Paul versus the Philosophers and America versus the Just War Tradition

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These two excellent morning readings of late are on very different subjects, consisting of multiple contributors, and both enriching.

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

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context is edited by Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones and is published by InterVarsity Press.

The overwhelming criteria for my reading plans is that a particular book is close at hand.  I could wish that I had a drive to master particular topics and could read with a greater goal in mind.  But I accept my gadfly reading program and often surprise myself at how themes and commonalities crop up in spite of my non-intentions.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

I have been repeatedly made aware of how deficient my own education has been due to a lack of philosophy studies.  I have majors in history and English, but was never required to study philosophy.  It is inescapable for both of those fields.  I have also been involved in studying the Bible and theology since my late teen years.   I served as a pastor in the past and am still a teacher in a classical Christian school.  While philosophy and the Bible are not equal, any serious student of the Bible and theology must, as in MUST, study at least some philosophy.

This is not a case where one must go on a difficult journey to find someone, somewhere, who has written something on the connection between the history of philosophy and the history of the Church, or philosophical issues and theological issues, or of philosophers who were also Christians.  You want to get books on philosophy and Christianity?  Better get a large bookcase and a big budget.

The great thing about Paul and the Giants of Philosophy is its accessibility.  Each chapter takes one of the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world and presents their views on a topic and then contrasts those views with Paul’s writings.  There is more interaction between Paul and the philosophers in the Stoic tradition rather than examinations of Paul’s writings viewed in the light of “The Big Three,” meaning Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Certainly, more in-depth, scholarly, weighty, academic books can and have been written.

But this book is readable, enjoyable, and geared toward the non-expert.  I firmly believe that my philosophy professor and student friends and son would find reading this book profitable, but it is geared toward those of us who read Paul a lot and Stoics rarely.  But, for those who wish to know more, each chapter ends with suggested readings giving both primary and secondary sources for the more serious pursuit of the topics.  And each chapter has some discussion questions as well.

I believe that this would be an excellent book to use in a college philosophy survey.  It could also be used in any course studying Paul in his historical and cultural context.  Some groups would enjoy this for a series of Sunday school lessons or as a book club read.  And, with strong, hot, black coffee, it is wonderful for morning reading.

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I usually begin with some readings related to the Bible and theology, and after that, I like to read something that fits into the broader Christian worldview perspective.  This is what led to my reading of America and the Just War Tradition.

America and the Just War Tradition

This book is like a long trip for a child.  What was overwhelmingly attracting me was the chapter by chapter survey of the various wars that the United States has fought in, beginning with the War for Independence and going up to current engagements in the War on Terror, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan.

But before one can get into the fun stuff, there is a long chapter written by the editors, Dr. Hall and Dr. Charles, titled “The Just War Tradition and America’s Wars.”  These 50 pages constitute what could be a short book on its own.  We all have a sense of certain wars or aspects of wars being just or unjust.  We all have a list of do’s and don’t’s about what is allowable in war.  On the one extreme, we would find pacifists who would eschew all wars.  There is within the Christian tradition a great amount of history and theology to support such a view.  As one whose military “experience” consists only in teaching about war, I have a heart-felt desire for pacifism.  But it is not easily sustained in light of real world conditions.

On the other hand, you would find extreme nationalist views which would justify any and every war that America or some other country of one’s origins has fought.  I find a certain sympathy with that position as well.  We honor the military men who, as we say, fought for our liberties and right to be free.  But exactly what liberties and freedoms for us were they fighting for in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and possibly some or all of the others?

The weighing out of justice or injustice in war is not merely a matter of gut reactions or simplistic patriotic urges.  The Just War Tradition largely grew out of the context of Western Civilization, or we could even say Christendom.  The greatest philosophers and theologians have thought seriously about the ethics of conflict on both a personal and nation-wide level.  Growing out of the thinking of such people as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, philosophers have agreed (always a slippery word to use) on what constitutes justness before, during, and after war.  The Latin phrases which permeate this book and topic are Ius ad bellum, Ius in bello, and Ius post bellum.  

Ius ad bellum, justness before war, begins with just cause, which is followed by just authority,  and right intention.  Ius ad bello, justness in war, hinges on discrimination and proportionality.   Ius post bellum deals with how the results are handled, what happens to the people and countries that were defeated, and what follows from that war.

As might be guessed, a war could be started for wrong reasons, conducted honorably (according to the criteria), and ended well.  Or you can mix and match the ingredients in a wide variety of ways.  As helpful as the criteria are, such things are not always clear cut.  War is so horrible that it sometimes seems insane to try to make it a subject of calm, reasoned discourse.

I majored in history in college.  I have taken courses that have included or primarily focused upon the wars of the United States.  I would guess that I have a thousand books dealing with war.  But this book revealed how little I actually understood or had been subjected to understanding the historical, philosophical, and traditional views of Just War.  That is the long journey that the reader has to take before getting to “the answers” in the chapters on America’s wars.

To quickly comment upon the wars, each chapter has a different contributor.  I honestly think there is not a bad or weak essay in the lot.  Part of the delight in this book is the cases where I was surprised or even shocked by the views of the authors.  I would tend, for example, to find the American War for Independence just and defensible, but Dr. John D. Roche thinks not.  Amazing argument, this chapter didn’t convince me, but it did humble me a bit. Many chapters later, I thought that there was little or no way to defend the American experience in Vietnam, but Mackubin Thomas Owens’s chapter blew me away.

As indicated in the review above regarding the Bible and philosophy, history teachers must study philosophy.  Just War is a philosophical and ethics related tradition and a theological concern as well.  Studying this book will not give you the set of pat answers to why this war and not that one was right or wrong.  But it will give perspective.

History teachers, read this book.  As a further note, it is chocked full of other reading suggestions on both the specific wars and on the topic in general.  I am convinced that I must acquire Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars.  Also, I am confirmed in my conviction that Mark David Hall is one of the best resources for serious historical and political studies in our time.  I learned of him last year from political theorist Koty Arnold just after Hall’s book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published.  I am now on a quest to obtain and read all that Dr. Hall writes.

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How to Read the Histories We Object To

 

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How the South Won the Civil War:  Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson is published by Oxford University Press.

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For more than forty years now, nearly eight times as long as the war itself, I have been a student of the war that is called both the Civil War and the War Between the States.  In classroom lectures, I have devoted much attention to the battles over just what the war ought to be called.  I will, in this post, use Civil War mainly because it is the shorter and most familiar name.

As a Southerner, I have imbibed a love of most things Southern.  (Humidity and August heat are still not favored.)  Southern history, literature, theologians, music, folkways, myths and legends, music, and food top my lists of loves and likes.  William Faulkner and Rick Bragg are both in among my pantheon of favorite authors.  Add Flannery O’Connor to that list.  Robert L. Dabney and J. Gresham Machen are favorite theologians.  And the heyday of American music was and may still be at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Some years ago, I gave a couple of talks on the War.  My first talk was called “The Tragedy of the South Going to War.”  Of course, heading the bullet points from that talk would be the fact that the South lost and lost totally.  The failure of compromise, the rush to arms, and other factors compounded or caused the tragedy.  The second talk was called “The Blessings of the South Losing the War.”  In short, as Walker Percy, famed author, noted, the South produced great writers because “We lost the War.”  Losing preserved, conserved, and consolidated many things in the Southern states and culture that would have otherwise been lost in the embracing of Progress.  (One should detect a bit of the 12 Southerners who wrote  I’ll Take My Stand in that sentence.)

There is no dealing with the South without facing the abuses from slavery in the past, racial injustices through the decades before and after the war, and ongoing racial problems in all part of the United States.  “Yes, but” can be followed up with any number of details that can give perspective, pause, and nuances to the history, but we are not talking about mistakes, or poor judgments, or bad manners.  We are talking of sin.  A nation with as many Southern Christians as there have been should not repent of the past (which is cost free), but the sins ought to have been recognized, called out, condemned, judged, and dealt with at the time.

That being said, I was quite interested when I first learned of a new book titled How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson.  The Civil War may have been fought out and settled on a few dozen major battlefields, but the issues were not resolved to the satisfaction of all.  On the one hand, it may have been the greatest example of the ad baculum fallacy (an appeal to force) ever, for the stick was used to pound the Confederacy into agreement.  On the other hand, it may have been the best use of the ad baculum method.

There remain issues of the constitutionality of secession, total war, the nature of the state, use and abuse of politics, the justification of war against civilians, the intent of the Founders, centralization of government, suspension of constitutional rights, the legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence, and a host of other matters that came up during Reconstruction.  Southern arguments were discredited by defeat.

Just consider the following statement by James Oscar Farmer, Jr. in his book  The Metaphysical Confederacy: James Henley Thornwell and the Synthesis of Southern Values (Mercer University Press):

“The reason for this unwillingness or inability to deal with the values of the old South in an objective way is not hard to discover. Eric McKitrick perhaps puts it most succinctly when he writes that ‘nothing is more susceptible to oblivion than an argument, however ingenious, that has been discredited by events.’ He adds that the works of Southerners have ‘remained superbly unread’….
“Two sets of values have been in opposition to one another through most of our history as a nation; one has cherished dynamism, cosmopolitanism, rationalism, and egalitarianism, while the other has preferred stability, localism, faith, and deference.”

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That being the case, I was eager to read  How the South Won the Civil War.  I was expecting something regarding Southern culture and traditions (in the Agrarian tradition), or Southern literature (in the New Critic, Agrarian, Southern Renaissance tradition), or politics (in the tradition of a number of studies on Southern political leaders), or the ongoing popularity of Confederate leaders, the battle flag, or ideas, or some discussion of political topics (in the tradition of works by scholars such as M. E. Bradford and Eugene Genovese).

This book was none of those things.  Dr. Richardson’s thesis is that white oligarchs from the South sought to suppress the voices, opportunities, and freedoms of women, people of color, and lower classes.  Having failed in the war itself, the same controlling motif continued to motivate Southerners after the war and then found alliances in the western parts of the United States.

Let’s call it the Cotton and Cattle Alliance.  Or Confederates and Cowboys.  In the west, those being suppressed were Native Americans, immigrants largely from China, Hispanics, and women.  Culture, literature, movies and television (in time), and political power worked to make the ruling white male class more powerful and the others less so.

In the center of the target being fired upon are such people as the late Senator Barry Goldwater, conservative thinker William F. Buckley, Jr., President Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Schlafly, all evangelical pro-life voters, and more. Of course, by the end of the book, Donald Trump was the target.

Let me quickly point out a few ways one should approach a book where the disagreement factor goes off the scale.

  1.  The serious student/reader/reviewer must first listen.  That means to be quiet, read the book, and hear the arguments.
  2.  The serious student must determine that the issues, charges, thesis, contentions of the book must be evaluated slowly and carefully.  It is not enough to find a glitch here or a rebuttal there.
  3.   The serious student must not defend the indefensible.  That racism, oppression, political corruption have existed and that people much like me or you have been guilty is a given.  I stand with the author in condemning such.
  4.   The serious student must take into account that an author, professor, and scholar has devoted lots of time to developing the arguments.  No quick shots from the hip should be employed to settle the score.  Time, study, patience, consideration, and research are needed.

All of that being said, history is ugly.  The doctrine of sin, meaning the Fall,  Original Sin, and Total Depravity (to use the Calvinist term), is the defining explanation of history, alongside of Creation and Redemption.

I will say that I find the book a book too heavy in terms of ripping Republicans, westerners, southerners, whites, and evangelicals for a university press title.  It read like a liberal alternative to the John Birch Society. It seems to follow the Howard Zinn approach to history, with the same blunt honesty as to where it is coming from.

It is also interesting that the book never acknowledges the examples, which are myriad, that counter the arguments.  It was the conservative Republicans who supported such people as Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Ben Carson, and others.  Reagan appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court and his successor appointed the second African American to the court.  Lyndon Johnson used, even more so than Barry Goldwater, cowboy images of himself.  Dr. Richardson also seemed quite muddled over what to make of Theodore Roosevelt, who was a cowboy, a Republican, an individualist, a Progressive, and more.

Yes, an oligarchy may be said to rule.  But the wealthy in our country and the wealthy who use their powers to sway politics includes both Republicans and Democrats (and even multi-millionaire Socialist Bernie Sanders).  Women and people of color have achieved numerous offices and positions in both parties.  Old white guys of both parties have made crude, racist, vulgar, and evil remarks.  (It is interesting to contrast the more diverse field of Presidential candidates in the Republican Party of 2016 with the Democratic Party in 2020.)

All political issues are presented simplistically.  Communism was presented as a clear black and white issue, but Cold Warriors were found in both parties.  Very tellingly, abortion is the murder of babies.  Many Catholic and Protestants of both parties (particularly in the past) said so.  Also, the first state to allow women to vote was Wyoming.

Contending that the soul of America has been fouled by white, fundamentalist Confederates and Cowboys is a hefty charge.  I think the book certain achieved the goal of being written with passion.  But I think there is much more to be said.

 

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Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty, Volume 5

 

It has been said that while history may not repeat itself, historians repeat each other.  Years of reading histories of different events confirms that as a general truth.  Loving history and loving stories (both are intricately connected), a reader does not mind tramping along on the same battlefields, witnessing the same political risings and fallings, and hearing the same anecdotes, with a few new ones added on.

But one thing that slowly dawns on the eager college kid who is majoring in history is that “the story” is not “a story.”  As Dr. Thomas Wagy repeatedly says, “If you want truth, go to the religion or history departments.  History is art.”  It is well that he repeated this often, for it took me years to grasp what he was saying.  History is built upon layers of interpretation, presuppositions, viewpoints, angles of observation, and preferences.

New information often not only sheds more light on a topic of historical study, but it changes the contours of the study.  Every subsequent event in history changes the way the previous events were viewed.  The rise and fall of Nazism not only altered the understanding of World War II, but it altered the understanding of World War I, the career of Bismarck and the unification of Germany, and the history of Europe.  In short, you never learn history, but you are always learning history.

Generally, there are two major sources or streams of thought that affect the understanding of history.  One is the work of the popular, usually narrative historians. Their books are the ones found in the large book chains and that show up in the New York Times Book Reviews.  Authors such as David McCullough, Rick Atkinson, Andrew Roberts, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others are among our most gifted and popular historians.  In an earlier era, the works on the Civil War by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote were among the most popular treatments.  Far from criticizing such writers and writing, I love them.  The authors are generally well trained academically and vetted by fellow authors and historians.  Their writing styles are superbly readable.  Books like Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie were influential in luring me into a life of reading history.

The other current comes from the academic historians.  These works are usually written by professors in universities.  The works are more weighty, more heavily documented, less dependent on secondary sources, and more analytical.  They are usually printed by university presses and are rarely found on the shelves in the book chains.  I love them!  Books pouring off the presses from Oxford University Press, Oklahoma University Press, the University of North Carolina Press, Kansas University Press, and more are weighting down my shelves and bookstands.

Some authors, by the way, manage to score on both fronts.  They maintain their academic standing and produce the less widely distributed and more scholarly studies while producing some more popular books for a wider reading audience.  Mark Hall, who is a political theorist rather than a historian, has written or contributed to quite a few serious, scholarly works.  But his book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published by Thomas Nelson and is reaching a much wider audience.

So we have three kinds of historians or history writing types:  The popular narrator, the academic analysist, and the rare bird that combines both traits.  Now, let’s add a fourth type:  the outlier.  (I will refrain from examining the kooky historians who load down their books with bogus references and bizarre twists.)

The outlier, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s term, refers to the scholar or writer who presents viewpoints and interpretations, heavily documented from solid or overlooked sources, that run roughly against the grain of the accepted and majority views.  Some of the writers in this category are not historians by profession and training.  Rodney Stark, for example, is a sociology professor at Baylor University, but his history writings on Christianity are outstanding.  Paul Johnson is a journalist and an art student, but his history writings are among the best around.  R. J. Rushdoony was a theologian and pastor, but he wrote several fine works on history.  Shelby Foote, named above for the popularity of his Civil War trilogy, was a novelist who turned his skills to writing about the Late Unpleasantness.

Groupthink is both a useful method and a questionable one.  You go to college and study history in order to think like a trained historian.  That is why I hate the term “history buff” and get really irritated when someone calls me that.  If it is my medical doctor saying that, I want to return the favor and call him a “medicine buff.”  A liking of the History Channel (which at least used to have history documentaries), historical novels, and historical anecdotes are all good things, but that is not what historians do.  The goal of historical training is to proscribe bad analytical thinking and prescribe sound thinking.  But, the group, in this case the academic historians, often narrow their vision and embrace certain orthodoxies of historical interpretation.

Along comes the outlier, that is, the man or woman who approaches the same historical period, the same huge ocean of facts, and the same events, but says, “I don’t think so” in terms of causes, effects, or actual occurrences. Sometimes, they are disparagingly labeled as “Revisionists.”  But all historians are, even within the orthodoxies, seeking to do some degree of revision.  And often, the novelty of the differing interpretations, the revealing of overlooked sources, the guiding presuppositions gets the unorthodox historian ruled out of court, with or without a hearing.

Many paragraphs into this, I now can mention the name of Murray Rothbard.  The guy was brilliant, incredibly well educated, scholarly, meticulous, and guided by a set of ideas.  He was a libertarian, although we might humorously call him a far right libertarian, because he tended toward believing in anarchy or no or almost no government.  He was an economist, associated with the Austrian school (another rich source of outliers).  Although he served as a professor at several schools, he was always on the fringe of academia.  And, he always managed to attract and educate a small remnant of willing students.

He wrote many books, mainly on economics, but also on history.  Called upon the write on the history of the United States, he published four volumes under the title Conceived in Liberty during the middle to late 1970s.  This history, beginning with early colonization only reached as far as the end of the War for Independence.  By the way, he also wrote books on the Great Depression and the Progressive Era.  A fifth volume on the Conceived in Liberty venture remained unpublished until recently.

The text was written in longhand, which according to those who saw it, was undecipherable.  Some brave soul labored through it; the Ludwig von Mises Institute published it; and now we have it.

In part two of this review, I will actually discuss the book!

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Novels for the Times of Confinement

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I am not sure which is worse:  The person who never reads fiction or the person who only reads fiction.  I will, for the present, make a slight distinction between the fictional reads I am recommending below and the books of old that are the affirmed classics in the canon of Great Literature.

While we are all quarantined, or better put, given some extra reading opportunities, I would like to suggest some ten works of fiction.  In true Ben House fashion, I slip in a few extras.  Most of the authors whose books I am touting have written other books I like as well.  Consider it all an endorsement of not just the books below, but the corpus of works of the writers named.  I have mostly confined myself to very current works by living authors.  The one exception is Albert Camus, number 10, who is included for reasons explained below.

These works are what are often seen as middle-brow literature.  I think that means that these books are quite enjoyable and so may not reach the level of the great books of all time.  But they are not passing fancies either.  I have excluded two of my favorite authors, Daniel Silva and C. J. Box.  I have read many books (as in nearly everything written) by them, but their works are more in the spy novel, murder mystery, current best selling fiction niche.  Read them, but recognize that you are better off starting the Gabriel Allon series or the Joe Pickett series from the beginning.  I didn’t do that, so it is not necessary, but helpful.

Nor did I include the usual roundup of Christian favorites, which usually means the works of Tolkien and Lewis.  The case has been made for them time and time again.  This is a list of 10 books, not 500, so make your own list if you wish.  Speaking of your own list, I got my idea of this from my friend Andrew Sandlin.  Andrew is a serious theological and cultural scholar, but he enjoys some good reads in fiction.  His listing can be found HERE.  By the way, I have not read a single one of the books on his list, but will take the listing under serious advisement.

Here goes

 

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  1.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  And, the sequels are good as well:  Home and Lila.  I loved this book and the two accompanying books.  Marilynne Robinson should win the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her overall perspective is built on a Reformed theological perspective.  No, she does not dot every i or cross every t that we truly Reformed would prefer.  Not any fast action here, but deep, meditative, moving soulful narratives.

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2.  Ancient Highway by Bret Lott.  Mr. Lott is one of the very good novelists of our time who is also a Christian.  This book was my first reading from his works, but since that time I have tried to buy and read everything I can find by him.  I also recommend his books Jewell and A Song I Knew by Heart.  Or if you want a bit of murder and mayhem, then The Hunt Club and Dead Low Tide.  I anxiously await the next Bret Lott novel.  His books on writing are also first rate.  If you want some sweet syrup of Christian devotional fiction, look elsewhere.  If you want a rich, unforgettable story of human struggles with the element of faith, read Lott.

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3.  Peace Like a River by Lief Enger.  His most recent book Virgil Wander was also quite good.  In between those two, I read So Brave, Young, and Handsome, which was worthwhile and enjoyable.  I picked up my copy of Peace Like a River in a Goodwill.  I thought it was a western.  One Friday night, I was up late with a toothache, I think.  I started reading this incredible novel that night.  I am certain I raced through it.  Great work by another novelist with a Christian perspective.

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4.  Shortgrass and Mustang by John Dwyer were favorite books of mine last year.  I really hope that John can add some more chapters to the story of Lance Roark in a future volume or two.  John, who I can call by his first name since he is a friend, has mostly been working on books on Oklahoma history in recent years.  But he did these two novels also.  I was nearly in tears at the end of the first one, and the second one put me through ever emotion possible.  John’s books are forthrightly Christian, but they are not safe reading.  Mustang, after all, is set in the midst of the air war of World War II.  The conflicts of war take place right alongside of the conflicts of faith and life that Lance Roark struggles with.

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5.  Fallen Land by Taylor Brown.  I found and gambled a whole buck on buying this unknown novel by an unknown author.  I was drawn to it because it was set in the War Between the States.  This is a really enjoyable and gripping story.  I am looking forward to reading more of Brown’s novels.  This is one of a couple of dozen books I have read, ranging from the famous to the obscure, that are set during the War Between the States/Civil War.  Getting dialog and details fashioned so as to be believable is difficult for such books.  This one succeeds and has a gripping story to boot.  I have purchased another book by Taylor Brown, who is way too young, and hope to read more and more of this promising author.

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6.  The French Lieutenant’s Woman  by  John Fowles.  I picked up a nice copy of this older novel in one of those neighborhood library boxes that was next door to Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson, Mississippi.  This book, and number 10, are both older works.  While this story appears to be a late Victorian novel, it is full of curve balls.  Unusual.  Creative. Incredibly funny at moments.  Unstoppable.

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

7.  War in the Wasteland and Resistance by Douglas Bond.  Douglas is another friend.  He has written a whole shelf of fictional reads featuring famous Christians or Christians in historical settings.  Many of his books are geared more for younger audiences, but are still enjoyable for adults.  I enjoyed teaching and reading his book Hostage Lands, which I used in a junior high geography class.  These two books are set in the World Wars.  Good stories, enjoyable reads.  Douglas doesn’t get the reader grimy and soiled by too brutal a display of war or of war-time talk, but he maintains a tone that is clean without being stilted.

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8.  Summer of My German Soldier by  Bette Green.  I bought this novel for my daughters, but neither was drawn into reading it.  I was about to give it away, but started reading it instead.  I had watched the movie version of it many years ago.  I think this book might be classified as teen-age fiction, and I would love to use it in either a junior high or high school class.  But it is not juvenile.  The story is immensely moving and well told.  And it takes place here in my state of Arkansas.  This story is built around three displaced people:  A young Jewish girl whose father is neglectful, the African-American maid who proudly defends the girl, and a German POW.

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9.  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  Possibly the best novel I have read in years.  His other book, A Matter of Civility, was quite good as well.  Amor Towles is probably the most gifted sentence craftsman I have read in a while.  And the story here is compelling.  This book is rich, very rich.

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10.  The Plague by Albert Camus.  My first experience reading Albert Camus was The Stranger.  I found it disturbing.  Since that time, I have read a few other things by and about him.  He was a French existentialist and a Nobel Prize winner.  He received the Nobel Prize at a relatively young age and was killed a few years later.  His writings and musings are often dark and troubling.  But his vision into the abyss of life in this world and the human heart are powerful.  I hope he became a believer, and after reading Camus and the Minister by Howard Mumma, I have some hope for that.  He certainly seemed to be a man in search of something, which we know can only be fulfilled by God.

The inclusion of The Plague is its relevance to our own circumstances.  The book concerns reactions to a plague in a North African town.  Very much a book that deals with psychology and philosophy within the parameters of a well told story.

As stated above, there are always more books to list.  Feel free to add your own suggestions, along with making your own list that is posted on a blog or your Facebook page.  I hope to highlight some books in the near future by other friends.  Remy Wilkins’s The Strays must get some attention before he becomes too famous.  Rick Skowronski wrote a fun novel a few years back, and the world awaits the sequel.  Martin Selbrede did the only novel that I know of that combines some unusual ideas of physics with references to Cornelius Van Til.  My own novel awaits revision and publication.

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God Sings by Douglas Bond and Sing! by the Gettys

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The term often used is “worship wars.”  Along with a hundred thousand other doctrines, practices, and preferences that divide Christians, we are prone to take up the sword and shield against, not our many enemies comprising the world, the flesh, and the devil, but each other.  The Church today not only cannot unite on many doctrinal fronts, but it cannot unite over who is going to lead the music and what music it is that is being led.

I don’t want to sound like I am minimizing the implications of the war for the keyboards and soundboards.  Important doctrines and actions are at stake here.  In the worst cases, we must love the singer, but hate the song.  Much singing and music should create as a collateral grace, amazing patience.  Flannery O’Connor tells in a letter of a man who was converted after attending church with his wife for years.  “The preaching was so bad,” he said, “That I concluded that there must be something important to all of this to cause people to keep coming.”  Maybe the same can be true of music.

I admit that I don’t want to wade into the worship wars battlefield.  I have fought with the brethren over Calvinism, baptism, the eldership, tongues, theonomy, weekly communion, congregational rule, charismatic gifts, church discipline, the application of Old Testament laws, the Sabbath, the role of women in the church, and more.  On some of these issues, I know I have been right at some point because I have been on both sides of the arguments at some point.  And I have not successfully avoided the sharp points of spears and barbs in fights over music.

But I would like to cross by on the other side of the road while the wounded musician lies there, beaten and robbed of his lyrics.  I will hope for a Samaritan heading to Brentwood, Tennessee will do what I don’t want to do.  Call me war weary, if you like, or maybe just a passive coward, if you prefer.  I confess that I really don’t know what to do to change music in the Sunday morning hour where we are all united in our being divided.

So, as a partial concession to the need to engage, I will comment on two excellent books on the music issue.  Read carefully, lest my tongue-in-cheek comments be taken for serious reflections and my serious reflections be taken for veiled attempts to rival the Babylon Bee.

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God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To) by Douglas Bond is published by Scriptorium Press.  Check out Mr. Bond’s website (click HERE)   where you can either order two copies of this book, or get the book along with a free CD called Rise and Worship, containing hymns he has written.

Douglas Bond is best known for his cottage industry that produces Christian historical fiction.  While many of his books are geared toward younger readers, they are enjoyable for readers of all ages.  His novels War in the Wasteland (set in World War I) and The Resistance (set in World War II) are recent works of his that I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed in the past year.  His book Hostage Lands, set in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, is a delightful book my junior high class and I read together.  It was that reading experience that cause me and Douglas to “Bond” as reader and writer.  (Yes, I know that was awful.)

But Bond is not stranger to the subject of music.  He has written biographies of John Knox and Isaac Watts, both being part of the “Long Line of Godly Men” series published by Ligonier Ministries. (Outstanding series, by the way.)  Moreover, anyone who has been a Christian for a long time and has had the occasion to sit in a variety of Christian worship services and conferences acquires a wide range of experiences with music.  Although music often is done almost as the opening act to a sermon or lecture, it is, upon reflection, more than that.  It is not merely an appetizer before the main course of a meal.

Side note:  We have attended services where the music part was referred to as “the worship” while the preaching that followed was…well, I am not sure what.  We are worshiping while we sit under the preaching of God’s Word as much or more so as when we are singing or listening to singing.

Bond suffers from the same possible tendency as I do:  Grouchy old man syndrome.  I am a bit older than he is, but his hair is totally white!  It is easy to write off the old, curmudgeonly Calvinist who is against everything except for some sparse, cold, doctrinally obtuse worship service.  So, one picking up his book and giving it the quick glance might conclude:  Here is another old man who is railing against the very thing we need to draw the young, unchurched into our churches.

I assure you that the description above is not who Douglas Bond is or what he seeks in his book.  (Whether it describes me or not is a different story.)  God sings.  Read Zephaniah 3:17.

“The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Music is essential to sound worship.  Musical lyrics are doctrinal.  Music teaches, which means that it can build up or lead astray.

I have experienced both the unsingable, overly long, ancient church hymns that leave me cold and the loud, overly repetitious, shallow, syrupy creations that pass for music today.  All old and staid or all new and hip are not the choices.  But we do need to be singing doctrinal truths that are well written, learn-able and teachable, singable and delightful.  As Douglas Bond points out in example after example, such hymns have already been written in the past and they are still being written in the present.

God Sings! is good, convicting, and convincing.  Everyone on the church staff needs to read and discuss it.

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I picked up a copy of Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty a month or so ago at my son Nick’s house.  I took it home with me to finish reading it.  Nick said, “It looks like one of those coffee table books.”  By that he meant the type of Christian fluff that has large print, double to triple spacing, with little text and even less content.  I agree, for I did not expect to find much beyond a bit of light topping in the contents.

However, this book is a solid study–yet very readable–that is calling the Church to do something radical: Sing!  I have experienced (even with limited travels) too many cases where there is a loud performance group (called the Worship Team), plugged in instruments, words flashed on a screen, and a soundbooth working overtime to mic the singers, but only the tiniest of sound coming from the congregation.  I have watched my wife and children, all trained musicians, stop even trying to sing the randomized melodies of the shallow songs.  I myself refuse to go along with the “repeat 20 times” of a song.  I abhor the moment when the oft sung refrain is sung yet one more time quietly for some emotional effect.

But even as hard hearted as I can be, I am always moved when I hear and feel the surge of volume coming from a congregation singing the hymns.  Sometimes the effect is from the large size of the congregations (where I am visiting), but usually it is the participatory engagement rather than the numbers that affect the songs.

Read both of these books.  Distribute copies of them if you are able.  Pray for a revival of congregational singing of solid hymns old and new and yet to be written.

Post Script:  Incremental steps are often good.

  1.  Turn down the volume of the mics on the singers up front and turn way down the volume of the instruments.  (I am not talking to first rate pipe organ players!)
  2.   Introduce and learn a solid hymn or two.
  3. Be patient with enduring old favorites that are weak (like “The Old Rugged Cross”) or new favorites that are shallow (“Bless the Lord O My Soul”).
  4. Teach on the importance of good hymnody.
  5. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that a U2-type concert will grow your church into stalwart Reformed soldiers.
  6. Allow songs to convey their messages.  Songs dealing with sin and the death of Christ don’t need to be set to dancing jig tunes.

 

 

 

 

American History–An Incurable Passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Protestants and American Conservatism by Gillis J. Harp

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Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History by Gillis J. Harp is published by Oxford University Press.  Dr. Harp is a professor of history at Grove City College.

I became a Christian around the year 1972.  A few years later, I self-consciously began identifying myself as a conservative.  The conversion came about from the benefits of a lifelong family commitment to attending church and respecting the Christian faith.  In God’s timing, I began finding sermons, previously uninteresting, suddenly compelling and convicting.  Many factors contributed to what I now know was the work of the Holy Spirit convincing and convicting and drawing me to Christ.

Many factors also contributed to my becoming a conservative.  One night, Johnny Carson had William F. Buckley, Jr. on his show as a guest.  The next day, I went to the college library and checked out God and Man at Yale.  I devoured it.  This was during a season of my life when I was being overwhelmed with a myriad of ideas and concepts.  The biggest intellectual change in my life at that time was embracing a Calvinistic Worldview.  That changed and solidified all types of things in my life.  It put me on a trajectory that has never changed.

But rethinking has been a way of life since the beginning.  Much of what is found in Protestants and American Conservatism is almost biographical.  Familiar names, issues, historical time periods,  political fights, and the changing conservative agendas and definitions have been consuming passions for me in my personal thinking, teaching, lecturing, and writing.

The tendency in our time is to have quite simple ideas of what Conservatism and Liberalism are.  Turn on conservative talk radio and a number of hosts will be there usually defending Pres. Trump and touting his conservative credentials.  A few years back, they were castigating Pres. Obama and attacking his liberal views.  Turn to many of the more liberal media formats and the opposite cases are being presented.  Then there are those who now proclaim that any Republican who is not lining up exactly on the conservative’s check list is a RINO, that is, a Republican in Name Only.

Go back a few years and we have the rise of what has been called the Christian Right, the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and other names, all of which are highlighting the politically conservative and usually Republican-leaning views of evangelical Christians.  Of course, this opens the discussion up to other types of Christians who may not identify as evangelical, fundamentalist, Protestant, or conservative.

When did this all start?  Some say when Ronald Reagan created his winning coalition in 1980.  Some say when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of abortion in 1973 (although Protestants remained asleep for a half decade on that one).  Some date events back as far as the Goldwater race for the Presidency in 1964.  Or maybe it does goes back to Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, published in 1951.

All those markers are useful, and a number of books have been written on both the popular and scholarly levels attempting to alert, alarm, or inform readers of the cultural, political, economic, and philosophical crises of our times. But the strength, the key selling point of this book is that while it covers all of the events listed above, it takes the issue of Christian conservative thought back to the Colonial Era.

This is not just another “America was founded by Christians” book.  Lest anyone think I was being sarcastic with that sentence, I firmly believe our Colonial and Revolutionary Founders were Christians, with many being self-consciously focused on applying the precepts of the faith to events of their times.

“Nothing is simple,” says my former history professor Dr. Tom Wagy.  The interaction of Protestants with politics has a long and textured history.  It was not as though they were all trying to impose a Christian form or design on the political order.  Rather, they carried deep presuppositions about the nature of man, of society, about the covenantal and historic connections between the faith and the social order, and about the applications of such presuppositions in their times.

Christianity is not safely caged within a political creed.  One can argue that the Pharisees and Romans were the conservatives of their day.  Certainly, those who didn’t skip across the pond to start new versions of church and state were not trying to conserve the English status quo.  Nor were Loyalists during the American Revolution the liberals in the scuffle over rule of the colonies.

Literature is full of cases of characters donning someone else’s uniform or armor.  Patroclus, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles’s armor, leading to his death in battle.  Christians have been sometimes too quick to embrace a political view that puts them in the wrong battle or at least in a awkward position.  Events both prior to and after the American Civil War put Christians in a variety of odd positions regarding application of the faith.

To be sure, I believe that Christian presuppositions call for a view of people that recognizes both their being in the image of God and being fallen.  I believe that there are limits on what government can and should do.  I believe that the free market is generally more conducive to prosperity and distribution and enjoyment of resources.  I believe in freedom.  All of these beliefs and more are grounded in my being a Christian.  They propel me to favoring more conservative politics in our times.  (I identify as an unhappy Reagan Republican.)

I remember some years ago when a conservative and Christian (failed) political figure was calling for America to reclaim the Panama Canal.  For sure, I sided with Candidate Reagan on that issue in 1976. (His close ideologically conservative friend William F. Buckley, Jr. disagreed.)  I think there are sound reasons for arguing that the U. S. should never have relinquished control of the Canal and Canal Zone.  At the same time, I have not witnessed any apocalypse resulting from our ceding it back to Panama.  What is the Christian position on this issue?  I don’t find any of my Christian presuppositions endangered by giving up the Canal Zone.

Of course, not every issue is like that.  And while the Bible doesn’t list a program for government actions, I do believe that there are plenty of laws, admonitions, examples, broad themes, specific applications, and so on for Christians to appeal to in thinking about public policy.  There are both debatable issues and non-negotiables.

This book will not cause a conservative like me to repent, nor cause any who hold more liberal views to accept Christ.  But it does examine and weigh out many of the past issues.

This book is fine history.  Yes, I argued with the author at times.  Yes, I hung my head in embarrassment a few times as well.  Overall, I love the reading experience and hope to read it again and refer to it often.

 

Favorite Histories Read in 2019

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Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War by James McGrath Morris

Here is a good example of why I don’t post the best books of the year in December:  This was one of the last books I read this year.  Outstanding account of two 20th Century American writers.  They met during World War I when both were serving as ambulance drivers.  For several years, Dos Passos was the successful and published writer who was helping out a young Hemingway.

Over the years, their friendship ripened, and both men published a number of books.  Hemingway surged in fame and fortune.  Dos Passos received the accolades of the literary establishment, but little by way of book royalties.  Hemingway, being generous as he often was, gave and loaned money to his friend who also married one of Hemingway’s life-long friends, Katy Smith.

Hemingway being Hemingway, he came to the point where he despised and slashed at his literary companion.  He could not stand the fact that Dos Passos got more appreciation from the very crowds that Hemingway hated–literary reviewers.  Like most things that EH touched, this friendship turned ugly before he killed himself.

I really wish this book had added another fifty or more pages detailing Dos Passos’s turn from the Leftist thinking to Conservatism.  The Spanish Civil War opened his eyes, even as it blinded Hemingway’s vision.  I love much about Hemingway, but he was vicious, nasty, cruel, self-centered, and more.  I lament not having read enough by and about John Dos Passos, his peer who is rarely regarded in these times but who was often viewed as EH’s superior in their times.

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Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Fuhrer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals by James Longo

I mentioned having seen this book at Books-A-Million one day while teaching Humanities.  Later that same day, Joshua Carnes showed up in my classroom and handed the book to me.

What an outstanding book!  The Habsburgs are rarely regarded or thought of.  Francis Ferdinand is usually relegated to the brief discussion of the immediate outbreak of World War I.  I never knew that Hitler had any vendetta against the family.  Of course, it comes as no surprise that Adolf sought to harm the children of Francis Ferdinand and his wife Sophia, both slain in the summer of 1914.

This is a sad story of a devote Christian family, oppressed and tortured, who nevertheless maintained faith and dignity.  (I reviewed this book last February.)

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War by Lynn Olson

Outstanding study of how the countries conquered by Hitler continued their resistance from the sole outpost of freedom–Great Britain.  So much here was new to me, in spite of a lifetime of reading on World War II.  So many unsung heroes and heroines.  Reviewed in March under the title “World War II in Books.” I am now a collector of anything that Lynn Olson has written.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liberty in the Things of God by Robert Louis Wilkin

Outstanding study of the development of Christian liberty of conscience.  I really loved this book.  Worth reading again and again.  Vital due to our lack of understanding of religious freedom and the misconceptions that assume that such freedom is the product of unbelievers.

Reviewed in May.

The British are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson

The British are Coming, Volume 1 of the Revolution Trilogy by Rick Atkinson

I loved Rick Atkinson’s trilogy on World War II, love this book, and look forward to the next two volumes.  I must confess that my greatest comfort in reading this account of the American War for Independence came from knowing how the story ends.  In the midst of this book, I kept thinking, “We are going to lose this war.”

Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams

Lengthy, detailed study of the preparation and execution of the Normandy invasion. Review written in August.

This year was the 75th anniversary of the greatest military invasion in all of history:  The D-Day Normandy Landings in France on June 6, 1944.  This account was incredibly packed with both big picture explanations of the events along with the up close and personal accounts of those who were there.

I am sold on this author/historian which resulted in me buying his equally lengthy book on the Battle of the Bulge, titled Snow and Steel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt by John F. Woolverton and James D. Bratt

Review written in September.

As expected, my favorable review of this book garnered me a few criticisms from my normally adoring public following.  Conservatives so dislike FDR that many cannot pause long enough to give him credit for anything.  I enjoyed this detailed, but still inadequate account of FDR the man and his faith.  Was he truly a Christian?  I am not sure that is a question for historians.  He was not shallow in regard to his faith commitment.  He had a life-long attachment to Christianity, was a long-time and faithful church member, was vocal about his beliefs, and was spiritually minded on the personal level and not just for political purposes.

His faith was diluted by the social gospel and more liberal elements then in vogue.  His life was concerning because of some of the moral failings.  Still, this is a good study of a complex and great man.

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Did America Have a Christian Founding? By Mark David Hall

Review written in November.

How delightful the discover of this book has been.  I became Facebook friends with Dr. Hall and have entered on the quest of obtaining and reading every book he has written or edited.  The topic of this book is one that I have long read and studied.  But, if I had only one book to read and consider on this topic, this would be the one.

The issue here is vital.  Like the Achaians and the Trojans battling over the slain body of Patroclus in The Iliad, our culture has been fighting over the role of Christianity in our history and culture for a long time.  By the way, Protestants have done some stupid things along the way, and those actions are recounted in this book.  Myths are presented and documented and then dealt with forcefully by that old sly trick of historians–going to the sources.

America's Religious History - By: Thomas S. Kidd

America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation by Thomas Kidd

Shame on me here.  I did read and enjoy this book, but I really should have completed my homework assignment and read the two volume American History by Dr. Kidd published by B & H Publishers.

I have long wanted to find a better American history survey than the one I use in my classes.  And Thomas Kidd is one of the brightest and most prolific stars on the stage of Christian historians.  I have a number of his books and am intent on getting and reading all of his works.

I did read this short history of religious faith in America.  On the one hand, Sidney Ahlstrom’s book, A Religious History of the American People,  has some advantages over this book.  However, Ahlstrom’s book is massive and much older; it is great for a long, serious study of the issue.  The strength of Kidd’s book is its brevity.  Many times, I was shouting “More, More!”  But I was often coming across ideas, people, and beliefs I had never heard of.  I would love to use this book as required supplemental reading for a college American history survey.

Reviewed briefly in “When Religion Meets History and Philosophy” in November.

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The Soul of the American Presidency:  The Decline Into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal by Stephen Knott

Excellent read that I reviewed just a week ago in December.

I wish I could say something deep, scholarly, and profound, but I will have to fall back on this response:  I thoroughly enjoyed and loved this book.  I read lots of politically related books and teach government.  I have studied Presidents ever since the election of 1964, in which I was–unknowingly–for the wrong candidate.

Did I agree with Stephen Knott at every step?  No way, but I found many things to reconsider, to re-enforce, and to reconfigure ways of thinking about the Presidents.  His heroes include some Presidents I find less lovable.  His villains include some of my heroes.  That was part of the fun, accompanied by pain, in reading this book.

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The Darkest Year: The American Homefront 1941-1942 by William Klingman

Fascinating and heavily anecdotal account of the wild and chaotic year after the U. S. entered World War II. How in the world did we ever win the war? Hundred of anecdotal details about the first year of America’s involvement in World War II.

Reviewed this book in May.

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The Opening of the Calvinistic Mind

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It was the probably the fall of 1977, and I was taking the second half of Western Civilization under Professor Henry Wood.  He assigned us a reading, with a “free will” choice of either Freud by R. J. Rushdoony or Nietzsche by H. Van Riessen.  Along with one other student, I chose the Nietzsche volume.  It was a slim book of some 51 pages, but it was not fast or easy read.  I think I must have read through it twice and underlined and marked it heavily.  Alas, I cannot find that copy of my book.  Mr. Wood quizzed me and the other fellow in a small goup discussion.  It was an exhilerating educational experience and resembled what I think happens in English college settings.

Nietzsche was part of a series of books called “Modern Thinkers” which was part of a collection called “An International Library of Philosophy and Theology.”  These books were published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, which also published books under the label of Craig Press.  I had already entered into that world that I have called Calvinia.  I had read John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits and A Theological Interpretation of American History by C. Gregg Singer, This Independent Republic by R. J. Rushdoony, Christianity and the Problem of Origins by P. E. Hughes, and the two books that sealed my future, Studies in Theology and The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner.

Although my future studies in college would contain much that was good, true, and beautiful, I did not experience the consistency, rigor, and direction of a real Reformed, classical, or Christian education through the classes I was taking.  In other words, I would take a fine college class, but have to study on my own to bring it into a perspective that was Biblical and Reformed.  I truly envy those today who are getting far better exposure to the greatest books and ideas through their college experiences.

James Jordan wrote of the Calvinistic world of the 1970s in his outstanding essay titled “The Closing of the Calvinistic Mind.”

I think my take-away on Jordan’s essay was different than his main intent.  What it did was it reawakened my own mind–circa 2007–of the Calvinist thinkers that had impacted my life and imprinted their thinking on my mushy mind.  I immediately went into a book buying and reading frenzy, gathering up every Presbyterian and Reformed title from those years and authors that Jordan mentioned.  I gave a lecture series in Newport Newes, Virginia to a group that was titled “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers During the Wilderness Years,” another series in Alaska called “Dutch Thinkers,” and I wrote a number of essays, some published, on Dooyeweerd, Rushdoony, Singer, and others.

I was continually amazed at that time at how Bryce Craig, encouraged by R. J. Rushdoony and others, had published book after book that had little or no chance of reaching a wide audience.  And he published them with ugly covers and other less than appealing features. “Who was out there reading these books?” I wondered then and now.  Most Calvinists I knew read books on theology, the Bible, preaching, church, etc.,  but not on worldview issues, philosophy, and culture.

I am still bound and determined to acquire all of the books that are listed in the picture above.  I wish I could go back in time and get them for those prices.  Thankfully, P & R would send out sale sheets every month, so I did buy lots of them.  I probably have about half of the books in that picture.  That comes from the back inside cover of the Nietzsche volume.

All of that is prelude to this:  Presbyterian and Reformed shortened its name to P&R Publishing, and it has had much better cover designers than in the past.  P&R publishes lots of books with a much wider appeal than it did in those early days.  This is helped by the fact that the Calvinist reading audience or broader Evangelical reading audience is greater.

A few years back, P&R began a series called “Great Thinkers.”  Like the older “Modern Thinkers” series, these books are relatively short (less than 150 pages) and are geared toward serious, though not necessarily expert, readers.  And this is not another set of books about our favorite Christians, such as C. S. Lewis and company.  Many of the books are about thinkers who are not Christian or not Reformed, evangelical theologians.  If you impacted the greater culture and world of ideas, you might just be included.

I only have two of the books in this series:  Thomas Aquinas by K. Scott Oliphint and, as of this week, Francis Bacon by David C. Innes.  As might be expected, I am in great distress and anxiety that will not cease until I have the whole series, including the forthcoming volumes.

I use Francis Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? as a teaching tool to introduce my students to a wide range of theologians, political leaders, philosophers, artists, and other influential people.  To some degree, I am teaching them “just” a list of names, book titles, and movement.  This is Trivial Pursuit, random bits of information, and for sure, oversimplifications.  That is good.  That is where we start: Names, titles, movements, bullet points.

Then we move on.  I am all for the students (starting in high school and continuing through college) diving into all or large portions of the greatest thinkers and books of all time.  But even reading a couple of hundred pages of Calvin or Aquinas or Marx might not enable you to get the overall picture of their worldview.  And books about thinkers are often longer, more technical, and more difficult than the author’s own writings themselves.

Here is the beauty of these kinds of books:  Short, scholarly, serious, and readable.

Footnote:  I bought the volume Francis Bacon simply because David C. Innes wrote it.  His book Christ and the Kingdoms of Men is one of the best books I have read this year.

When History Meets Religion and Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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