Support Your Christian Authors

There is much to envy about the life of writers.  On the other hand, it is a life of long periods of working alone, and while being alone and being lonely are not exactly the same, they can overlap.  It is a life of much labor and frustration.  The love that the writer pours out onto the page goes for a long time–and maybe forever–without being requited.  For most who write, the trips to the bank are not frequent or overly exciting.  All this is assuming that the writer or would-be writer actually gets a manuscript completed, manages to get it revised, finds some way of getting it published, and then actually sees it get into the hands of willing readers.

Lots of people would like, so they say, to write a book.  Lots of people think they could write a book.  Most don’t get books written.  How many of those completed manuscripts should not have been written and should not be published is a different story.  Overall, the “successful” writers’ life is a hard life.  Only a very few writers in any field make enough money to live off of writing.  Often even the more successful writers find it necessary to devote lots of time to publicity and book signings and speaking in order to draw attention to their books.

That is the writer’s life.  I know a bit about it, having written a book or two and having written lots of articles and book reviews.  I also know something of how difficult it is to get the word out that a book has been written and is in desperate need for buyers and readers.  So, I am highlighting some books by Christian authors I know.  In most of these cases, I these are men that I only know through correspondence and social media.  However, I have discovered so many common bonds that I feel like we could have been life-long personal friends.

War in the Wasteland

The first of the books is War in the Wasteland by Douglas Bond.  Set in World War I, this novel includes some actual people, such as C. S. Lewis.  There are also fictional characters.  I found myself drawn to this book for two reasons.  First, I used Bond’s book Hostage Lands in my junior high class. Set in the days when Romans and Celts were battling over lands north and south of Hadrian’s Wall, this book is rich in history with a compelling story of faith built in.  It passed the most difficult test: The judgment of junior high students.  After we read the book, one of them asked if we could read more books.

Already being pleased with this Bond book, I wanted to read his book on World War I in conjunction with my teaching on the Great War and my readings of some six or more other books on that war.  Bond’s books are perfect for introducing young people to history and reinforcing faith issues.  I confess to being some 20 plus books behind in covering all of Douglas Bond’s many works, but this journey to completion is now underway.

 

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George Grant is no novice when it comes to writing books.  I have a whole shelf full of books he has written or compiled, and my collection is incomplete.  But he is so busy with pastoral duties and teaching that he doesn’t whip out books as frequently these days.  But it was exciting to see this book arrive in the mail.  An Experiment in Liberty: America’s Path to Independence is a great reading resource for studying American history.  I feel myself wanting to use this book next year with my junior high history class.

As expected in a George Grant book, you will discover many gems and witticisms and details about history that are usually obscured.  If someone seeks the more technical, scholarly type of work, look elsewhere.  But if you like the idea of story being an essential component of hi-story, go for this book.  Check and see if free copies are still being sent out.  All you pay is postage.  Here is the website:  https://www.georgegrant.net/?fbclid=IwAR1RCYGADQNyyDrwByQ1Se-tjlTrsrrbaRVXO3YipLSwo-Oinutq1hbQeiw

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I have not known Paul Rydecki for long.  I learned about him through a mutual friend, Ryan Brown.  Ryan teaches Latin at Veritas Academy, and he crossed paths with Paul on a trip to Italy.  (There is a Biblical precedent for meeting someone named Paul in route to Rome.)  A month or so ago, Ryan mentioned that his friend from the Italy trip had just published a new edition of one of Luther’s works.

Titled Luther’s Small Catechism: An Introduction to the Catholic Faith, this beautifully done hardback volume is a great edition to any library.  Granted, I am a Westminster Shorter Catechism man, but I love the Heidelberg Catechism, the New City Catechism, and Luther’s Small Catechism.  This is a handy, compact of Christian truths. Besides the catechism, the book has a really useful list of Bible memory passages. And for those of us still getting our minds wrapped around the best of Christian traditions, it has a lectionary for Bible readings throughout the year.

Along with Christian education, a good church, and a solid family, getting grounded in the historic, Biblical, and Reformation-based creeds, confessions,  and catechisms are the most important components for Christian living and discipleship.  So, I urge everyone at whatever age or stage of life to begin reading and learning creeds, confessions, and catechisms.  Go to the historic documents of your own church tradition, but then branch out and little and glean from the breadth of God’s field.

Luther’s Small Catechism is a fine source for those of us who need to do more than just admiring Luther.

Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, wife of Charles H. Spurgeon

A book on that is on my “Read Next” stack is Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon–Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon by Ray Rhodes, Jr.  There are quite a few things that commend this book.  First of all, it is related to the life of Charles H. Spurgeon.  If I had my life to live over, I would have invested time and money in obtaining the sermons and writings of Spurgeon much earlier and with much more diligence.  I am where a person ought to be at age 20 in terms of reading and cherishing Spurgeon.  I will not refrain from encouraging others to read the man himself.  Read Lectures to My Students, An All Round Ministry, John Ploughman’s Talks (now reprinted as Spurgeon’s Practical Wisdom), Treasury of David, and the many, many collections of his sermons, but especially the series published by Pilgrim Publications.  And read biographies of the man.

That being said, if this woman merely knew Spurgeon, her story would be of interest.  But she was the woman behind the great, but often suffering pastor, preacher, writer, and organizer of many ministries.  Add to that, I have heard so many recommendations of this book.  I will be writing a review just as soon as I finish reading this work.  But don’t wait for me!  Get the book.

The Oklahomans

I reviewed Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer just a few weeks ago.  I am still reeling and swooning over that book.  I can hardly wait until the sequel comes out in May.  This novel is set in Oklahoma in the years of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.  War is looming in the near future, in spite of promises to the contrary by President Roosevelt and actions to keep us out of it by Charles Lindberg (both of whom appear in the story).  It was an age where flying was still coming into its own and was filled with thrilling adventure to those willing to learn the skill.  Lance Roark, the hero of the story, is the guy I would want to be.  Don’t parade any super-heroes before me, for they fall short of Lance.

This book has so affected me that I may just haul off and buy John’s books on Oklahoma history, even though it is illegal to own books about Oklahoma in my state of Arkansas.  (In my home state of Texas, people would wonder why anyone would bother to read about any other of the lesser states.)

A last add-on to the list:

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The Resistance by Douglas Bond is his newest work, and my copy just arrived this week. This is a companion volume to War in the Wasteland, and it promises to be another great story set within a historical context.  In this book, the setting is World War II.  Expect more later.  But note this:  Both The Resistance and War in the Wasteland can be purchased together for a mere $25.  If you are homeschooling, use education as the excuse for buying these books.  If you are a Christian, use that as an excuse.  Find some reason and buy these books.

Coming soon:  New books by P. Andrew Sandlin, a reprinted book by David Chilton, more on Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, new and older works on philosophy from a Christian perspective, more books on World War II, and books by historians that I have become acquaintances/friends with.

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How the Dutch Saved Civilization

 

This year I have been teaching a history course on the twentieth century. With a number of historical periods that I have studied, read about, and taught on, the twentieth century is possibly my most frequently studied period.  My class and I spent an inordinately long time studying the Great War (World War I) which, like all historical turning points, extends both back in time and forward in its causes and effects.  We are currently wrapping up a study of the Russian Revolutions.  Next I will be devoting attention to the period between the World Wars, leading up to a month or more of looking at World War II.

The chessboard of twentieth century history includes many key players.  The United States, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, and France are vital to the whole period.  But one cannot overlook Italy, Japan, China, and then some major minor players like Belgium and Serbia in World War I and Poland and Spain (particularly the Spanish Civil War) in World War II.  The post-war period brings in a whole new cast including Greece, Israel, Korea, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and other countries.

One could make analogies to various chess pieces and the leading countries.  Then there are the pawns whose movements may or may not be significant to the causes of events.  Any chess player (and I am not one) can affirm that pawns can make or break a game of chess.  They can be minor pieces, but their impact can direct the course of events.

This brings me to the topic of the Netherlands and the Dutch people in the twentieth century.  I am not when or if the fine textbook I am using refers to events in the Netherlands after the age of Napoleon.  The Netherlands was neutral during World War I (wise move on their part) and were a quick knock-out in World War II.  The Dutch underground in the Second War gets some attention.  The failed Allied offensive (recounted in the book and move A Bridge Too Far) took place in the Netherlands, but that story is one of the British, American, and German armies.

After World War II, the Netherlands was a NATO member, but has remained on the periphery of historical movements.  One recurring story is of decadence and immortality in that country which seems to be ahead of the rest of the West in moral degeneracy.

The history books and the news accounts often miss or don’t know the whole story or even the greater story.  The late 19th and 20th century history of the Netherlands is rich in certain respects.  Unlike my hopeful title, the Dutch have not saved civilization, but they have pointed to and promoted what would be civilization saving in many respects.

There are a number of Dutch Christians who lived in the middle to late 1800’s and up through the mid-1900’s who have grasped issues even more important than the immediate challenges of ending World War I, defeating Naziism in World War II, or holding on to the Free World against the Communist Bloc in the Cold War.

The names are familiar to those who have waded into the deep currents of Reformed theology and philosophical thought.  Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Herman Dooyeweerd, Geerhardus Vos, Klaas Schilder, Hendrik van Riessen, H. R. Rookmaaker, and Cornelius Van Til are among the key leaders in the intellectual revolution of the past 100 plus years.

I could devote quite a few paragraphs and pages to talking about the various men named above.  I actually have talked and written about most of them.  In fact, I have literally talked from coast to coast about them.  (I spoke at two conferences years ago–one in Virginia and one in Alaska.)  For now, I will focus on two of the many books that are now available highlighting key ideas from the Dutch Calvinist Worldview Thinkers, as I like to call them.

Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper is a Christian classic.  It has been reprinted and edited many times since it first emerged from the Stone Lectures that Abraham Kuyper gave at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898.  One such reprinting and repackaging changed the name to something other than either Lectures on Calvinism or The Stone Lectures.  The goal of all such publications is to get the message of these lectures out.

This book calls for a big dose of humility from all Christians.  Reformed Christians need to realize how limited our vision is when we think of Calvinism as a system of 5 Points or we think that our efforts to promote Christianity are full-orbed.  Non-Calvinists need to realize how, despite whatever struggles they may be having in regard to soteriological (salvation related) issues, the claims of God are over all areas of life.

Many books, movements, schools, colleges, ideas, study centers, and terms have grown out of this book.  Many Christians speak today of having a Christian worldview without knowing that this idea springs from Kuyper.  Kuyper, however, spoke of a World and Life System rather than using the more compact term Worldview.  Every concern that comes up about the Christian role or lack thereof in politics needs to be referenced back to Kuyper’s chapter on politics.

He also spoke about science, art, and the future, which can be studied for how Kuyper may or may not have foreseen events.

American Vision has reprinted and edited the edition of the book pictured above.  Some of Kuyper’s sentences were a bit long and heavy and many of his references are obscure to most of us.  This book has modified some of the language and punctuation without rewriting or condensing the content.  Also, footnotes explain many of the terms or references that Kuyper and his audience would have been familiar with.

I would include this book for essential reading not just in my top 100 or 50 or 25 reads, but in my top 10 reads.  Furthermore, it is not a read-once-and-shelve book.  This is a book to reread often.  Get it and read it.

One of Abraham Kuyper’s mentors and contemporaries was Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer.  Usually and conveniently, he is referred to as Groen, pronounced to rhyme with prune and equivalent to our word green.  Groen was a brilliant Christian historian and political leader in the Netherlands.  At some point in his career, he gave a series of lectures at his house on the key determining issue of his age.  That issue was the French Revolution.  It was not the details of the storming of the Bastille or execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette that concerned Groen.

Behind the Revolution and preceding from it was a worldview or philosophy.  As has been often, but not often enough, pointed out, the so-called American Revolution and the French Revolution were not twin events.  Their differences are comparable to the knife use of a surgeon and that of a street criminal.  Lest someone think this is a odd-Christian weirdo interpretation, just look at such books as James Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men.  

Before Billington and before all the forces for secularism, humanism, and whatever other objectionable isms of the twentieth century, Groen was discussing the essential beliefs and unbeliefs that propelled Europe into the modern age with revolutions continuing for over a century.

For years this book has been hard to find.  It was translated into English and published by a small Canadian publisher back in the 1980s and 90s.  I doubt that it is on the reading lists of any or certainly not many college courses on the French Revolution, modern thought, revolution in general, or political philosophy.  Groen would not have been shocked or surprised by that omission.

Unbelief and Revolution has been reprinted by Lexham Press.  Along with a number of great books, including Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics and many volumes by Abraham Kuyper, Lexham Press is turning into a modern center of Reformed Christian thought and theology.  Harry Van Dyke, a great scholar and acquaintance of mine, translated this book.  Jake Mailhot, who is what I want to be like when I grow up, is a key figure in the distribution of Lexham Press publications.

Get this book.

Read the Dutch Christian authors.  Start with Kuyper and Groen.

Shortgrass: A Novel of World War II by John J. Dwyer

I have a confession to make, and it will be of no great surprise to those who know me well.  I don’t prefer fantasy, science fiction, or what I might call Christian fantasy.  I have read and felt the power of The Chronicles of Narnia (although my reading was late in life) and I read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit, but not The Silmarillion yet).  Does Fahrenheit 451 count as science fiction?  I love that book, of course.

But as a whole, in general, and overall, give me a novel with a realistic twist and a setting in the south or the west, preferably in an earlier era.  For that reason, I love Wendell Berry’s books.  And although William Faulkner’s southerners are often (nearly always) a bit on the eccentric, weird, and warped side, I love Yoknapatawpha County.  The books of Jesse Stuart are among my favorites, and Hie to the Hunters is the most popular book I teach.  The books of Ron Rash, some of Bret Lott’s novels, the Joe Pickett novels of C. J. Box, and the non-fiction, but deeply southern books of Rick Bragg are among my favorites.

So, it should be no surprise that I read and liked Shortgrass by John J. Dwyer.  But I was surprised.  You see, it is a bit awkward when one reads a novel by someone you know.  John Dwyer is in the category of a good friend I have never met.  We live in neighboring states:  He is in Oklahoma and I am in Arkansas. I have personally inscribed and autographed copies of his biographical novels about Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson.  I have his study of America history, titled The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil Civil War.  I read his posts on Facebook with joy and laugh at his grandson’s cute antics.  But his and my paths have not crossed.  We would be instant friends because of so many shared interests, although I would be a bit daunted by all he has done and is doing.

Here is the difficulty:  What do you do when a friend or acquaintance writes a book and it is only “so so” or even worse, what if it is awful?  Usually, I can find some good points in most books.  I have read a few where I found myself hoping the authors would kill off the main characters and end the book more quickly.

The good news is that I not only found this book pleasing to my desire to read about people in a past-tense southern setting and I found it quite enjoyable.  In fact, I am now chomping at the bit for the sequel which isn’t due out yet for a few months.  So, let me talk about this book a bit without any spoilers.

Shortgrass: A Novel of World War II by John J. Dwyer is published by Tiree Oghma Creative Media.  You can read and learn about the book from John’s website found HERE.

Oklahomans - Stry of Oklahoma and Its People

The story is set in Oklahoma (which is no surprise since John has written some histories of that state) during the 1930’s and 40’s.  The book is set in a historical context with lots of references to political events of the time, primarily the Great Depression, the New Deal,  and the looming prospects of war coming to America.  The main character is a young man named Lance Roark.  Lance is the All-American boy in many respects.  He loves his family, excels at football, loves his horse Jeb deeply, and faces all sorts of challenges and threats to his future.

While Lance is a great guy, he is not perfect or flawless.  He struggles to know what to do, which direction to turn at times, and how to curb his appetites and desires.  And Lance is a Mennonite.  He is not nominal believer, but rather is deeply committed to following Christ.  On the front line–to use an awkward analogy–the issue of interaction with the world is critical for a Mennonite believer.  Going to war is verboten (German for forbidden).  But what about other interactions in this world, or in Lance’s world, like football and college and girls of other faith persuasions?

I have to admit that the opening chapter created great doubts about the book in my mind.  It begins with the story of Lance’s senior year and a football game that turns into a brawl between neighboring towns.  If you don’t understand the intensity of small town sports rivalries, you won’t get this chapter.  Football has never been my sport.  God made me far too small, too slow, too uncoordinated, too unaggressive, too clumsy, and totally unfit for anything resembling sports competition, especially football.  But I was enduring the chapter until the end when something happened at the end that hooked me into the book.

So much for plot details.  Here I shall say a word or two about the importance of the book.

First, it accomplishes what a piece of fictional writing is supposed to do.  It provides enjoyment.  Great stories are enjoyable in many different ways and at different levels, but beyond all great themes, worldviews, philosophical underpinings, and the like, a story is to be enjoyed.  Mark Shortgrass a success here.

Second, this book deals with the struggles of a believer who is facing challenges to what he believes.  Lance has two loves pulling for his attention:  He wants to work at a mission among the Comanche people and he wants to fly airplanes.  Add to this all of the other things tugging at his heart and life:  Family, friends, football, girls, college, career, and the war.  Lance’s people had known religious persecution.  During World War I, the Mennonites in his community and background had been harassed and persecuted for their pacifism.  Their Germanic heritage caused people to accuse them of being in sympathy to Germany in World War I and their refusal to fight resulted in their being called cowards, traitors, and worse.

This is no book about shallow faith or easy believe-ism.  And it is not a sappy religious story of a good boy who finds the doors open to him as he obeys God all along the way.  An curmudgeonly Presbyterian Calvinist like myself found much in this book that resonated with my own life.

Third, this novel is set in the midst of a historical time-period with interactions and appearances of actual historical figures.  This gives the book a real feel.  If it did not actually happen, we know it could have.

Don’t want to overkill the book with praise here, so let’s give this review a rest.  Unfortunately, it will have to be a long rest since Mustang, the sequel, will not be out for a few more months.

John J. Dwyer, novelist, historian, Christian, and real Oklahoma cowboy.

Hitting the Heart and the Mind–Morning Reads

 

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Maybe I do believe in what is called “Second Blessing.”  And I certainly do believe it is the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work.  And it was not something that happened when I was a new Christian.  The Second Blessing that I refer to is learning to love mornings.  I wish that I could boast of being up by 4 or 5 a. m., but for that to happen, there will have to be a third blessing.  However, I do love mornings, and I love them for the fact that this is the time when I enjoy the BBC, not meaning the British Broadcasting Company, but rather Bible, books, and coffee.

Here are some of the recent reads that have been very strongly caffeinated remedies for both the heart and the mind.

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Mark Jones is a bright, young pastor, theologian, and writer who lives in Canada.  His mind, heart, and writing style almost appear to be cloned from the inimitable J. I. Packer.  In his book, he does several things.  First, he takes the reader through some deep systematic theology. In fact, the central focus of the Christian life is knowing who God is.  But this is not the deep end of the Olympic-size theological pool where Jones simply pushes you in and says, “Swim.”  He is clear, brief, direct, and very understandable.

Second, he has this book divided into 26 chapters with some introductory pages and an epilogue.  That makes this book a great resource for reading over the course of a month. Families could read it for the family devotion or Sunday school classes could use it as well.  (Preachers:  Don’t feel ashamed if you want to use the book for a sermon series.)  The chapters are short.  In fact, I had planned on finishing the book on January 27, but found myself reading more than one chapter on quite a few mornings.

Third, Jones brings you into his circle of mentors, teachers, and guides.  Like Packer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Jerry Bridges, Mark Jones is on a first-name friendship basis with many of the Puritans, Reformers, and Church Fathers.  One could simply go through this book and read the quotes–all warmly evangelical and nourishing–and delight in it.  The notes at the back of the book were announcements to me of books I should be reading and acquiring.

Fourth, in each chapter Pastor Jones first discusses and explains the doctrine–God’s Omnipresence, for example.  Then he turns the focus to Christ.  God’s attributes are found in the Lord Jesus Christ.  His Incarnation did not mean that He was not God the Son for a season. But we often don’t realize how Jesus has the same attributes we attribute in a fashion to the Triune God.  The final part of each chapter is application.  God’s attributes are not speculative, philosophical, or theoretical characteristics of a Supreme Being.  Our Covenant God reveals Himself and teaches us through that most vital aspect to all life and learning–Knowing God.

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Along with this book, Jones’ book Knowing Christ, which I read last summer, is also a fine work.  It should be read after reading Packer’s classic work Knowing God.  In fact, Dr. Packer wrote the foreword to Knowing Christ.  Once again, this book will take the reader deep into the Bible and theology with abundant quotes from the Puritans, their forebears, and heirs.

Some may be familiar with Jones from the massive book that he and Joel Beeke compiled titled A Puritan Theology:  Doctrine for Life.  This is a weighty book in every sense of the word, but one that can be digested in small sections.  Maybe this summer, I can return to digging from this gold mine.

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This past summer, Mark Jones gave some talks in Brazil where there is a growing love of Reformed theology and Puritan writings.  At least some of his books have been translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil.  He is also in demand as a speaker across North America.  With his youthful mind and love for God’s Word and God’s servants of old, I am hoping to see quite a few more books from him as the years go by.

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Mark Jones and son with Joel R. Beeke. Together, these two men compiled a great devotional and theological study of the Puritans titled A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.

 

I mentioned Joel R. Beeke a few paragraphs ago.  Whereas I fight back being jealous of Mark Jones’ youth and brilliance, I have to combat a different type of jealousy regarding Joel R. Beeke, who is close to my age.  Pastor Beeke produces books faster than most people read them.  He writes, edits, compiles, or reprints and promotes more books than I can keep up with.  He may be the leading expert on the Puritans in our time.

I recently read and greatly enjoyed his latest book Reformed Preaching.

See the source imageTake this warning:  No man dare enter the pulpit without reading deeply, prayerfully, slowly, repeatedly, and thankfully from this book.  It is a wealth of practical instruction and guidance for the pastor and speaker.  Also, it is a history of preaching.  In fact, much of the book is a history of the preaching styles and focus of great preachers.  The history begins with the Reformers, and that does not mean just Calvin and Luther.  No surprise also that Beeke, as a proponent of the Puritans and their theology, includes lots of biographical and exhortative information about those hardy Englishmen.

There are also chapters devoted to Dutch preachers.  I can never really decide who were the greatest:  The Puritans, the Scots, or the Dutch.  I don’t have to pick a favorite, and they are all described here.  Some of the more recent preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones are included as well.  Even though the history section of this book is lengthy, I would have enjoyed yet another one or two hundred pages of such material.

Pastors need to be well versed in history and theology, they need to also be grounded in other areas that Beeke addresses.  These included being balanced (Woe are us Calvinists all too often!), being effective (not the same as being successful, but also not the same as being theologically sound), and being holy (and that is not just a scandal in the Roman Catholic Church).

The opening chapter of this book is titled “Reformed Experiential Preaching.”  When I first started this book (in either November or December last year), I read that chapter in one sitting.  The next reading time, I could not bring myself to move on in the book, but chose to read that section again.  I am still planning on reading the last chapter, “Preaching for Holiness,” again.

I have been blessed by being able to put this book in the hands of other preachers.  I wish I could give out a hundred copies of it.  My preaching career is over, so it seems, but still I found the book helpful and soul-nourishing.  The man or woman in the pews can read this as profitably as the preacher.

Reformed Preaching and God Is are both published by Crossway Books.  Knowing Christ is published by Banner of Truth.  A Puritan Theology is published by Reformation Heritage Books.

 

 

 

Shoot the Messenger–Unfinished Readings and Reviewing

 

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I read and review books.  It is my part-time job, but it pays no cash dividends.  I do get books out of the deal and pretend I am really working when I am reading and writing reviews.  At the end of the year, I find Scrooge’s words quite descriptive, “A year older and not a penny richer.”

But here is the bad news:  I don’t get everything read and reviewed as I ought to do.  I don’t mean the general sense that bookish people have of “too many books and not enough time.”  I mean that I don’t get assignments completed that I was bound to finish.  I receive some good books throughout the year that don’t finish.  I usually start them, often like them, and always intend to keep reading.  Sad to admit, they get lost in the stacks, the endless stacks, the growing stacks, the threatening stacks.

Let me highlight a few.  No ma’am, I didn’t complete the assignment.  But also I did not copy off of anyone else’s homework (review) and what I read was good.

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I have enjoyed reading Jonah Goldberg for several years.  He is sharp, witty, incisive, and independent.  He gives me hope that Conservatism will survive even the Trump years.  I got this book with great joy last spring and started it.  Then my son NIck grabbed it up and read it–fast and furiously.  “Write me a review,” I pleaded, but to no avail.  The first 50 pages of this book are great, and I do intend to get back to it.  Read the comments of David Bahnsen and others.

Goldberg writes from a purely secular worldview.  That was saddening, but was not the cause of my stalled out reading.  This is not the first book to use that title or to warn of the impending doom for our world and culture.  If we keep surviving the predictions of such books, it is because of God’s grace and longsuffering and because some people heed the warnings of books like this.

Get this book and read it.  If for no other reason, do it to shame me.

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While many theologically driven readers devour the works of Bishop N. T. Wright, I don’t share their enthusiasm.  Yet, I do read and enjoy his books.  Some are mind and soul shattering, while others are unconvincing.  But he always encourages a serious and careful look at Biblical teachings.  Paul and his writings are Wright’s specialty.  This book came with lots of promise.

But I didn’t finish it.  Again, shoot the messenger, not the message.  By that I mean, blame me, not N. T.!  This book failed because it didn’t fit the right niche in my reading schedule.  I usually read theological and Biblical works in the mornings, which is when I was reading on this book.  Yet, this work is a biography, and I read biographies and histories at night.  Wright at night!–to make another rhyme on his name.

Of course, the factual details of the life of Paul are scant, so much of this book is based on historical details with some speculation.  But it reads well.  It is still there waiting for me to read, but to read at night on this next go around.

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Failure on my part, plain and simple.  Years ago, I was reading R. J. Rushdoony, and he spoke of how Witherspoon was neglected by historians and Christians alike.  Some time later, a short biography came out on him, and I bought it and devoured it.  Many years later, Jeffry H. Morrison’s John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic appeared.  I read and reviewed it, and mention it in my own book.  It is an outstanding study.

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Then Sprinkle Publications published The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon.  In time, I purchased the entire 9 volumes of Witherspoon’s writings.

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Why did I drop the ball on the new and detailed study of Witherspoon?  I used the excuse that I was already past him on my Humanities class on American history.  Everyone has some excuse, but who believes us when we give these whining and pitiful answers?

I am stopping here for the time because there are still too many others that I have neglected.  Is there any hope?

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Never in Finer Company by Edward G. Lengel

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Never in Finer Company: The Me of the Great War’s Lost Battalion by Edward G. Lengel is published by Da Capo Press.  See HERE for details.

Here is my experience in reading this book:  I have been teaching on World War I for the past month or so in my Humanities class on the Modern Age.  We have been reading from Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August.  Then the class read Erich Marie Remarque’s great novel All Quiet on the Western Front.  I have been lecturing, passing out maps, and showing a few documentaries as well.  To further my own reading, I read Douglas Bond’s novel War in the Wasteland, which I also reviewed on a previous blog.  Also, I read Michael Howard’s book  The First World War: A Very Short Introduction.  More books were and are being stacked on the desk.

In the midst of it, I had dug into Never In Finer Company, trudged along for 140 pages and realized that it wasn’t just a battalion that was lost in the Great War.  I was lost in the book.  I wondered if the book itself was the problem.  But, I started over.

Nope, the book wasn’t the problem.  It was the reader.  I quickly retraced the ground that had been lost while I retreated from page 140 back to the beginning.  The story began coming together much better.  (Too many irons in the fire, or books on the stack, had derailed my earlier effort.)  This book was being read during one of my favorite reading times in the day:  When I go to bed.  Reading doesn’t put me to sleep; instead, it brings a great closure to the day.

Often, I have a biography or book on history to read during this late night jaunt, and I have a page-turner novel.  I read the non-fiction and enjoy it, but get a little more delight out of the plot twists of the novel.  But this book began outshining the fiction reads.  As the Lost Battalion was holding its own against the Germans, while facing hunger, thirst, and imminent death, I was entranced with finding out what was going to happen to them.

If this had been a fictional account of soldiers in wartime, it would have make a first class story and could be an incredible movie.  But it is even better.  It really happened.

World War I is so overshadowed by the Second War.  The machines and weapons of WWI seem so awkward, the films portray men walking like Charlie Chaplin, and the sheer static nature of so much of that war leads to a sense of despair.  In World War II, soldiers where capturing something.  In World War I, they were wasting away in the trenches, or so it seems.

Americans began training for the war some time before we actually entered.  The nation entered the war with little actual understanding of the costs, the tactics, the enemy, and the course of the war.  The United States was woefully short of weapons.  As has often been the case, we did have the old “can-do” spirit and the assurance that the Europeans just didn’t know how to wrap this thing up.

When the American army was finally able to be its own military unit under General John Pershing, the prevailing strategic idea was “advance.”  I suspect that had we entered the war one to two years earlier, we would have had our own “Battle of the Somme” or Verdun (referring to British and French battles with incredibly high casualty rates).  When we did take to the field, the German army was largely already beaten or worn down, but it was more like a trapped and wounded grizzly bear than like a dead chicken.

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Advance was ordered by the Americans, and advance they did.  The “Lost Battalion” consisted of about 600 men who were part of the 77th or Metropolitan Division.  The battle was known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  It was a great victory–in the long run–for the Americans, but it was no cake-walk.  The Lost Battalion was surrounded by the Germans and completely cut off from supplies, reinforcements, a line of retreat (which was unthinkable anyway), and even communication.

The heroes included a couple of officers named Charles Whittlesey and George McMurtry.  Neither man was a soldier by profession. Both were conscientious, self-less, and unhumanly brave.  Of course, the soldiers on the ground were heroes as well.  Many were threatened with death–either directly or by infection–from lightly or untreated wounds.  All were hungry, thirsty, and without any comforts.

In the best of military traditions, city boy and country boy, Christian, Jew, and non-believer, educated and uneducated men melded together and fought for all they were worth.  I must confess to being thrilled when Lengel described one of the later attacks by the Germans.  The Americans, in danger now of running out of ammunition, were hurling curses across the field to their enemies.  They didn’t yield an inch.

Rescue finally came to what was becoming a center of media attention–the Lost Battalion.  Several soldiers were sent through the lines to contact the main American forces and guide them to the soldiers under siege.  One hero of the story was a pigeon, named Cher Ami, who was badly injured in her flight carrying a message from the battle back to headquarters.

As if this story itself were not enough, there is another part of the larger story that Lengel includes.  I supposed I have watched and used the movie Sgt. York three dozen times in my years of teaching history.  Alvin York was not a part of the Lost Battalion, but his heroic exploits, which won him fame and resulted in the movie version of his story, took place as the rescue was being effected.  York’s story is told here as well.

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I am all for honoring heroes and this book is full of them.  But life and history is never quite that simple.  There were commanders who were out of touch with what was happening.  There were cases where responsibility was shifted by those seeking to escape blame.  When the battalion was rescued, there were some who were ready to capitalize on the successes.

Post-World War I resulted in plenty of cases of men suffering from the effects of the war.  Again, this is often forgotten.  The Great Depression and World War II trumps the first war and the post-war period.  Yes, lots of men, like Alvin York, returned home, married their sweethearts, had a family, and worked.  But even his life was more complicated than that.  Some like Charles Whittlesay never recovered from the war, the memories of the death and cries of pain, and the feeling of guilt as a commander.

These men were a fine company, and this book, despite my initial bad start, is a really engaging account.

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Boethius’ Consolation and Gibb’s How to be Unlucky

How to be Unlucky is by Joshua Gibbs and is published by The Circe Institute.  List price is $15.99, but Circe Institute has it discounted to $10.99.

Part of the story of this book begins with the unexpected and still largely unnoticed revival, renaissance, and reformation of classical Christian education.  As a renewed movement, it has been going on for some 25 years and is still in its infancy.  Many teachers, parents, pastors, and scholars have gotten into the movement and have had to play catch-up for a decade or two.  It is not a monolithic movement, nor is it confined to one branch or denomination of Christianity.

At this juncture in history, there are adults whose education was in classical Christian schools.  Overall, the results are astounding and impressive, but not everyone with a diploma from a CCE school is a walking compendium of Latin, logic, and rhetoric.  Even with the best of training, donkeys don’t win the Kentucky Derby.  Even if I had had the same instructors as Michael Phelps, I still would probably not be much past my faltering efforts at dog paddling.  Gifts and abilities differ.  So do schools.  So do teachers. And certainly, so do students.

From my impression from the book, Joshua Gibbs would not have been nominated for “Most Likely to Succeed” by his teachers.  I suspect he was subjected to that age-old saw of teachers, “He is smart enough, but he just doesn’t apply himself.”  (Or as we say where I live, “He just doesn’t apply hisself.”)  That’s okay because the B and C students are and should be the prime focus of teachers.  Let’s face it:  “A” students learn and excel under even the worst instruction, teaching, and curriculum.  It takes some real teaching to reach other students, but then again, sometimes we don’t. Then life and career and other matters step in and the gist of the lessons from school finally take root.

Joshua Gibbs describes himself as a less than stellar student who then became a teacher.  But it was in his fifth year of teaching that he had a “conversion experience.”  I don’t mean that he became a Christian at that point, but rather that he became a real student and thus started becoming a real teacher.  He was instructing a Medieval class on The Consolation of Philosophy  by Boethius.  I know something of what happened to him.

There is, first of all, the experience of reading a book, particularly a classic.  Quite frankly, sometimes classics leave us feeling good for having read them, but somewhat lost as to what the what big deal was.  “It’s a great classic because other people have said so,” is my occasional reaction, without my actually using those words in a classroom.

Then there is the experience of teaching a book, particularly a classic.  Here the teacher gets better at the nuts and bolts of the book.  You learn, instruct about, and test over characters, plot, setting, background, the author, and other aspects of the book.  There is a gnawing sense of guilt in all of this.  I approve of making students learn the basic story line and the names of key figures in the work. I am all for memorization of facts and mastery of details.  And the driven students make “A”s on those tests, proving we are good teachers.  But is the heart of Hamlet the list of characters or the rise and fall plot found in a tragedy, or recognition of key quotes?

At some point, hopefully, the teacher falls in love with the book.  At some point, he or she gets captured by the text, gets carried away, experiences some sort of ecstasy, enters Narnia, gets lost in the cosmos, undergoes a transformation, or whatever phrase might describe it.  It will more likely happen to the students if the teacher has had such an experience, but that is not an absolute.

This is the point where the teacher or reader has not just read, taught, studied, or written about the book, but has actually bought, embraced, identified with the book.  It will not be the same for every work, for I don’t think someone could sustain the emotional intensity.

But this is what happened to Joshua Gibbs during year five of teaching and when he finally entered in to the world of Boethius the author, Boethius the character, Lady Philosophy, and God who rules over all.

Personal testimony time:  Never read Boethius in high school, college, graduate school, on my own, or in my first 20 plus years of teaching.  Had barely heard of it.  Then one year when I was teaching Medieval Humanities, I invited my well-read friend Matt Smallwood to come talk about the book to my class.  Matt forgot his notes and he rambled.  I followed his talks, but was also using the free time to focus on something else.  The class was not assigned the book, but my son Nick may have read it.  I made some notes and promised myself that I would read the book, but didn’t.

Four years later when Medieval Humanities cycled around again, we read the book together in class.  I enjoyed it and think the class did as well.  Then after another four year cycle, the next group read through it.  For some reason, the class just didn’t seem to connect to the book.  Blame the teacher, if needed.  But I never reached a personal point where Consolation became one of my books.  It was never like Faulkner, Homer, Dostoevsky, or others among my favorites.

Back to Gibbs:  He writes, “By the time I finished Consolation for the first time, I understood that every great work of literature could be used as instruction in virtue.”  This doesn’t mean tacking on morals or lessons to the stories, but rather fleshing out the issues, examining the heart challenges, and exploring the human condition in the books we read.

How to be Unlucky is not a commentary to be used for lecture bullet points on Boethius.  It does explain a lot about the book, the author’s plight (in prison awaiting execution), and the issues he was grappling with.  But it is an examination of how Gibbs used passages to think through his own life, to apply the issues to his students’ experiences, and how to see God and virtue in the midst of life in a fallen world.

I hope that when I teach Consolation of Philosophy again, I have the good sense to read this book alongside Boethius.  But How to be Unlucky can be read as a stand-alone book with or without reading Boethius simultaneously.  It is a delightful look at two lives–that of Boethius from the late Roman period and that of Joshua Gibbs in our own time.