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.

 

Did America Have a Christian Founding? by Mark David Hall

 

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For me, the issue was settled back in 1975 when I first started reading about the Calvinistic influence on American history.  There was a history professor at our local community college who was the most scholarly teacher on staff and a thorough-going Calvinist.  A friend told me to take his class because “he teaches the Five Points of Calvinism, and you need to know that for American literature.”  She was right, for American literature is a tug of war between Calvinists (beginning with the Puritans) and those retreating from Calvinism (from Hawthorne to Twain to Crane to Hemingway).

Since 1975, the issue has been raised in a number of ways regarding the question of America’s founding.  Did America have a Christian founding?  By founding, do we mean colonial America or the independent American Republic?  What does it mean that America did or did not have a Christian founding?  And, what difference does it make now?

I am guessing that I have read or heard over 100 full length books, essays, and lectures on the topic of Christianity and America.  I even gave a few of those lectures and have written on it myself in my book.  So,  Mark David Hall’s newest book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, published by Nelson Books, is a welcome guest to the discussion.  But Dr. Hall is not a late arrival to the party.  He has written and contributed to more than a dozen books on the relationship between religion and politics.  These studies include a thorough study of Roger Sherman, who is often overlooked among the Founders and yet was a solid believer.  This book, therefore, is not an author’s exploration of new ground, but rather the scholarly contribution of one who has combed the sources repeatedly.

I will not at this time attempt a chapter by chapter survey of the book, but will instead focus just a bit on the opening chapter.  The issue is Deism.  I once heard someone say, “Whether history repeats itself is not clear, but historians repeat each other.”  Both specialized books and monographs and history textbooks assure us that by the time of the American War for Independence and the writing of the Constitution, Deism had supplanted Christianity as the prevailing religious and philosophical worldview.  And, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and a few other key figures were all basically card-carrying Deists.

This whole contention is problematic.  (I have long waited to use that stuffy word “problematic.”)  There was not a denomination or church group that adhered to the title Deist, but that is not the real issue.  The language attributed to Deism and that attributed to Christianity is identical at points.  I might say, “It is going to rain today.” One might interpret that to mean that I believe that the falling of rain is not the direct intervention and providential control of weather by God, but is the acting of laws of nature that God created, but doesn’t direct minutely.  Should I say, “God is going to send rain today”?  Nothing wrong with that.  As James 4:15 points out, we ought to couch all of our language in terms that indicate God’s present, active control.

I don’t think James is giving us a directive so that we have to be this mechanical.  But there should be an underlying presupposition, a worldview, a philosophy of life, that indicates and reinforces our conviction of God’s presence.  Yet, the Founders were not writing about an “it” or a force or laws of nature.  They used terms like Providence, Governor of the Universe, Architect of the world, and so on.  This language was no more denying orthodox Christianity than my saying “Jesus is Lord” denies the Trinity.

A few people of the time did prescribe to Deism.  These included such men as Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine.  Allen, best known now for his name being attached to furniture, played a minimal role (heroic though it was) in the war.  Paine was a brilliant, quirky wordsmith with erratic tendencies.  The “best known” Deists, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were either the two worst Deistic hypocrites of all time or were personally inconsistent in their practice.  R. J. Rushdoony demolished the myth of Franklin’s and Jefferson’s Deism for me when I read the first of This Independent Republic decades ago.

Dr. Hall begins each chapter with a list of quotations from prominent historians and sources that go against his theses.  He provides more quotes and references in the ample endnotes to the book.  Then, he begins systematically answering and refuting the claims.  There are no strawmen here.  The best and most reputable scholars only are allowed in the ring in these matches.

I highly recommend this book.  If you are a history teacher or student, get it immediately.  If you are a pastor, get it quickly.  If you are a patriot, get it soon.  If you cannot buy it right now, ask your personal Santa Claus for the book.  Don’t end 2019 without this work in your hands and on your shelf.

 

October Book Ends

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October is such a beautiful month, but it was not the most successful month of reading and reviewing books for me.  With a combination of books that I am bound to review, readings for my college class, readings for the classes I teach, and readings that are just things I want to read, the overall results fell short.  But I will post a few details of some of the books that some of you might like.

Joseph Minich first showed up on my reading radar a year or so ago.  He is part of a coterie of mostly young, all brilliant, and terribly serious theology and philosophy scholars who make up the Davenant Institute.  They pour out a book or two or three a month, either indidually or as group efforts.  I have read and reviewed several of them, and I have a stack of others that I need to work through.

For a good while, I shied away from this book Enduring Divine Absence: The Challenge of Modern Atheism.  I am more prone to run into someone who is a fan of Lyndon Johnson than I am to run into an atheist.  The intellectual arguments and the apologetics responses are of mild interest.  I slightly envy those who battled in their own hearts and minds over whether or not God exists and then found themselves “dragged kicking and screaming” (in C. S. Lewis fashion) into theism and from there to Christianity.

Even before my sister pointed to house after house and told me that God was there, I believed in God.  I was 5 or younger when that event occurred.  I reckon that I am not a very deep, critical, or philosophical thinker.  I just don’t doubt God.  So, the challenge of atheism is not a primary issue.  But then along comes Joseph Minich.  He and I had been “friends” on Facebook for a good while.  He was, to me, one of those Davenant smarties who was working on a dissertation on something, somewhere.

He never “liked” or commented on any of my Facebook posts, and I rarely acknowledged his.  Then one day, I caught him in a grammar error.  It was the old “him and I–objective pronouns” problem.  I messaged him, rebuked him thoroughly, and pronounced that there was little hope for him unless he changed.  He repented of his grammar sins, and we became, in my opinion, fast friends.  Now, I count him among my favorite chums.

But what about the book?  This book is a short read, but it is not a breezy read.  Among other favorable attributes, Minich references a number of serious Christian scholars who deal with topics relatings to atheism, belief, secularism, the buffered self, and more.  Along with that, he also references other authors and books, such as John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.  And in what is the ultimate test in our day and time, Minich quotes and references Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the books of James K. A. Smith amply.

Bottom line:  Belief is reasonable.  The challenge of modern atheism is more than matched by the response of modern belief.  The generation of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is passing away, and a new age of Christian thinkers is emerging.

Further note:  This is a book of a short enough length to get through quickly, but it does call for slowing down and re-reading.  Also, it is very affordably priced.

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The River of Immaculate Conception is published by Wiseblood Books.

As a collection of poetry,  The River of the Immaculate Conception by James Matthew Wilson, has one major flaw.  The book is really short.  The poems, however, are rich.  Reading modern poetry is a challenge because of the abandonment of the traditional forms along with the abandonment of the foundational truths that underlay poetry and poets of the past.

James Matthew Wilson goes against the tide.  These poems have historical and theological connections, and they are rooted in Wilson’s faith and vision.  “The Agnus Dei of Jacques Marquette” is a lengthy and beautiful work about the French Catholic explorer.  Usually, Marquette is paired with Louis Joliet, and together they explored and mapped much of the Mississippi River.  On the national level, the French were looking for the Northwest Passage as well as lands to claim and colonize.  In the broader providence of God, Marquette was bringing the Christian faith to the Native Americans.

Narrative and heroic poems have tended to be a thing of the past.  If an historical figure is the subject of a poem, he or she is an object of irony with subtle undertones dismissing their accomplishments.  Maybe the old type of Longfellow poetry hailing a Paul Revere does not need reviving, but then, maybe it does. I opt for the latter.

As is the case with many short collections of poems, one can read through these seven poems in one sitting and mark the book as read.  But in reality, these poems call for re-reading, ponderous reading, slow, aloud reading, and faith-filled reading.

Key quote to remember:  “Let crosses be upraised and idols downward hurled/  That all shall see his peace restored into the world.”

If you haven’t already discovered the poetry and essays of James Matthew Wilson, there is still time to be on the ground floors of his rise to literary fame.

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One of my recent night-time readings was Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It is at night, from a dangerously high stack of bedside reads, that I usually read histories and biographies.  I have acquired several of Goodwin’s biographical and historical books over the past several years.  She is a very popular and successful historian, although one who is also very conventional according to the tastes of our times.

In this book, she deals with four of our past Presidents and shows how they led the country during difficult times.  The subjects were Abraham Lincoln during the War Between the States and particularly the events related to the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt upon his sudden ascension to the Presidency and his handling of the coal strike, Franklin Roosevelt and the First Hundred Days, and Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act.

The book consisted of three parts, each of which devoted a chapter to the four Presidents.  The first part was their childhoods, which were radically different due to Lincoln’s and Johnson’s humble and poor beginnings contrasted with the two Roosevelts who were born to wealth and prominence.  The second set of chapters dealt with early setbacks for the leaders.  The most fascinating account here was that of FDR’s battle with polio which crippled him and could have ended his political career.

The last section of the book dealt with how each leader handled a major crisis or two after they became Presidents.

I am certain that many would rush in to tell me a few or a lot of things wrong with each of these men.  I think I started studying them a good while ago, so I am not unaware of their faults or bad views or bad actions.  I wanted to see how they exercised leadership.  The book was helpful here.

A personally troubling thing about this book was my realization that none of these four men lived past age 64.  As I approach that age, I am increasingly aware of how little I have accomplished.

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Carpe Diem Redeemed: Seizing the Day, Discerning the Times by Os Guinness is published by IVP.  

Carpe Diem begins with 14 pages of great quotes from all manner of past and recent thinkers from a wide variety of countries and cultures.  This is a book about time.  The concept of time itself is a philosophical and theological idea.  And then there is our use of it and our limited amount of it.

Os Guinness has written a number of books.  His best books include Dust of Death, The Call, and Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.  If I stumble across a book by him, I buy it and read it.

His writing is full of good references and stories.  In this book, a few of those stories are from his own dangerous background in China during World War II.  He is not overly theological or not exegetical at all in dealing with topics, but he is always unmistakably Christian.

This is a fine read for both devotional studies and serious thought.

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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.