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.

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.

 

History, History Everywhere and Not Enough Coffee to Drink

The Heavy Laden Bookshelf should fire me as it chief book reviewer.  Problem is that that would involve me firing myself, and I don’t know who I could hire who would work as cheaply as I do.  But I am far too slow as a reader.  And I ain’t too swuft at getting reviews completed.  So, it looks like I am stuck with keeping me as my chief book reviewer.

Let’s look at some of the history backlog for a moment.  The nine standing books in the picture above have all been glanced over or started, but none are finished yet.

Editor to Reviewer:  Say something about the standing books.

Reviewer to Editor:  Well, I have finished and written reviews on the two that are lying down (Sand & Steel and Apostle to the East).

Editor to Reviewer:  There are nine books you have to get going.  Get some reviews completed.  At the very least, say something about them.

Reviewer to Editor:  Okay, I’ll try, Sir.

So here goes:

First up is Southern Gambit: Cornwallis and the British March to Yorktown by Stanley D. M. Carpenter.  This book is Volume 65 in the Oklahoma University Press Campaigns and Commanders series.

Earlier in the summer, I read Rick Atkinson’s delightful The British are Coming.  I always wish that I were more focused and maybe even totally absorbed in reading about the American War for Independence.  The problem is that I harbor the same wish about another two dozen historical eras and I flit from historical branch to branch and never settle in.

General Charles Cornwallis is often relegated to a bit part in American history, and it is the role of a loser.  The name of Cornwallis is associated with Yorktown, defeat of the British, “The World Turned Upside Down,” and a number of other images that all spell out the word LOSER.  Of course, history could have easily turned in a different direction, but what if’s, while fun, are simply speculations.

The southern venture by the British Army seemed to have all the making of a success.  The possibility of rallying the southern colonies back to the British side, of rooting out the rebellion to the south, and succeeding in the classic “divide and conquer” strategy could have and maybe should have worked.

Cornwallis blazed a trail of Pyrrhic victories across the Carolinas and into Virginia.  Then matters only got worse as Cornwallis’s luck or fortune ran out.  Let’s go ahead and use the word they used then:  Providence gave the upper hand to the Patriot army and their French allies.

 

Very promising book.

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Spying Across the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide by Tony Horwitz is published by Penguin Press.

My review copy of this book, which came out last May, included information about the author tour promoting this work.  Sad to report, Mr. Horwitz died just a few weeks after this book came out.

I had looked into one of Horwitz’s earlier books, Confederates in the Attic, and when my teacher Dr. Thomas Curtrer called my attention this book, I was immediately interested.  This book is a retelling of one story with a newer accompanying story.  The original story was that of Frederick Law Omsted, a journalist and architect (1822-1903), who traveled across the southern states in the years before the War Between the States.  His writings were combined into a volume titled Journeys and Explorations into the Cotton Kingdom, which was published in 1861.

Horwitz studied Omsted’s work and then began retracing his traveling.  By that, I mean that he ventured on a journey to the same places and updated us on the life, communities, and cultures across the way.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book.  Unfortunately for me, I keep letting it get lost in the dangerously high reading stacks beside my bed.  It is good, easy-going, and entertaining reading that can handily precede sleep.

Travel books were, perhaps, more popular in past centuries.  Writers such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were masters of such writings.  In our day, it is easy enough to either travel ourselves, or to watch documentaries, or to Google places across the land and become familiar with them.

But getting the feel of the culture is a more complicated matter.  The questions that I suppose this book raises are “What was the South like when Omsted traveled and observed it?” and “What has changed?”  Putting this book back to the top to read.  Thankful that the author was able to finish it.

Leaders: Myth and Reality

Leaders: Myth and Reality by General Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone is published by Portfolio/Penguin.

Leadership comes in all varieties, areas, and styles.  The subjects for this book are diverse and unexpected. The chapters cover the following people:  Walt Disney, Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Maximilien Robespierre, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Zheng He, Harriet Tubman, “Boss” Tweed, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those who might expect leaders in a book like this to be solely political and military figures are to be a bit surprised.  Part of the attractiveness of this book is its diversity of subjects and the surprising inclusions.  When I started reading the book, I was astounded by the genius of Walt Disney.  On the one hand, I am not a big fan of Disney productions–past and present.  On the other hand, one cannot read about the man without marveling at his creative genius and drive. Coco Chanel was another surprise.  I began with having no clear idea who she was, and then made the connection with the women’s perfume Chanel #5.  Coco Chanel was a creator and marketer of fragrances.  This was an enjoyable chapter.  I would not want to read a lengthy book on Coco, but the picture of her skills was delightful.

I do hope to keep plowing along in this succession of accounts of various leaders and varied styles of leadership.  On a downside note, I was irritated in the beginning of this book where Gen. McChrystal detailed his dislike of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  He told of having put a framed portrait of Lee in the trash bin.  I buy the idea that one can find fault with Lee’s leadership at many points, but this smacked a bit too much of playing to the crowd-tastes of our age.

Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy by Benjamin Armstrong is published by Oklahoma University Press.

This is yet another, Volume 66, in the amazing Campaigns and Commanders series published by Oklahoma University Press.  Have I mentioned that I wish I had every single one of them?

One of the most amazing and maybe amusing facts of U. S. history is that our country waged its first two wars against the supreme naval power of the world.  The fact that we came out of both wars without being vanquished is a delight, especially when talking with friends across the pond.  Ton for ton and gun for gun, there is no way the fledgling American navy or lack thereof could have held its own against His Majesty’s Royal Fleets.

The subtitle explains a bit of how and why we muddled through.  The smallest of boats and crews can conduct raids.  Small boats, manned by daring men, can poke, jab, hit and run, and do some damage to the greatest of fleets.  Like a horsefly plaguing a stallion, the ability to sting here and there can be effective.

This is the story of such efforts.  Dr. Alexander is Assistant Professor of War Studies and Naval History at the U. S. Naval Academy.

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Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Conflict, 1917-1918 by Edward G. Lengel is published by the University Press of Kansas.

I first became acquainted with the writings of Ed Lengel last fall when I was on a World War I binge.  I was teaching about the Twentieth Century and came across his recently published book Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion.  My review of that enjoyable book is found HERE.

This book came out in 2015, so it precedes Never in Finer Company and also tells the story of the bigger picture of the American involvement in World War I. As I often mention, the First World War is so overshadowed by the Second World War that we forget how awful, long, and hard fought it was.  American involvement can be oversimplified in two ways.  First, the war starts in 1914, and then the U. S. enters in 1917 and more directly in 1918 and finishes up the mess that Europe had started.  A second way is to view the American contribution as a minor thing.  The German army was a spent force by the time the U. S. arrived, and the main work had been accomplished by the French and British.

History always lends itself to easy explanations until the digging begins.

Ed Lengel is quite an amazing historian.  He wrote several books on George Washington, and then he published three or four studies of America in World War I.  Next year, he will have a new book coming out on the Revolutionary War.  Recently installed as the Senior Director of Programs at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, he will probably whip out a few books on that war.

I will need to highlight these books a bit later.  I have too many books even to briefly describe.

Rosebud June 17, 1876: Prelude to the Little Big Horn by Paul L. Hedren is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Burton K. Wheeler of Montana by Marc C. Johnson is published by Oklahoma University Press also.

Competing Memories: The Legacy of Arkansas’s Civil War, edited by Mark K. Christ, is published by the University of Arkansas Press.

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

 

Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little

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Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little by Russell M. Lawson is published by St. Polycarp’s Publishing House.

One of the amazing features of book publishing today is the number of small, independent publishers.  Of course, the big names such as Random House (no relation to me), Harper & Row, Penguin, and others still produce many books.  Of course, university presses are pouring out more books than can possibly be comprehended.  Of course, the best sellers and the books most commonly found in the chain bookstores are from the New York based big companies.

But behind the scenes, off the main book interstates, and obscured by their very obscurity, small publishers are producing fine quality works on topics that will never break through the charts, reach the New York Times book reviews, or make millions for their authors or publishers.  Small niches–they are.  But they are filling in some vital gaps, reaching remnants of people who can search through the thousands of books at Books-A-Million and find nothing worthwhile.  Some of these small presses focus on reprints of classic works of literature, history, or theology.  Some focus on theology.  Some on history.  Some produce works of fiction and poetry.

When we discover one of their books, we often realize that we not only had heard of the publisher, but we may not even remember where we first heard of the book.  Perhaps it was on Facebook that I first stumbled across a book by an author I did not know, about a man I had not heard of, and published by a Christian group I was not aware of.

But the results of those fortuitous finds, or we might say providential blessings, can be quite rewarding.

Apostle of the East: The Life and Journeys of Daniel Little filled in a wide gap (of which there are many) in my understanding of colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary American history.  We hear so much about the 13 Colonies on the eastern seaboard.  It was only by a few encounters with George Grant’s lectures that I realized that there were far more than 13 colonies, many of which chose not to join in the fracas of the 1770’s.

The current state of Maine is identified on the colonial maps as being part of Massachusetts colony and state.  In fact, it did not become a state until 1820 when it was brought in to maintain the slave and free state balance due to Missouri’s quest for statehood.  The narrative flow of history books focuses on the westward movement which then leads to the Northwest Ordinance, Manifest Destiny, the settlement of the states beyond the Appalachians, and then to the cultural divides between the northern, southern, and western states.

Maine crops up with the Missouri Compromise.  Perhaps, if one if reading about General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, either in biographies or in the novel Killer Angels, his service as an educator, soldier, and politician will relate back to Maine.  Then there is the famous quip made during the 1936 election campaign where Franklin Roosevelt trounced Alf Landon.  The statement was “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”  (Sometime prior to that, the saying was “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”)  One cannot forget that Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican and a woman who showed up in the fight for the Republican Presidential nomination fight in 1964, was from Maine.  (Barry Goldwater won that contentious fight, and it would be interesting to consider how history would have been different if he had put Sen. Smith on the ticket instead of William Miller.)  Later, Ed Muskie, another Senator, Vice Presidential candidate, failed Presidential primary candidate, and Secretary of State was from Maine.

The state is obscure to me, and its early history was a total blank.  But it was an outlet for the many thousands of people on the eastern coast.  Why, with New England winter’s and rugged soil, they ventured even further north is a puzzle to me.  But they did.  And there, they encountered various Indian tribes, particularly the Penobscot tribe.  These settlers were the children of the folks who settled the established New England colonies, but the distance they moved separated them from the culture, religion, and civilized ways of Boston and its environs.

Apostle of the East tells the story of one man’s experiences in bringing the Gospel to settlers and Indians in Maine.  Daniel Little lived from 1724 to 1801.  He lived, therefore, during such events as the Great Awakening, the French and Indian War, the prelude to the American War for Independence, the war itself, and the time when the Constitution was written, ratified, and put into effect.  Most of these events were outside of his own direct involvement, but he was not without contact with them.

Although he pastored a couple of churches in the Maine territory, he spent a good many seasons traveling throughout the region working to spread the Gospel, evangelize Indians, and establish churches and schools.  Most of the English colonists were folks who had drifted far from places where churches were found.  Prone to squabbles and deviations from Christian practices, they were–to use Flannery O’Connor’s words–Christ-haunted if not Christ-centered.  Dealing with the Indian tribes was a harder challenge.  For one thing, there was the continual problem of land dealings.  Dealings is a nice way to describe the efforts of the stronger white ruling folk to impose boundaries on the Indians.  Along with that, many of the tribes had been influenced by French Catholic mission works.  Trying to differentiate between French Catholicism and British Protestantism was a challenge, and many Indians were plenty satisfied with their own beliefs.

Although missions were his main passion, Little was also interested in science and exploration.  In the area he was in, that meant scaling mountains.  As a trained minister, he was a teacher and educator, a theologian, and a scientist in the tradition of the day.

In several cases, Dr. Lawson, the author, describes how Little’s theology changed.  He writes, “Little’s simple piety in a God who blesses all of the Creation led him to move increasingly from New England Calvinism to a more Universalist mindset.  Feeling that anyone could be saved spurred Little on to bring the Good News to the ignorant, the wayward, the Catholic, the Indian.”  I find this passage both troubling and unclear.  I think the author did a fine job of recounting the many journeys of his subject, but a better theological analysis is missing from this book.  I would have preferred an approach more like a George Marsden could have given.

Universalist is not explained, nor do I think that New England Calvinism is understood.  Jonathan Edwards was very much the Calvinist who preached the Good News to all sorts of people and even did mission work among the Indians.  There are too few excerpts from sermons and letters for the reader to make any judgment on Little’s theology.  (And Calvinism, although mentioned several times, is not in the index.)

Anyone wanting to grapple with the theological developments in New England will find little help in this book.  On the other hand, it is a interesting and enjoyable account of a man who gave himself unstintingly to church planting and missions.  As I said earlier, it does turn the focus from the westward movement of the nation to the most north-eastern portion.

Also, there is another fine point of interest in the book.  Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a powerful short story called “The Minister’s Black Veil.”  Little was taught for a time by a Harvard-trained pastor named Joseph Moody, who was overwhelmed by the emotional weight of his work.  The author writes, “He felt completely completely inadequate to represent the Lord of the Universe to his small parish.  This inadequacy translated into an overbearing weight of sin upon him.  Unable to look his parishioners, or anyone else, in the eye, as if he were looking God Himself in the eye, Moody veiled his face in public, ate alone, and eventually decided he could no longer serve as pastor.”

 

A. W. Tozer–Three Spiritual Classics

 

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) remains one of the most popular devotional Christian writers of our time.  Moody Press, which has long promoted Tozer’s work, has combined three of his best known works into one fine hardback edition.  Three Spiritual Classics in One Volume contains The Knowledge of the Holy, The Pursuit of God, and God’s Pursuit of Man.  See the website HERE for more details.

A. W. Tozer: Three Spiritual Classics in One Volume: The Knowledge of the Holy, The Pursuit of God, and God's Pursuit of Man

First of all, the well-known Tozer and the many editions of his books means that I am not having to acquaint many readers with him or convince many to read him.  I have, since getting this review book, come across numerous new and used copies of his books and an untold number of quotes. I would venture to say that Tozer ranks second only to Charles Spurgeon in being quotable and quoted.

The key selling point of this publication is that it contains three books and is hardbound.  It is not bulky or hard to navigate.  I read the first book, then the third one, and finally the middle one.  Typically, Tozer’s chapters average ten pages, so it is a great length for morning reading.

Second, I can see why some Christians would not prefer to read Tozer.  He is not theologically rigorous or technical.  If you are wanted to be grounded in systematic, biblical, or dogmatic theology, his books would not satisfy.  Nor is he exegetical, so that if you are wanting insight into the meaning of passages or books of the Bible, his books would not satisfy.  Nor is he polemical, so that if you are wanting to watch theological jousting and combat, his books would not satisfy.  And one might find the gist of his books to not give enough emphasis on church, covenant community, and weekly worship.  Certainly, those of us who love a Kuyperian embracing of every area of life and thought will find Tozer silent on those matters.

Third, but what Tozer does and does well is to focus on the Christian’s devotional and meditative life.  He rarely quotes other writers, but when he does, he is usually quoting more Medieval and mystic writers.  (No, he is not enough close to being Roman Catholic!)  He is not monastic; in fact, he is critical of any attempt to escape the world as some forms of monastic life emphasized.

He seeks to push Christians toward meditative and intense contemplation of God.  I was surprised at his theological accuracy contained in his otherwise layman-centered writings.  It is obvious that Tozer wants the believer to be grounded and well read in the Bible, for his is not a searching of the inner man for peace and wisdom.  But what he abhors is a sense that we can do our religious duties and rites and then close the book and go about our secular lives.

This personal intensity explains why he is quoted so often.  These three volumes could be reformatted into a book titled The Quotable Tozer and little content would have to be sacrificed.

Fourth, I would not have preferred to have read three Tozer books in a row.  I was compelled to do so for the sake of getting this review done.  It is somewhat like rushing through a meal for whatever reason.  But I do need a dose of Tozer here and there.  Yes, the Puritans are stronger.  Yes, Spurgeon has more with and anecdotes.  Yes, J. I. Packer is a more powerful writer.  But none of that detracts from the reminders and the pressing urgency with which Tozer calls on us to seek after God.

Fifth,  I recently read a comment where a friend and theologian referred to Tozer as one of his favorite non-Calvinistic Calvinist writers.  Tozer was careful to sidestep the old Calvinist-Arminian debates.  In my cage-stage years, I would have gnashed my teeth.  But reading him now, I see the sheer beauty of what we call Calvinism in Tozer’s discussion of God’s work in pursuing us, in changing us, in giving us His Holy Spirit.  I figure my non-Calvinist friends would read him and enjoy those parts and others as well.

So, I recommend that you pull one of your neglected Tozer volumes off the shelf.  Read or reread the whole book, or just read a chapter–any chapter.  Even better, buy this book and have the best of his work all bound together.  Maybe you have a Christian friend who just isn’t going to tackle Calvin’s Institutes or Augustine’s City of God.  Here is a gift for them, but get two copies so that you have one as well.

A Little Book for New Historians and Creative Historical Thinking

 

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I confess that I feel like I have never been properly trained in the field of history.  Been teaching the subject for forty years and reading history for longer than that, and yet I always feel this gaping gap in my own training as a history student.  Perhaps it is common for undergraduate students to just take enough random history courses to get a major in the field.  And having garnered quite a few graduate hours in history, perhaps it is common there as well.  But it just does not seem to be the right approach.

Future history teachers and historians ought to be grilled from the beginning on what history is and is not.  They ought to be grilled in the various schools of interpretation, forced to uncover the presuppositions of authors they are reading, exposed to various viewpoints, and made to dig deeply in primary sources. If that isn’t enough, they should also have to read some of the older historians, such as Edward Gibbon, George Bancroft, Thomas Babington Macauley, and Francis Parkman.

But I have run too many miles in this marathon to start now thinking about what shoes to wear while I am running.  But I will make the call once again for the teaching of history as a subject to history majors.  I am, even this late in the race, still reading books about the field of history and the study of it.  I still aspire to be a historian.  Up to now, I still consider myself a history teacher.  The history teacher can be a story teller, a lecturer, a martinet who imposes history upon unwilling subjects, and an entertainer.  (I think I fit all of those categories.)  But a historian has to dig deeper, think more, and do better than just recite facts.

A Little Book for New Historians: Why and How to Study History by Robert Tracy McKenzie (professor of history at Wheaton College) is published by IVP Academic.

A Little Book for New Historians

This book is a part of a series of books, all sharing the words A Little Book for New ____________ in the titles.  Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Crossway Books both have similar series of short, introductory works on various academic areas.

McKenzie’s book is a very fine introduction to the topic of history.  For a more in-depth review than I will attempt, read what historian Michael Douma says on his blog review–found HERE.

The first point, which has to become second nature to a history student, is that history is not a study of the past, but rather is a study of what (little) we can know or uncover about the past.  McKenzie says, “If that wall of water plummeting downward is analogous to ‘the past,’ then the drops you can catch in a paper cup represent history.”  We may have lots of official records, personal memoirs, letters, and snippets of knowledge about World War II, but we cannot even discover all of what happened to any one person in that war, be it a famous leader or an obscure private.

For me, history and the presuppositions of the Christian faith are merged.  By the way, this book, as all of the series, is setting forth distinctly Christian ways of viewing history, although I would reckon that a non-Christian could find much agreement in it.  Back to my point, I am not saying that being a believer gives me “the truth” about historical events.  Nor can Christian history folks take the causes exit marked “God ordained it.”  Rather, the Christian has to be overwhelmingly humbled by studying history.  What you usually learn from an in-depth study is how much you don’t know.

McKenzie emphasizes the importance of Christian love and charity when dealing with historical figures.  This week, a story has been trending about a series of racist comments that were made in a conversation between President Richard Nixon and then Governor Ronald Reagan, many years ago.  I love Reagan (and Nixon to a much lesser degree), and it is important that I examine the times they were in (the early 1970s) and the issues.  The fact that this was a private conversation is important as well.  None of this excuses either man, but we have to recognize that people of the past do not inhabit the same atmosphere we do.

I have often heard fellow Calvinists quote R. L. Dabney’s comments on conservatism: “What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism…” (Found here.)   Good quote and true enough, but I grew weary of hearing my fellow Calvinist friends repeat this as a way of not supporting the more conservative political candidates of our day (the William F. Buckley principle).  But Dabney would have voted for John C. Breckinridge, most likely (or else John Bell), in 1860 and would have preferred Seymour over Grant and Tilden over Hayes.

Related to this are the efforts we all make to lionize or demonize Founding Fathers on the basis of current political situations.  To link current spending policies with Alexander Hamilton is not doing history.

Alas, I am straying away and preaching too much here.  Concerning the use of primary sources, the need for being humble and teachable, and the willingness to really try to listen to the sources are all key points of this book.

Great introduction to “funnest” subject on earth to study.

Since we are on the subject of history, and since I have previously mentioned Michael Douma’s review of the book above, I should once again herald his outstanding book Creative Historical Thinking.  This book really helps the history student sort out how our minds work and interact with history.  Besides, Michael does something that is absolutely awful for an academic:  He inserts wit all through the book.  So, you start out thinking this is going to be serious, sober, somber, and searching, and you discover that it is funny and full of practical wisdom.

Don’t set foot in a history classroom without having read Creative Historical Thinking.

There are other books I would recommend concerning the study of history, but I will save that venture for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Worthy Reprints–Machen, Kuyper, and Groen Van Prinsterer

You cannot possibly keep up with all of the really fine books that are being written today by serious, capable Christian pastors, teachers, and theologians. I know and experience that frustration constantly.  Besides, theological books are only one component in the vast university of knowledge that many of us need to attend.  Books on history, classics of literature, and political and economic studies abound as well.

The problem gets worse, not better, when we realize that along with the many good books available, there are many older works that simply cannot be neglected.  I don’t have a magical formula for solving either yours or my own reading problems.  The best I can do is to simply plug along, reading a half dozen or so books at a time.  In some cases, I am getting 20 pages read a day, but in other cases, I am getting less than half that amount.  Some get started and set aside, and they may not be picked up for a very long time.  Some get lost in the stacks.  Some seem better suited for a different time.

These are the problems that are associated with modern American abundance.  In some places, books are few and far between.  In some places, serious students have to master a second or third language to access the books readily available to us. We here in the English speaking world are inundated with reading material, and that should make us thankful.  Our thanksgiving should also include giving thanks for the availability of three Reformed classics from three different publishers in recent months.

Christianity & Liberalism: Legacy Edition

It just makes sense that the new Legacy Edition of J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism has been published by Westminster Seminary Press. It was Machen who led the movement that founded Westminster Seminary.  And it was this book, originally published in 1923, that clearly marked the dividing line between the historic and orthodox Christian faith from its deviations of that time.

I first became aware of this book when a college student I knew was reading it for a class by Professor Henry Wood at Texarkana College.  The class was on the second half of American history, so I was puzzled why a “religious book” was being read for the class.  The girl explained that it fit in with what was going on in American history during the time period.  I was pretty sure that I knew a lot about American history, but was clueless about this.

The importance of Machen’s book became clear over the next year or so after I took Professor Wood’s classes.  I cannot remember when I first read Machen myself, but I am certain that I have read this book a couple of times over the years.  The first thing to be clear on is what the Liberalism is that Machen is contrasting with Christianity.  He was not talking about politics of his time or ours.  He was, at the same time, a man of conservative and slightly libertarian political convictions.  In this book, however, he was dealing with theological liberalism.  The liberals, or higher critics, were embracing modern thought, Darwinian naturalism, and then-current scientific beliefs with reckless abandon.  Their heirs are still among us.

This book laid down the distinction between what Christians have historically believed and what the Liberals were proposing.  Machen’s contention was that their beliefs were not simply another brand or way of thinking Christianly, but that they were positing an entirely different religion.

Adding the value of this new edition is a section called “The Legacy of Christianity and Liberalism by the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary.”  This consists of some 17 short essays on different aspects of Machen’s work.  So, don’t just rush out and find an older copy of this book or pull your copy off the shelf, get this new work.

Lectures on Calvinism

Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper has also been around in many editions for many years.  This new edition, published by New Liberty Mission and distributed by American Vision, has been modified slightly to improve readability. Don’t worry, for this is not a paraphrase or abridgement of the original book.  It is a translation that has some slight changes in punctuation along with some much needed footnotes.  Kuyper gave these lectures in 1898.  He refers to many things in his time that we are not generally aware of.

This book is the foundational read for each and every book that seeks to present a “Christian Worldview.”  It is astounding how prevalent that phrase is now.  When I was a young pup, very few people would have used that phrase or known what it meant.  Interestingly, Kuyper actually used a phrase that is translated “Life and World System.”

This book stumped me some years ago because I quickly grew used to equating Calvinism with “the Five Points of Calvinism.”  I was devouring everything I could find on understanding and defending those Five Points.  But Kuyper’s lectures had six points, and there was no TULIP or similarly description of Calvinistic soteriology.

Many, although fewer than in the past, stumble, balk, snort and kick, and object to the word “Calvinism” itself.  When Kuyper gave these lectures at Princeton in 1898, people of varying theological positions knew exactly what he meant by the term and how he was using it.  Especially at Princeton Theological Seminary, the use of the term Calvinism was helpful shorthand for a system of beliefs, more or less articulated by Calvin and his heirs.

In our day, the controversy over the contents of this book revolve around what is called the “Two Kingdoms Theology” and its counter-part, which is often referred to as Kuyperian theology or Augustinian theology.  There are plenty of books to read on this where you can witness the clash of swords as Calvinist battles Calvinist (or Lutheran battles Calvinist).  For a short, sweet deathblow to the Two Kingdoms view, read Brian Mattson’s Cultural Amnesia.

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I have read and used Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism many times.  I have several editions of it, as well as Peter Helsam’s Creating a Christian Worldview (written about Kuyper’s book), Kuyper in America (about Kuyper’s experiences while here in the States giving the lectures), and a Dutch edition of the book.

This book is critical to all who are teaching in Christian schools.  This book is valuable to all pastors and teachers in the church.  This book is necessary for us in our times as we struggle to figure out how to have a Christian influence on our culture.

Unbelief and Revolution is by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and is translated by Harry Van Dyke.  The book is published by Lexham Classics.

I first encountered Unbelief and Revolution many years ago when there were only two portions of it available in English. Groen (which would translate as Green in English) was largely unknown in America both in the theological and historical worlds.  I suspect that is still the case, although less so and to our shame since his works are much more available in English.

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Groen is the Dutch counterpart to Edmund Burke when it comes to the French Revolution.  Meaning, the French Revolution is often heralded as a great event in history, a liberating event, a demolishing of old and antiquated ways, and of establishing a new order.  Sure, there was an excess of beheadings, but as Lenin would later say, “To make an omelet, you must break some eggs.”

I realize at this point that this book sounds like a work of specialized interest for students of history.  It is that, but it is more.  Groen was not giving a history of the French Revolution, but was examining its cultural, philosophical, and theological underpinnings.  If nothing else, this work helps teach us to go beyond mastering the facts and trying to discern the foundational beliefs in a movement.  And, this is not a simplistic “Christians didn’t pray enough” approach to what was a world-wide revolution.

Translator Harry Van Dyke writes in the Introduction:  “The central message of the book is that the French Revolution is not actually over but lives on in its ideas, and these ideas are dangerous for society.  This book makes a compelling case for challenging the ‘permanent revolution’ in which Western Civilization has engaged since the 18th Century Enlightenment.  Our culture, according to Groen, is increasingly in the grip of an intellectual and spiritual revolution that has put secular humanism in the saddle and repeatedly wreaks havoc with the created order for humanity and society.”

On the cover of the book is a short statement from George Harinck saying, “Very relevant for today.”

I would love to take (or teach) a course on the revolutions of the 18th–20th centuries.  I would require that James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men and Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution be required reading, but first on the list would be Groen van Prinsterer’s Unbelief and Revolution.

Get and read these great reprints!