for books with a group of theologians, pastors, preachers, or writers we should know.

This book keeps the focus narrow enough so that we can actually get some depth on the scholars in the line-up.  Samples has designed the book as a launching pad.  It is well and fine to read the book and be able to say, “Anselm…Yes, I have heard of him.”  But there is a need to dig deeper and read the nine men in this book.  Samples gives short biographical sketches of the men, followed by a description of key doctrinal positions or insights, distinctive ideas, and contributions to the Christian Church as a whole.  Lots of other details are presented, including a few main writings, a defining quote, a timeline, and resources for further study.

This book is the theological equivalent to the Fodor’s travel books.  In other words, this book is to be followed up with an actual journey after reading.

Sometimes, looking over the vast writings of an author is intimidating.  But many authors can become familiar by reading shorter works or short selections from works.  Augustine’s Confessions, which Samples and I both love, is not too long or too hard to read.  Luther’s Small Catechism, recently translated and published by Paul Rydecki, is short and very readable.  Wading into the wide river is not too hard to do, especially if you take advantage of guides like this book.

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One additional advantage of this book is that it forces us to stop thinking so provincially and so denominationally.  God has moved across a wide spectrum of beliefs and theological traditions across time.  We who are Protestants feel quite comfortable with Luther and Calvin, but they were both nurtured by the Church Fathers, which includes such men as Augustine and Anselm.  Thomas Aquinas may be one of the defining theologians in the Roman Catholic tradition, but many men, like R. C. Sproul, have gleaned richly from his writings.  Blaise Pascal is an interesting case study because he was French and, therefore, almost automatically Catholic, but he is connected to the Jansenists who were very thoroughly Augustinian.  As for C. S. Lewis, he is God’s gift to all believers.

I have often thought in recent years about the decision that John Piper made in his early theological studies to pick and master one theologian.  In terms of where I am, I think I must be content to be a dabbler in many theologians, historians, novelists, poets, and philosophers.  But books like this remind me that there is a need to get the basics and then follow the stream to where it leads to the rivers.

 

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.