The Mayflower by Rebecca Fraser

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On this Thanksgiving Season in 2017, it is easy to think back to the American Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, The Mayflower, and the first Thanksgiving (which really wasn’t the first–Thanksgiving started in the southern colonies).  The pleasant features of the story are ingrained into our culture.  Even those times when some tried to divert the message into being a feast where the Pilgrims were giving thanks to the Indians for their help, the religious nature of the Pilgrims has not been erased from our heritage.

Each time I teach American history, I run the risk of foundering my course by getting too lost in the colonial period.  1607-1775 is a long time.  Many foundational actions took place in the many (not just 13) colonies in the New World.  Besides, I am a Calvinist, so there is lots of rich material regarding the theological roots of American history.  Seventy-five percent or more of colonial Americans held to Reformed theology in some form or another.  The Great Awakening, with its two key leaders Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, is a vital chapter in America’s history which directly impacted much that followed.  I never get to adequately cover the French and Indian War, in spite of my interest in it.

Of course, the landing on the harsh, rocky banks of what was called Plymouth gets notice.  The Pilgrims, who are better termed Separatists, play a major role in many aspects of American history.  There is the voyage itself, an incredibly risky venture based on certain convictions about church life.  Then there is the Mayflower Compact, a precursor of the written constitutions that would form the governments of both colonies and states and then of the United States.  Literature was birthed in part at Plymouth with William Bradford’s classic Of Plymouth Plantation.  European and Indian relations would be seen in its best light with the aid given by Samoset and Squanto to the settlers. Economics was provided with the greatest example of the failure of socialism when the settlers attempted to share all things in common.  The 1621 thanksgiving celebration, of course, then is re-enacted by school children even to this day.

But the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation or Colony gets a short column or a few paragraphs in our history books.  (Of necessity, no history survey can do justice to specific events.)  Plmouth’s few hundreds were soon overshadowed by the thousands of Puritans who settled the Boston area and other parts of what became the larger, dominant Massachusetts Bay colony.  Massachusett settlers and Plymouth settlers would share and cooperate with each other for a time, but Plymouth soon became just a part of the larger, wealthier, more advanced Protestant community of Massachusetts.

A new book, perfect for today, great for anytime, is titled Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America is by Rebecca Fraser.  This new book is published by St. Martin’s Press and is available from all major book stores.  Rebecca Fraser is well equipped as a historian and writer.  She is the daughter of Antonia Fraser who has written quite a few works on English history.  Rebecca  has previously written The Brontes (about the sisters who were writers) and the very readable Story of Britain.

The story of the hardy band of Pilgrims is a tale worth telling and hearing again and again.  Call it audacity, pluck, courage, or even near insanity, the forces that worked in them to commit them to stepping on a west bound ship across the Atlantic were extraordinary.  Sure, they survived, but as evidenced by previous ventures into the New World, such as Roanoke and Jamestown, this was a high risk venture.  The mortality rates for those who came to Plymouth were exceedingly high.  Fraser notes a few souls who went back to England, but the amazing story is of those who literally carved out a home in the wilderness.

Of course, it helped that portions of land had already been carved, or more actually cleared, by the Indian tribes.  The interactions between the Europeans and the various Indian tribes plays a large part in the developing story.  From some of the early and successful interactions, relationships were often cordial and cooperative.  Indian chiefs were quite shrewd in their dealings with these new inhabitants.  Trade and diplomacy were both conducted to gain maximum benefits by both parties.  Items such as beaver skins provided a means for the colony to thrive economically.  Hachets, guns, and cloth from the Europeans were beneficial to the Indians.

Sadly, the whole story is not one of two mutually prospering groups.  The increasing numbers of Europeans and superior fire-power enabled them to dominate the story.  There were two major wars in the region.  The first was the Pequot War and the second was King Phillip’s War.  While the numbers of those killed are small compared to later wars on this continent, on a per capita basis, there were real killing fields.  King Phillip’s War was perhaps the best opportunity the Indian tribes ever had to drive out the English.  Of course, it failed, and with it, the power base of the Indian community was forever diminished.

Religion is a major focus of the book.  After all, this is about the Pilgrim Fathers.  Add to that, it was the century of religious wars and conflicts that consumed England and much of continental Europe during the 1600s.  Furthermore, as the story of Plymouth develops, the Puritans will come to dominate the region.  The American colonies were a testing ground, a melting pot, a safe zone for many religious ideas and practices that were challenging Europe and England in particular.

Puritan New England (which we might better call Reformed New England since not all were Puritans) is often criticized, misunderstood, and caricatured.  Until Perry Miller decided to study those dreadful Puritans, they were more an object of curiosity or distaste than a subject of study. Miller’s academic pursuit later merged with a theological reawakening of interest in Puritanism and Puritan theology.  As with all of history, the simple explanations don’t explain.  The Puritan society or religious foundations of New England were complicated.

As Fraser emphasizes, the Mayflower settlers were people of firm, dedicated commitment to living the Christian faith in ways their separatist and Reformation theology demanded.  Bradford, Brewster, Winslow, and others were the real deal.  So were many of those whose theological differences confuse the outsider.  By that, I mean that the Puritans, Roger Williams and his followers, the Mathers, and even the Quakers were people of conviction.  Simply put, they would die for their faith commitments.

At the same time, from our distant perspective, the theological worldview was flawed.  The problem was not that they were trying to follow the Bible, but rather they did not follow it adequately or correctly.  A recurring error of that time was interpreting bad events as judgments of God. A drought or storm, an Indian raid, an unexpected death, and other events were too readily explained as though the New Englanders could read the mind of God in them.  (I do believe calamities ought to drive us to self-examination and repentance, but we cannot know God’s purpose in all such tragedies.)

Then there were the outright theological failures.  Most saddening was the practice of selling Indian captives into slavery.  This was the common practice during King Philip’s War.  War rarely brings out our better qualities, but this was quite deplorable.  Later, the witchcraft frenzy and trials were another blot on New England.  While there were those pastors who warned against abuses, some stupid things were allowed such as allowing for “spectral evidence” in court.  This has reference to people claiming to have seen or witnessed a person doing something weird and that testimony being accepted as fact.

Much of this book is centered around the Winslow family.  They came on the Mayflower, became leaders in the community, and continued to be influential through the generations.  They represented what was the best, most creative, and most worthy of the world that would grow out of Plymouth.  Edward Winslow was a great man, but he was still just a man, a success in some areas and a failure in others.  He befriended Maasassoit, chief of the Wampanoags, and he worked to make Plymouth prosperous.  His son, as is often the story in history, was a man of a different generation.  His faith commitment was dim compared to the father, and his actions were more of the enterprising and pragmatic American than that of the commited Pilgrim.

This book is a fine story.  It is history as story; therefore, it contains truth, beauty, and goodness, but also reveals falsehoods, ugliness, and evil.  It is our nation’s story.  We re-enact and remember only a small part, but we need to know the bigger story as well.


To Light a Fire on the Earth

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Several statements need to be made right up front:  This is the 500 year celebration of the Protestant Reformation.  I am a Protestant who holds to Reformed Theology.  While my heroes were once cowboys (allusion to Willie Nelson’s song), they have long since been theologians like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and on and on.  I hold to the 5 Solas of the Reformation, the 5 Points of Calvinism, and many other listings of theological concerns.

The fact remains that the Roman Catholic Church, which Luther and Calvin belonged to but sought to change, is still around.  We are 500 years past the Reformation.  That does not mean that everything is okay now or that we can shake our heads in disbelief over theological battles of the past.  But many features of the ground war has changed. The fact that Catholics and Protestanst both recited the Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer is a reminder of common ground.

The presidential candidacy of Al Smith in 1928 was harmed in part by his Roman Catholic faith.  John Kennedy broke down that barrier in 1960 in an address to Baptists in Houston, Texas.  While many may have objected to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan during the 2012 Presidential election when they were the opposing Vice Presidential candidates, the Catholicism both held to was not a factor.

We are grappling with a Secular Age, as Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor has noted in his brief pamphlett (of some 874 pages).  Carl Trueman (Calvinist theologian and historian) notes that Taylor was grappling with the question of why it was almost impossible not to believe in God in 1500 and yet an easy option in 2000.  Secularism, as a philosophy or worldview, has many children.  We see the progeny in issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, rampant pornography, and a retreat from historic moral beliefs.  We see issues which even Christians differ over how to approach:  the size of government, who controls education, the flood of immigrants into the country, and gun control.

A popular saying, once seen on Christian trinkets, proclaimed, “Christ is the answer.”  I believe that, but first we have to go back to what the question is.  And, just saying “Christ is the answer” is not the answer.

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I received a review book last month titled To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age.  It is written largely by John L. Allen Jr., but is taken from his extensive interviews and quotes from Catholic Bishop Robert Barron. It is published by Image Books and is distributed by Word on Fire ministry.  Before I received and read this book, I knew nothing of Bishop Barron and Word on Fire.

I would encourage evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist (overlap or separate those descriptions as you wish) and other believers to strongly consider reading and applying this book.  Barron is doing a work in our time that parallels the work of Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s-70s.  Those of us who balk, cringe, or just mildly disagree with Bishop Barron’s theology can profit greatly from seeing what he is doing and why.

  1.  Bishop Barron’s key labors are in the areas of teaching or communicating a message.  He has written books, taught in seminary and other settings, and served in pastoral roles throughout his career.  His main fame has come through Youtube videos and a film series on Catholicism (viewed historically).  The printing press made Luther.  Multiple printing presses made the Geneva of Calvin’s day.  Background training on the stage made George Whitefield.  Printings of sermons helped make Charles Spurgeon.  For a time, radio broadcasts enabled some preachers to reach wide audiences.  I never saw Billy Graham in person, but I watched many of his Crusades and heard many messages from him on television.  Cassette tapes were my seminary at one point in life.                                                                                      Youtube is what has enabled Bishop Barron to reach wider-than-expected audiences.
  2.  One of Barron’s target audiences is lapsed Catholics.  That means people who were born or raised Catholic but who drifted away from their roots.  Some changed and became members of Protestant churches, but many are still Catholic (as in knowing which box to check on forms asking about religion) but have no involvement or commitment to church at all.  If lapsed Catholics were listed as an official religion, it would be the second largest denomination in the United States.                                                                                                                                                   I would like to think that this is a Catholic problem and a result purely of their theology.  Nominal Catholicism could be listed as a fruit of Catholicism.  But there are way too many people who were born and raised in some versions of Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Penecostal, and other churches who have drifted away, never commited, and have ignored the Christian life.  Far too many church rolls are full of people who are out there somewhere, but who are not in church.
  3. A growing demographic in America are people who are classified as “Nones.”  Barron and Allen joke about the Catholic need to distinguish between “Nones” and “Nuns” when talking to Catholics groups.  Nones fit into the profile listed above–Catholics and Protestants who are unchurches.  But they differ in that they now identify themselves on forms and surveys by checking the word “None” where their religious preference is asked.  Related to this is an increasing ignorance of the Bible, basic Christian doctrines, fundamentals of theology, and traditions of Christendom.  When President George W. Bush made a reference to “wounded traveler on the road to Jericho,” he left some of the reporters baffled.  (See Luke 10:30)                                                                                                                                                                                These Nones are not likely to just show up in our church services.  The rituals that minister to the rest of us will not likely appeal to them.
  4. Barron’s repeated emphasis is on the priority of Christ.  He is very Christocentric.  His best known book is titled The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.  He really, truly believes, emphasizes, and teaches the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This emphasis in this book and in Barron’s teachings resonated strongly with me.

I especially loved Barron and Allen’s chapter titled “Truth.”  Barron tells the story of a little nine year old girl who tells him the story of star Wars in detail.  After the story, which included every minor player and complicated name, he asked the mother, “Now tell me why little kids can’t understand the Bible?”  True enough, if they can master a grand narrative like Star Wars, the Avengers, the Harry Potter world, and other stories, they can grasp the essentials and the particulars of the Bible.  In another example, Barron was talking to a group of teachers in Catholic schools.  He said, “I hate dumbed-down Catholicism.”  when they applauded, he told them to not applaud but to do something about it.

“High school kids can handle a lot of serious stuff; so why aren’t they reading C. S. Lewis? Why aren’t they reading Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton?  Why aren’t they reading Aquinas, for that matter?  My nephew, he’s a smart kid, he’s a junior in high school, and he’s a math guy….Man alive, the complexity of the math books he’s dealing with….Why couldn’t we give him Augustine or Thomas Aquinas?….We dumbed it down out of this attempt to be relevant.”

As a teacher in a Christian school, I can identify with Barron’s objections to dumbed down Catholicism and “Beige Catholicism.”  We face the same problems on our side of the divide.

This is a worthy book and a great introduction to part of what is going on among those who are on the other side of the Reformation divide.

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The Christian Mind

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A post like this must, by the law of the jungle, begin with the famous quote by Harry Blamires.  He began his book The Christian Mind with the words, “There is no longer a Christian mind.”  But that book was originally published in 1963–over 50 years ago.  I am not totally convinced of how true it was in 1963, but am convinced that there is a Christian mind today.

Without trying to miss the point that Blamires was making, he was writing in a time where C. S. Lewis (his friend), J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Dawson, Gordon Clark, Carl F. H. Henry, Herman Dooyeweerd, Flannery O’Connor, Arthur Holmes, R. J. Rushdoony, Stanley Jaki, Jaroslav Pelikan, H. R. Rookmaaker, H. Van Reisen, and many others were not only still living, but were writing books or in some cases preparing intellectually for the great works they would later write.

These were not just men (and women, in the case of O’Connor) who were brainy teachers in Bible colleges or intellectually leaning pastors.  Christian thought was and is part of a tidal wave.  None of this is designed to call for a mental rest break or assume we have captured all or even much of the academic high ground.  But finding top-heavy Christian books, journals, and monographs is not an impossible chore today.  Being able to keep up with it all is impossible.

I remember back around the mid-1980s, I was teaching a course on American literature for a local college.  I asked a Christian thinker about good books on American literature or literature in general from a Christian perspective.  He told me that there wasn’t any.  (Again, this was pre-internet days and I think there was more stuff out there that neither he nor I were aware of.)  Now, I have shelves of books about American literature and American thought from Christian or theological perspectives.  Some of it is light and fluffy, but much of it is deep and weighty.  Some books are overtly Christian, while others are written with some Christian underpinnings or beliefs of the writers that are not openly displayed.

If there are several shelves of books on literature from Christian perspectives, they are walls full of books on history from the same.  Name about any field of academic thought, and there can be found Christians who are plowing up the ground and cultivating those areas for Christ.  Not all of the theological perspectives are the same, nor is the orthodoxy of the thinkers identical.  Marilynne Robinson’s idea of Reformed theology gives me the heebie-jeebies, but she is writing fiction and essays from a Christian perspective.  Roy Clouser’s views on origins is revolting to me, but his book The Myth of Religious Neutrality is a block buster.

I work in the thinking business.  I am a teacher of history, literature, government, and theology in a classical Christian school.  On the one hand, I am not a heavy weight, but I do try to work out and lift the barbells of the best Christian thinkers around.  I am constantly amazed at what Jesus Christ is doing in our time to reclaim the MIND as well as the rest of the earth in His active role as King of Kings.

In this post, I will merely highlight three books–two new ones and one overlooked one–that will challenge the intellect as well as minister to the heart.

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The first book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, edited by Collin Hansen and published by The Gospel Coalition.

If The Gospel Coalition had never published this book, I would still be heavily indebted to them for the many fine articles, blogs, and authors who contribute to their ministry.  I am sure that if I looked long enough, I could find some (or many) points to dispute, but that contentious spirit does not serve me well, nor does it usually serve the greater Christian community well.

This book is a great contribution to Christian thought.  But it is, in one sense, just a group of guys all pointing–excitedly–to a Catholic Christian philosopher, named Charles Taylor, and his monumental book titled Our Secular Age.

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Occasionally, I do something brilliant.  When it happens, it is sometimes an accident.  Some years ago, a local bookstore had some library copies of books for sale for $3 a piece.  Most were of no interest.  There was a fat book among them titled Our Secular Age.  It sounded somewhat interesting, so I went home and looked it up.  That evening, I had to take my son Nicholas (then in high school) to a party.  On the way, I stopped and grabbed the book for three bucks (hardback with mylar covering the dust jacket and in like new condition).

Several years later, I began hearing more and more about the book.  Meanwhile, Nick was at college and was reading Sources of the Self by the same Charles Taylor.  I slowly began connecting the dots. Then James K. A. Smith published a book titled How Not to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.  Then Nick graduated college and began some overdue leisure reading, which included Our Secular Age.

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As is often the case, I am ten or more years behind everyone else on important books and issues.  But I am working on catching up so I won’t be eleven or more behind.  So I graciously received and have now read this new collection of essays on Taylor’s book.  Working backward, I will likely read Smith’s book and then cautiously begin scaling Mount Taylor.

Several points in reference to the Gospel Coalition essays:

  1.  Collin Hansen is top notch to me.  I really loved Young, Restless, Reformed when I read it a few years back.  It excited me and helped awaken me to what is going on in the ever widening Reformed circles.
  2. Several of the contributors are known to me, including Hansen, Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, and Bruce Riley Ashford.  Those names are all in the plus column, but I also became acquainted with some other Christians, such as Brett McCracken (whose new book I now have).
  3. These essays are designed to be bridge to helping pastors, teachers, and Christian leaders become aware of and make use of Taylor’s insights.  Repeatedly, we read that Taylor’s book is dense (T. M. Luhrman), inaccessible (Tim Keller), daunting, and intimidating (Hans Boersma).  These essays provide some stepping stones for making use of Taylor.
  4. Charles Taylor is Roman Catholic, as is some other key Christian philosophers, such as Bernard Lonergan, Peter Kreeft (more teacher than philosopher), and some guy named Aquinas.  Setting the Five Solas aside (but not far away) for the moment, there has long been a practice of borrowing, lending, and paying back with interest between Catholic and Protestant thinkers.  (Where would we be without Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton?)  Much of this book is focused on filtering Taylor’s thought into Protestant categories.
  5. These essays are not “Charles Taylor for Dummies.”  Having finished the book, I find myself ready to read it again–more carefully–rather than being ready to nod intelligently when Charles Taylor’s name and ideas come up.  And believe me, his name and ideas come up often.

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The second  book I would like to call attention to (realizing that it is actually the fourth or fifth one mentioned in this post) is Faith Formation in a Secular Age by Andrew Root.  This book is published by Baker Academic.

A few years ago, I read Root’s book Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker and loved it far more than I expected to.  By that, I mean that I thought it would be biography of the earlier years of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry labors where he was what we often call “a youth pastor.”  It is biographical, but it was more focused on the type of ministry work he did and how we should approach youth ministry.  It also, as the subtitle notes, deals with Bonhoeffer’s two fine books Call to Discipleship and Life Together.

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I have yet to begin this new book by young Dr. Root.  But in my prelimary glances (also known as pre-reading), guess who and what he begins discussing?  You are right–Charles Taylor and Our Secular Age.  Then he discusses Bonhoeffer.  I hope to post more about this book soon when I am able to start reading it.

The third book (no, fifth or sixth) that I will mention is Truth Considered & Applied:  Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith by Stewart Kelly.  This book is published by B & H Publishing Group.

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I first noticed this book a month or so ago in a local Christian bookstore.  I thought to myself:  What a fascinating sounding new book!  Later, when I was looking it up to learn more about it, I discovered that this “new” book had been published in 2011.

It is still anxiously awaiting my attention while it sits in one of the many “to be read” stacks, but I most interested in it.  The term “postmodernism” has been tossed around quite a bit and often misunderstood or misapplied.  It is among the ideas we have to grapple with as we delve into modern ideas and terminology.

More comments on this book will appear after I get started into it.  By the way, the index shows that Taylor is referenced six times, but the book in use is Sources of the Self by Taylor.

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Charles Taylor–philosopher and key influence in many Christian circles today.



November Revolution 1917: To The Dustbin of History

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I have been frequently reminded lately that this is the 100th anniversary of the first establishment of Communism.  Known in history as the November Revolution, the Bolsheviks and their allies took control of the unstable Russian nation after the previous revolution in February that had removed the Tsar and his family.  The provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, proved unable to hold the country together against the forces of continuing revolution and continual involvement in World War I.

The next several years of life in Russia were centered around a horrific civil war pitting the Reds (the Communists) against the Whites (those wanting to restore monarchy or restore some sort of republic).  The Whites outnumbered the Reds; the Whites had some support of foreign powers;  the Whites were the “good guys,” relatively speaking.  But the Reds had a more disciplined ideology and mission.  It was one of the many historic cases where history was moved not by majorities, but by minorities with an aim and purpose.

As ruler over the newly christened Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Lenin tried various ways to implement the socialistic ideas.  Although his version of the dictatorship of the proletariat was mild in comparison with some of his successors across the globe, he could be quite brutal in his dealings with the opposition.  Or he could be quite inconsistent in his practice of Communist ideals.

Lenin’s health problems and then his death helped create a battle within the leadership over his successor.  Josef Stalin ultimately defeated and removed many candidates who were initially better positioned to take over.  By a series of alliances and double-crossings, he was the last man standing.  Although the competition is tough, Stalin probably wins the award for being the most evil, ruthless, murderous man of the twentieth century.  Although his image was later removed throughout the Soviet Union, he really was and is the face of Communism.

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While we don’t want to bury the corpse until it is dead, we certainly hope that Communism will be relegated to the ash heap history, to use Ronald Reagan’s phrase.  There are still too many regimes that maintain some degrees of Communist ideology or practices.  There is still too much of the contagion in the world today, although some of the worst abuses and regimes have vanished.

Thankfully, there was not a World War III that pitted the Free World against the Communist World (or Communist Bloc).  I am forever thankful to a wide range of leaders who stood firmly in their opposition to all sorts of Communist activities.  These heroes and heroines include Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Whittaker Chambers, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa,  Margaret Thatcher, Richard Wurmbrand, Natan Sharansky, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, and Ronald Reagan.  Political leaders with guts, vision, and insight enabled the Free World to win the Cold War.

But it was also won by the writing of books.  I will highlight and praise a few of the many books that helped–each incrementally–to expose the evils of Communism, to give first-hand testimonies to life under Communism, or to call for the overthrow of Communism.

  1.  We the Living by Ayn Rand.  I recently finished reading this book, and now I have read all four of Rand’s novels.  She did not write great literature.  Her writing flaws and philosophical quirks are often hard to stomach.  So is the length of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.  But her books contain brilliant moments. (Anthem is her best work and her shortest.)  We the Living is, according to Rand, the closest thing to an autobiography that she ever wrote.  The book is set in Russia after the Communist Revolution.  The suffering, suppression, brainwashing, and dangers are all brought out in a compelling story.  Again, this is not great literature, but it is a great picture of life in the Soviet Union by one who was there and who got away.

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2.  One Day in the Life of  Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle, The Oak and the Calf, and other works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Solzhenitsyn did write great literature.  He is the rare author whose life story is as engaging as his writings.  A Nobel Prize winner, his life was on the line when his samizdat manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago was discovered.  I remember the events because my high school English teacher encouraged us to gather news articles about Solzhenitsyn.  He has long been one of my favorite heroes.  Sadly, he was often ignored or bypassed by his native Russian people in his last years.  Let us hope he is not forgotten.

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Good news for those of us who love Solzenitsyn.  His life-long labor was to create a fictional history of the Russian Revolution.  It began with August 1914, continued with November 1916.  Now a new volume is available:  March 1917.   This edition, in English for the first time, is published by the Notre Dame Press.


3.  Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand.  Wurmbrand, a Romanian, was captured and tortured by the Communists for his faith.  Whether in prison or out, he continued to preach Christ to all around him.  In time, he was brought over to the United States where he established The Voice of the Martyrs ministry, which was initially focused on preaching Christ behind the Iron Curtain.  VOM has distributed free copies of Tortured for Christ for decades.  The book was life changing for me in that it helped reinforce my hatred of Communism and tyranny, but it also showed me the cost of following Christ.

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4.  Against All Hope by Armando Valledares.  This book shows the evils of the Cuban brand of Communism.  I began reading it years ago and had to put it aside for a time because it was too hard to endure.  Later, I picked it up again and read it all the way through.  The effusive gushing over Fidel Castro following his death was totally out of place.  He was evil.  He may have mellowed a bit in his later years, but he was a truly wicked leader.

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5.  The histories of Bruce Lincoln:  In War’s Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War,  Passage Through Armageddon:  The Russians in War and Revolution, and Red Victory:  A History of the Russian Civil War.  These books are not about Communism per se, but they are indispensable for understanding the history of Russia prior to and during the Revolution.

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6.  Coming Out of the Ice by Victor Herman.  I ordered and bought my copy of this first-hand account from Mr. Herman.  During the Great Depression, some Americans left this country to take up residence in the Workers’ Paradise.  Bad move.  Herman’s parents were among the immigrants, and he endured some horrific tortures during his time there.  By the way, there was a movie made about this man’s life and Willie Nelson (the singer) was in it.

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7.  The World in the Grip of an Idea by Clarence Carson.  This book has probably been way too overly neglected.  Dr. Carson, a fine and very conservative/liberatarian historian, focused on the varieties of coercive government.  Socialism in its various and evil forms is the idea that this book is countering.

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8.  Miracles of Grace and Judgment by Gerard P. Schroder.  I read this and other accounts some years ago.  Although many of the details are long since forgotten, one never forgets the horrors or the courage of people who endured life under the Soviets, whether they were inside or outside of the Gulag system.

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9.  The books by Robert Conquest are vital resources for seeing and understanding the magnitude of evils of Communism and the particulars of Soviet rule.  Books I have include The Great Terror, Harvest of Sorrow (about the Ukrainian holocaust), and his biography of Stalin.

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10.  It was many years ago that I read–and never recovered from reading–The Time of Stalin by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko.

11.  I have, but have only lightly made use of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.  These studies are always grim.  They are reminders of the depravity of man (often going beyond our normal Calvinistic explanation of “total” to “utter”).  They are testimonies to the terrible history of the past century.  They are vital for us to remember and try to stomach.

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12.  On a more optimistic note, I will end with Reagan’s War: The Epic Story of His Forty-year Struggle and Final Triumph Over Communism by Peter Schweizer.  I loved this book–the story, the man, and the details.  Reagan’s opposition to Communism really got going when he was dealing first hand with various Communist factions and sympathizers in the Hollywood film world.  It was from those experiences that he began formulating his mission and message regarding freedom.  His strategy for winning the Cold War was shocking to the liberals and many conservatives of the day:  “We win. They lose.”  But we did.

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More Quick Looks at Books–American History, mostly


One of the classic Stanley Brothers’ songs has these words:

“Daylight till dark my work’s never done
Lord have mercy on this sharecropper’s son.”

I know my jobs are not anything compared to what a sharecropper or his son or daughter or wife would have faced.  My workload usually involves a dangerously high stack of books that I am bound by duty or need to read and review.  It is a labor of love, but don’t forget that it is a labor.

I am happily plowing my way through a stack of books that includes the volumes pictured above.  Most of my reading energies this year are focused on American history, government, and literature.  This is because I am teaching my course called Humanities: The American Story.  With more than thirty years of classroom experience (some of it being helpful), I find that I need to read continually to refresh, enlarge, correct, and direct my understanding of the United States.

Let’s look at some of these books.

Compact of the Republic: The League of States and the Constitution is by David Benner.   Mr. Benner’s website can be found HERE,  and the book can be ordered through Amazon.  He is a long-time and serious student of the Constitution, and he writes and speaks on historical topics, particularly in the Minnesota area.  Benner is a self-professed Jeffersonian.  Lest we think that species is extinct, take note that the tradition is alive and well.

Most approaches to American government, the Constitution, and history presuppose that a national, centralized State was the design and intent from the beginning.  One can easily assume that history “proves” that the tree planted at the Constitutional Convention was purposed to grow, expand, and engulf the states that created it.  We are so far removed from limited government that it is hard to even start the discussion.  But it is a necessary discussion.  President Bill Clinton once said, “The era of big government is over.”  Whatever he meant by that (whatever the meaning of “is” is), Clinton, like other Presidents, was helpless in stemming the tide of Leviathan.

The battle has to be won on the grounds of history and serious study first.  It will jolt us loose from some of our preconceived or overly indoctrinated ideas about the role of the states and the purpose of a central government.  I think we are several generations away from even the possibility of reviving any sense of Jeffersonian politics.  But that is not a pessimistic statement.  It is a call for teachers and students of America to read books like this one.

The Strategy of Victory: How General George Washington Won the American Revolution

Strategy of Victory: How George Washington Won the American Revolution by Thomas Fleming was released on October 10 of this year.  This book fills me with both happiness and sadness.  I corresponded off and on with the prolific Thomas Fleming over the past several years.  I was always amazed at how gracious he was in taking time to answer my questions or suggest which of his books I might enjoy.  When he didn’t answer an email last spring, I became concerned.  Then I learned that he had died back in July.

That he wrote and finished this book prior to his 90th birthday and death is amazing.  He certainly had a large stock of knowledge and writing experience preceding this work.  He never did a full biography of Washington, but by my count, he wrote eight or more books dealing in large part with Washington, besides books indirectly dealing with him or fictional works that included historical events about Washington.

Fleming was a master story-teller.  He writes solid history, but his style is focused on the narrative.  I have sought to collect and read all of his books.  No easy task since he wrote more than fifty books, but this one will be special because it is the last.

How the French Saved America: Soldiers, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution is by Tom Shachtman.  This promises to be a good book.  Although the author has written quite a few works, he and I will get to first meet when I can get started on this book.  I used to spend lots of time and energy studying the American Civil War Between the States.  At some point, I began turning more attention over to the American War for Independence.  I still feel a mental deficit when trying to piece the entire War for Independence together in my mind.

The American Continental Army and George Washington changed the world by their victory.  But would it have happened without the French?  It is hard to think through a path to victory without the French fleet and armed forces that both blocked Cornwallis’s path to retreat and ensured his surrender at Yorktown.  This promises to be a fun and interesting read.

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I read a reviewed Daniel Dreisbach’s Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers during the summer.  I was able to briefly correspond with Dr. Dreisbach and I am not opposed to reading everything he writes (given time and opportunity).  But if I only stick to this book, I will be well served.  This is an outstanding study.  I read it as history, as spiritual devotional, and as a practical guide to godly living.  This is a book to read and heavily quote from.

I also recently read and reviewed Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Dr. Robert M. S. McDonald.  This book is published by the University of Virginia Press.

Confounding Father is an excellent second or third biography to read about Jefferson.  By that I mean that this book has a particular focus that includes many of the events and details of Jefferson’s life, but it is not a biography in the sense that the six volumes of Dumas Malone or the one volume of Jon Mecham are.  This book focuses on how Jefferson used and was abused by the media, meaning newspapers, and by his political advocates and enemies.


A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison by Jack N. Rakove is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.I began reading this book with the idea that it was a short easily accessible biography of the man who was our fourth President and is called “the Father of the Constitution.”  Characteristic of Madison’s short stature is the small notice that is usually accorded him.  He was quite literally overshadowed by his neighbor and peer Thomas Jefferson.  His co-authorship of The Federalist Papers results in him being one of a list of three.  He appears to be the bookish, policy wonk of the Constitutional Convention.  He was large in knowledge and background information, but small in his verbal or leadership activities.

This book is not a simple biography, but a study of Madison’s political labors.  As a political thinker, he deserves to be ranked right up there with men like Machiavelli, Burke, Locke, or Hobbes.  But there is no key book from Madison that contains his political philosophy.  The closest thing we have is Federalists numbers 10 and 51.  And those two essays are “God’s plenty,” in my opinion.

Early impressions are that this is a worthwhile, although weighty study.


For the second or third time, I have read the introduction to The French and Indian War and the Conquest of New France by William R. Nester.  It is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Each time I read the introduction, I find myself thinking that this lengthy book seems to be really inviting.  It is a time problem that has hindered me.  I am fascinated by the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), and I have collected numerous volumes on the war for what Voltaire called “a few acres of snow.”  Usually, however, my teaching on the war gets lost between using James Fenimore Cooper’s delightful Last of the Mohicans and the subsequent history chapters emphasizing that war as a cause of the American War for Independence.

Just maybe this time I will plow ahead into this book.

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the book The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage and the Founding of America by Rebecca Fraser will be out and on the shelves.  This book is published by St. Martins Press.

My copy is an uncorrected proof.  Having started it, I am finding it quite enjoyable.  This book gives a good background on the religious beliefs of the Separatists who came to the New World.  Hopefully, I can say more later as I get into this book.

Oxford University Press is a favorite source for good books of all sorts.  I recently learned of this book–Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography by Michael R. Licona.  Dr. Licona, a professor at Houston Baptist University, is a rising force in the Christian world of scholarship and apologetics.

“From daylight to dark, my readings are never done.”

The Works of John Knox–“Some Books are to be tasted….”

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Not knowing the library policies in heaven or the new heavens and earth that come later, I have to content myself with only tasting some books.  In some cases, a book has a limited use, and the dipping into it now and again is to fulfill such needs.  We call them reference works, and that includes dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauruses, and some Bible commentaries.  There are plenty of biographies, histories, books on economics and politics, and theological works that will only be used in the manner of checking the table of contents, then the index, and then scanning the pages for some pertinent quote or information.

The light use, occasional use, or call it underuse of a book is no bad reflection on the worth of a book or its author.  There is the matter of time, add to that specialization, add to that the tyrannies of the moment, add to that the human capacity or incapacity to absorb the contents.  I have books and particularly sets of books that I will never likely read and certainly not master cover to cover.  They are dearly loved…yes, loved…not merely liked or found useful or found attractive on the shelf.  My four volumes of Herman Dooyeweerd’s New Critique of Theoretical Thought is non-negotiable when considered as a possession (although I would probably yeild it if one of my children were kidnapped and NCTT were part of the ransom).  Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization gets read in bits and pieces, but it is indispensible.  The same can be said Calvin’s Commentaries, Calvin’s Letters, Magnalia Christi Americana, the works of Shakespeare, any literary criticism written by Cleanth Brooks, and my two great volumes of T. S. Eliot.

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Dooyeweerd’s New Critique was published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publications during the early 1970s and was almost given away at one time.

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Another treasured collection I have is the six volumes of The Works of John Knox, published by Banner of Truth.I supposed that if Banner were to publish the London telephone book, I would want a copy.  There books are quality on the inside and out.

But it is not just the quality, shelf appeal, and grandness of this set as a collection of boards, ink, and paper.  These are the works of the Other John of the Protestant Reformation.  We are talking John Knox, who was as much an influence on American history as was George Washington. (Debate or consider that statement later.)  Knox was a trench fighter, a survivor, a front line Reformer.  Scotland, or at least the Scotland of the 1500’s-1600’s, bears his brand, but he was also pivotal in Reformation battles in England and in Continental Europe.

It is incredible that he survived imprisonment on a Spanish galley ship.  Even more incredible is his surviving numerous conflicts with the reigning powers of both England and Scotland, particularly Queen Mary Stuart.

How did such a man ever find time to read, think, write, and preach?

We might have expected a volume or two of his works to survive, but we have six large volumes.  Okay, one of them does contain a biography, but even then, we have lots of Knox material to taste, chew, and even digest.

I am currently reading his largest work, which is titled History of the Reformation in Scotland.  It extends through the first two volumes of this set.  I suspect it will take quite a while and may never be completely read by this poor pilgrim.  But whether I get through 50 pages or 500 or all 3824 pages, I will find quite a bit that will delight, inform, correct, and encourage me.

There is a further obstacle to reading these books.  The language of Knox, which precedes the King James Bible and is dominated by Scotification (to coin of word) of the English language.  Reading Knox is not as difficult as reading Chaucer in the original, but more difficult that reading the KJV or Shakespeare.  The key to breaking the language and spelling code is reading it aloud and phonetically.  When sounding the words out, most of them become readily familiar.  This does raise the challenge level for these books, but it also adds to the beauty and setting.

It should be noted that anyone wanting to read Knox’s account of the Scottish Reformation can do so in a shorter and modernized version, found HERE and also published by Banner.

I will conclude this brief discussion of The Works of Knox with a few quotes which I enjoyed during my morning readings.  I am beginning in the midst of a sentence and the preceding portion was a list of charges brought against Scots who had begun seeing great flaws in the Medieval Church.

“By these Articles…may appeir how mercyfullie God hath looked upoun this Realme, reteanying within it some sponk of his light, evin in the tyme of grettast darkness.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Amen, and may God retain some “sponk of his light” on us in our time.

Speaking of his mentor/hero and martyr Patrick Hamilton, Knox said, “The zeall of Goddis glorie did so eat him up, that he could of no long cintinuance remain thair (in Wittenberg, Germany), bot returned to his countrie (Scotland, whair the brycht beames of the trew light which by Goddis grace was planted in his harte, began most aboundantlie to burst forth.”

From A Brief Treatise of Mr. Patrick Hamilton, Knox’s mentor, as found in Volume 1:
“The Gospell, is as mooche to say, in our tong, as Good Tydingis: lyk as everie one of these sentences be–
Christ is the Saviour of the world.
Christ deid for our synnes.
Christ offerred him selve for us.
Christ bare our synnes upoun his back.
Christ bought us with his blood.
Christ woushe us with his blood.
Christ was maid dettour for our synnes.
Christ hath maid satisfictioun for us and for our synne.
Christ is our rychteousness, oure wisdome, our goodness.
Christ is ouris, and all his.
The Father of Heavin hath forgevin us for Christis saik.”

J C. Ryle–Prepared to Stand Alone and Holiness

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There are three things right up front that commend the book J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray to me and hopefully to you.

First of all, it is a Banner of Truth publication.  For decades now, Banner has been publishing outstanding books by current authors promoting historic evangelical Reformed theology.  Along with that, Banner has reprinted hundreds of works by Christian authors from the past, ranging from John Calvin to John Owen to Charles Spurgeon and many others.  There are more Puritan books available today than there would have been during the heyday of the Puritans, thanks to publishing houses like Banner of Truth.   Add to that, their books are well bound and are beautiful additions to the library shelves in your home or office.

Second, the author of this book on Ryle is Iain Murray.  Mr. Murray has some incredible gifts as a writer and biographer.  Often Christian biographies are in the light and fluffy category.  They are written to inspire us all to do better.  If the subject happened to be a significant figure in history or theological movements, academics weigh in with biographies that are often technical, critical (in multiple senses of the word), and beyond the interest level of most Christian readers.  Murray hits the middle ground.  He writes for the Christian who needs (desparately) to know more about Christian history or Christian leaders of the past, but who is not an expert.

Murray’s first and foremost biographical study was his book The Forgotten Spurgeon.  It was not, strictly speaking, a biography, but rather a study of Spurgeon’s battles against several theological trends in his life and ministry.  My favorite Murray book is his two volume study of the life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  The second of those volumes changed my life.  His biography of Jonathan Edwards is first rate, but should be read alongside of George Marsden’s more academic biography.  Murray has also written accounts of A. W. Pink, John Murray, and John MacArthur.

A Scottish Christian Heritage and Heroes are both fun reads as well, and The Puritan Hope is a great study of both the Puritans and of eschatology (Murray is postmillennial).  Looking over a list of Murray volumes thrills me with remembering his past works, but also frustrates me since I am still lacking far too many of his books.

Third, the subject of this book is J. C. Ryle.  Ryle was a minister in the Church of England who lived from 1816 to 1900.  He was a prolific author, although he was also a very busy pastor and parish priest.  Twice widowed in his earlier years, he did not have an easy life.  His earlier career choice was the law, and he had suffered tremendously from economic setbacks that wrecked his father’s business.

At age 21 he was converted to Christ. He was, we might say, very nominally Christian or churched before that.  He later wrote, “If I had died before I was twenty-one, if there is such a thing as being lost forever in hell, which I do not doubt, I certainly should have been lost forever.”

During his career, he served as parish minister in several churches.  He suffered quite a few difficulties along the way, but managed to not only minister very ably to his congregation but also wrote tracts and other writings.  Understand that tracts in the 1800s sometimes meant books of a hundred pages.  Overall, Ryle literary output was tremendous.

It is very easy to think of a Church of England parish minister in the 1800’s as having a placid, quiet life.  Think of the ministers in Jane Austen’s books.  Other than their failed efforts to woo one of Austen’s heroines, they had fairly quiet country lives.

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That is not at all the world of J. C. Ryle. Of course, there were the beautiful old churches, quaint villages, tea with parishioners, but there were also battles.  The last half of the 1800’s was a war zone for the Christian faith.  Ryle’s theology, which was Biblical, enriched by the Puritans, decidedly Reformed and Calvinistic, and evangelical was under attack.

The more admirable of the enemies were part of the Oxford Movement.  Quite a few very scholarly and literary churchmen were gravitating (or running) back to Rome.  Some made the switch, while others labored to widen the theological options available within the Church of England.

On the other hand, there were the forces of Darwinian Naturalism, the higher critical movement, and the rise of various more modern philosophies and theologies that were not only on the outside of the faith, but were cropping up within.  Ryle’s own son, Herbert, bought into many of the “up to date, modern, cutting edge” theologies of his day.  (Any surprise that Herbert–also an author–is largely forgotten along with his works?)

Ryle, like his contemporary and fellow battler for the truth Charles H. Spurgeon, labored all his days against the unbiblical theologies, false gospels, and popular new ideas of his age.  He was not a philosopher or really a theologian in the technical sense.  Nor was he the debater of his age or the man who could answer the fool according to his folly.

Ryle’s gift was faithful, convicting exposition of Bible passages and doctrines.  His books remain valuable and can inform and convict the modern man as much or more than the original readers.

I highly, triply, recommend J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.

However, don’t even get close to that book unless you already have read from Ryle himself.  Banner of Truth has published many of Ryle’s books in fine hardback editions.  You cannot make a better investment for your library AND your soul than Ryle’s classic book Holiness.

But first, a warning and/or exhortation.  Reading this book out right, as in from cover to cover, is not necessarily the way to go.  Maybe some will disagree, but I recommend the slow read, the frequent re-read, and the careful handling of this work.  Even the introduction is red meat.  If you have read more modern books on spiritual disciplines and personal holiness, all such will be good primers or warm-up exercises for Ryle.  Regarding the more modern guys, I highly recommend the late Jerry Bridges and the current author Kevin DeYoung.  But again, Ryle is completely undiluted.

So, acquire Holiness and hopefully then grow in holiness.  Read it slowly.  Read the chapters out of order.  Pick it up and read a page or two almost anywhere.  Mark or write down good quotes.  Work the book over.  And, I am not just speaking to you.  I am speaking to myself as well.