History, History Everywhere and Not Enough Coffee to Drink

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

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

Editor to Reviewer:  Say something about the standing books.

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

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

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

So here goes:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Very promising book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaders: Myth and Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Essential Karl Barth

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The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary by Keith L. Johnson is published by Baker Publishing Group.

Karl Barth was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th Century.  He remains one of the more controversial theologians as well.  I have no way of knowing how much influence he still has or will have over the next few decades.  Theology is not my field of specialty.  I watch the high dives while wading in the shallow end of the pool.

I figure that many pastors, teachers, and theology students are not all that different from me in their familiarity with Barth.  We have heard the name.  Often it is resounding in phrases like “Bultmann, Barth, and Brunner.”  Add Tillich to the mix and you have the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who either spread wisdom throughout the Christian world or who spread evil.

In my background in very conservative Reformed and Presbyterian circles, Barth (and company listed above) were not admired and were seen as the enemy of orthodoxy.  Two of my great theological heroes, Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til (pictured below), both wrote books critiquing…let’s be more blunt…critically condemning Barth’s theology.  These two men, dogmatic as they could be, were not simply off on a rant.  There were elements in Barth’s theology that were not merely different perspectives on truth, but were undermining of the same.

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I must confess that in my life experiences (which have been limited), I don’t recall ever running into a bona fide Barthian.  I don’t recall hearing him quoted either.  That was all true for many years, until one occasion when I was working on a lesson prior to Easter.  I needed a quote from a heretic who denied the resurrection.  I went in search of Barth denial and was struck by the fact that he affirmed it.  I mean a bodily resurrection of Jesus the God/Man and not some mystical sense of “the spirit and teachings of Jesus lives on.”

It was around this same time that I learned that my friend P. Andrew Sandlin, a man who had worked alongside of R. J. Rushdoony, was an admirer of Barth.  And then, the more I searched for the quotes on all subjects, the more I discovered that Barth didn’t just happen to say something true and good every now and then, but he did so often.

Karl Barth wrote a large number of books, many of them quite weighty and lengthy.  He was a dominating theological force both in European and North American circles.  If you go around the theological blocks a time or two, you will encounter quotes, references, critiques, praises, and condemnation of Barth.

I often think (and maybe regret) that I did not pick a particular theologian or Christian thinker to be to focal point of my own reading and study.  Instead, I have flitted from branch to branch, reading a book by this person, a biography of another, and many quotes and references to all the big names in Reformed circles with a few outside those confines.  If I could pick the theologian to study and devote years to trying to master and understand, it would not be Barth.

That is why books like The Essential Karl Barth are so useful and necessary.  I ascribe to the idea that most pastors need to be theologians and scholars.  Books such as The Pastor as Public Theologian by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan address these issues.

Along with the near impossible task of keeping up with the latest theological trends, ideas, and debates, there is the need to be aware of the past teachers and leaders of the Church.  Very certainly, I would put Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Hodge, Machen, and a few others before Barth, but I would not leave Barth out.

One of the most helpful and instructive things about The Essential Karl Barth is the work that Keith Johnson put into giving a helpful sketch of Barth’s life and times at the beginning of the book and then giving descriptions and footnotes to the selections he includes.  I am sure that real Barthians will grimace over what is left out, but I find the amount of information helpful.  In other words, sometimes I have no idea what problem or people Barth is writing about, but the notes set the context and explain what is going on.

I know this for certain, Barth is usually labeled as Neo-Orthodox.  Although he called himself Reformed and he fit into the Reformed tradition in some ways, his theology put him at odds with the more strictly and historically Reformed people that I am associated with.  But he was strongly opposed to the theological liberals of his day.  He was not on a mission against American evangelical or fundamentalist thinking; rather, he was going full throttle against those who denied the supernatural God and the Bible.  He believed that Jesus was the God/Man and that He rose from the dead.  He affirmed much that we believe, and his enemies were those that we would oppose.

I remember reading from John Warwick Montgomery an account of him going to hear Barth speak in Chicago.  Montgomery, a very solid Lutheran, opposed Barth’s theology.  But on this occasion, he was in Barth’s corner as he listened to him skewer the theological liberals.

Paperback Preaching in Hitler's Shadow : Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich Book

 

A final point is actually one of my main reasons for being interested in Barth.  He opposed World War I and preached against it.  Then, in the 1930’s, he began speaking out against and criticizing the German Christian movement.  He is often remembered and praised even by his critics for signing the Barmen Resolution.  Alongside other Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul  Schneider, Martin Niemoller, Barth saw the sham of identifying German nationality and culture with Christianity.  Being Swiss, he was able to escape from Germany.  After the war, he labored to restore the crumbled foundations in European Christendom.

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A Little Book for New Historians and Creative Historical Thinking

 

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

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

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

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

A Little Book for New Historians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Morning Reads and Evening Reads of Late

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The beginning of the day and the ending of the day are for me the two best reading times.  They call for different kinds of books, and I usually have a half dozen books going.  Some get more attention, others less.  Some fit the niche perfectly, while others are hard to adapt to.  Much always depends upon alertness and relevance, but some authors, as we all know, lure us more easily within their pages than others.

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I am currently working through a book titled Reading Acts by Joshua W. Jipp.  This book is published by Cascade Books, which is part of Wipf and Stock.  This study is not a commentary, but rather a thematic examination of Acts.  Luke, the author of both the Gospel account and Acts, was a superb stylist and writer.  Themes overlap both of  books in the Bible.  It is all too easy to be doing the daily Bible reading through Acts and not catch some of the recurring and developing ideas.

One might wonder at times why Paul repeats his own salvation story three times, or more particularly, why Luke records this.  Today, I read the part of the book detailing Paul’s Mediterranean journey to Rome, with a his side visit to the Island of Malta.  Jipp’s discussion of this was incredibly edifying and enjoyable.  Those chapters can create a panic for the preacher who is suddenly faced with a long narrative and is puzzled by this seeming detour from the story.  Far from being an unnecessary rabbit trail, this story is rich in metaphor and meaning.

Delightful book that should precede and then be used within a study of Acts.  Joshua Jipp is Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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The Essential Karl Barth: Reader and Commentary is compiled and edited by Keith L. Johnson and is published by Baker Academic.

Karl Barth is one of the biggest names in Twentieth Century theology.  For me, he was a name that quickly showed up on the enemies lists based on who I was reading when I first started reading theologians.  Two of my theological heroes, Cornelius Van Til and Gordon Clark, wrote books examining, critiquing, and arguing against Barth and those who were embracing his theology.  Quite often his name showed up in a list consisting of Emil Brunner, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich.

Being focused on studying history and literature, but reading theology on the side, I was too busy trying to get grounded in the basics of Reformed theology and thought to read the Germans and other theologians of varying positions.  That was not a bad approach.  Over the years, however, I continued to read quotes from Barth that were, without question, really good.  No surprise since many bad thinkers have turned apt phrases.

In the past several years, I have slowly lurked into the corpus of Barth’s writings.  His sermons on World War I, titled A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s World War I Sermons, was a very useful account of a man who went against many of his peers and who opposed the German actions and entry into war.  Also, his Epstle to the Ephesians was a rich study.

This book begins with a useful biographical sketch of the man and his theological development.  He lived in the midst of peril and was strong in condemning the social and theological evils of his time.  He first made an impact on the world when he published his commentary on Romans.  The second chapter of this book is a lengthy selection from that work.

I seek to read with discernment and with a willingness to be instructed.  That should be the goal whether it is Barth or Calvin or Spurgeon that we are reading or our local pastor who we are hearing.

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The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Times by Will Durant is simply fun.  This short book contains Durant’s picks for the greatest thinkers, poets, books, civilizational achievements, and dates for all time.  Whether we agree with him often or rarely does not matter, this is a delightful excursion through the thinking of a man who had an encyclopedic knowledge of history without any taint of dullness.

Durant was an optimistic Humanist.  That optimism along with his barbs against Christianity (wherein he sees Calvin and others as having skewered the teachings of Christ) is more amusing than irritating.  And it is offset by the enthusiasm of his lists and his assumption that we all love to know, just as he did.

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Venice Saved by Simone Weil is published by Bloomsbury Academic.  This work, appearing in English for the first time, was translated by Silvia Panizza and Phillip Wilson.

Simone Weil is one of the many voices from the Twentieth Century who spoke prophetically and wisely about the times and cultural challenges of her day.  Her days on this earth were short–1909-1943.  Her life was difficult for she was in France when it was conquered by the Nazis.  Although she was of Jewish heritage, she moved toward the Christian faith.

She is one of the subjects of Alan Jacobs’ remarkable book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.  Reading about her there and also reading an essay she wrote about education all led me to wanting to know more about her and her writings.  She was not a playwright, but she did work on a play that was never finished.

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Venice Saved deals slightly with history, but is better seen as a commentary on Weil’s own times–World War II.  The story is simple and the meanings of different statements are transparent in their application to her times.  Venice was a beautiful city that was on the verge of a takeover by its enemies.  But isn’t our culture always standing on that same precipice?

This delightful book has a lengthy and somewhat tedious series of introductory essays by the translators.  I plodded through them and found them helpful, but I think they may be better read after I finish the play in a couple of days.

Time and length fails me from being able to highlight my evening reads, but I will list them.

The Pioneers by David McCullough.  Good story by a great historian.

Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasion and Liberation of France by Peter Caddick-Adams.  Hefty and good reading.

Ben Hur by Lew Wallace.  Rich in details about the ancient world.

Mustang by John Dwyer.  Sequel to Shortgrass.  Set in World War II.

The Other Woman by Daniel Silva.  Great spy novel by the master of that genre in our times.

The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

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How did it happen?  Even more important, how did it turn out the way it did?

Thirteen colonies with a few other colonial settlements banded together to take on the world’s most powerful military, naval, and economic power.  Even within the colonies, there were enough Loyalists to prevent a victory from occuring.  Sometimes, deep reading into the history of an event reveals so many flaws, faulty assumptions, and bursting of myths as to damage the story overall.  But in this case, with the brush strokes revealing the darker and uglier hues, the overall story is still one that astounds and amazes.

The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 by Rick Atkinson is the first of a projected three volume Revolution Trilogy.  This first volume has raised a high bar, but based on Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (based on the American experience in World War II in Europe), this series should be definitive.

The big challenge for the Patriots was creating a military adequate to take on the British.  There were many untried men who rose through the ranks. Some achieved success, some failed, and some perished before they could fulfill their potential.  Even George Washington was a newcomer to the kind of leadership that was expected of him.  It is difficult for us to grasp that the position that George Washington holds in our nation’s memory could have been held by Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, or even Benedict Arnold.  However, it is hard to imagine how any of those three could have risen to the level that Washington did.

As time and circumstances caused Washington to develop the cat and mouse strategy, he had to learn while on the job.  The Americans were often dealing with short enlistments, lack of equipment, poor organization, and no money.  The military career of Washington is one of many defeats and near disasters punctuated by one set of major victories in the middle of the war before his climactic win at Yorktown.

Another aspect of the war that is often overlooked is that there were far more than a mere thirteen colonies in the New World.  Some of the colonial outposts joined alongside the 13, such as Vermont and Franklin (eastern Tennessee).  Other colonial settlements, such as Canada resisted.  Had Canada joined the lower coastal colonies or had those colonies conquered Canada, the outcome would have looked drastically different.

The campaign to capture Canada is one of the great ventures in the war.  It turned out to be a disaster, but such a fate was in the balance for much of that campaign.  Richard Montgomery is among the names of the forgotten from that campaign.  Had he won, he would be heralded as one of our great founders. His death cost the Patriots a key leader.  But another strong fighter, Benedict Arnold, proved himself a scrappy field commander in that campaign.  It is astounding how close he came through his exploits for the Patriots to being one of our most revered heroes.

As a history teacher, I know how the story that this book tells progresses.  Admittedly, I learned lots of names that I had either never noticed or had overlooked. Certainly, I found many pages of material that refreshed my understanding of what happened in the battles for New York and New Jersey. Surprisingly, I learned quite a bit about our adversary–King George III.  But something happens when I am reading a book like this.  It becomes like a mystery novel, and I find myself wondering how it will end.  Surely, I thought many times while reading this book, the Americans are going to lose this whole war.  Knowing the end didn’t keep me from suspending disbelief in the events as they were unfolding in the narrative.

Another aspect of the book that was very enjoyable and typical of Atkinson’s writing was the inclusion of many eye-witness accounts.  Many heart-rending excerpts were included from letters of those who died in the battles.  Attitudes and perspectives of the soldiers bring the war the war home in a way that the broad overview cannot.  This was a war that pitted men of honor and principle on both sides against each other.  That does not negate the fact that being war, some ugly things happened that go beyond the already awful nature of warfare.

Of course, all my fellow history teachers and serious students will want to read this book.  But I think that those who simply like a good story that is non-fictional would like it as well.  Let’s just get to the point:  This is a book for Americans.  With all of my attraction to books on the Civil War Between the States and the World Wars, this is the war that made America.  The heritage is a not pure and faultless, but it is still amazing.  More important than the evening news is the story of our founding.  Here it is, or at least, here is the first third of it.

Congratulations to Rick Atkinson on completing this first volume and on (I am predicting) winning yet another well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.

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

 

 

A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin by David S. Steele

When a book ministers to us is as important as how it ministers to us.  Just as some sermons strike some of us as adequate but are life changing to others.  So it is with books.  At this age and stage of life, I read many books that are merely affirming what I have long since believed.  Of course, the reminders are good, and every book will reveal some aspect of a truth or event that I did not know.

This brings us to my discussion of a new, brief book titled A Godward Gaze: The Holy Pursuit of John Calvin by David S. Steele.  

My knowledge of John Calvin began in the fall of 1974 when I was taking an American history course.  The professor, who was both a well read history teacher and pastor, lectured on the role Calvin and Calvinism played in the settlement of the American colonies.  He also assigned a book for us to read titled John Calvin: His Roots and Fruits by C. Gregg Singer.

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This book changed my life in numerous ways.  It humbled and, in fact, humiliated me as a pseudo-reader and history student.  It reworked the way my mind handled thought and reading material.  And it challenged my whole way of thinking about religion.  My initial conclusions were that Calvinism impacted early American history and that it was wrong.

I remember finding a book in the college library that brought me great consolation.  I don’t remember the title, but it assured me that the God of Calvin was not at all like Jesus.  I found peace, but only for a season.  In short, by the summer of 1975, I was in full scale retreat from Calvinism, and before the summer was over, I had been defeated and enlisted in the other side.

Singer’s book was a study of the impact of Calvin on various areas of life and thought and on various nations and cultures.  I had never thought of Christianity being anything beyond religious and heart practices and moral values.  Book after book followed, but mainly what happened was that I became a Berean without knowing it.  Let’s just say that if you are going to be a Calvinist, you better be a Berean first and foremost.

It was another David Steele, along with co-author Curtis Thomas, who helped cement some life-changing doctrines into my life and mind through their compendium of Scriptures and historic testimonies of the Calvinistic doctrines.  Their book was titled The Five Points of Calvinism:  Defined, Defended, and Documented.  It is still in print in a much expanded edition.

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What I needed then and what David S. Steele has provided now is a look at another and very indispensable part of theology:  Holiness and Christian living.  My main criticism of A Godward Gaze is that it appeared some 45 plus years later than it should have.  I needed this book in 1974 and 1975, while I was struggling with finding the proof texts of the Five Points or trying to answer this or that objection.

A Godward Gaze is not a biography of John Calvin.  It does contain many biographical details, beginning with a sketch of his life and conversion.  Nor is this book a defining, defending, or documenting account of the major teachings of Calvinism.  It does contain many points that are built upon Calvinistic, and we believe, Scriptural presuppositions.  This book is what is says:  A look at how Calvin the man, among others, looked to God for personal sustenance and faith.

Let’s emphasize what is vital for both John Calvin and others who are Christians:  John Calvin loved the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yes, Calvin was logical, theologically rigorous, strong-armed when dealing with heretics, moody on occasion, afflicted in personality especially when overwhelmed by physical ailments and physical enemies, and fallible.  He was a sinner saved by grace.  He was also a man that God raised up and equipped to teach others.

The story of Calvinism is sometimes thought of as having three branches:  Docts, Kuyps, and Piets.  The Docts are those who gravitate toward theological doctrines; the Kuyps are those who follow Abraham Kuyper and seek to think in terms of a Christian worldview; and the Piets are those who emphasize Christian piety.  (I think D. H. Hart may be the one who devised this way of viewing Reformed folk.)  There need not be a decision made as to which we should choose.  All three are part of the full-orbed Christian life.

The focus, however, of A Godward Gaze is on the life of holy, dedicated pursuit of God.  The many people who are approvingly quoted in this book, including John Bunyan, John Newton, Steven Lawson, John Frame, and others, are in sync on the need for Christians to have a Godward and God-centered gaze and pursuit in their lives.

So, I needed this book 45 years ago.  Thankfully, I did get enough exposure from preaching and reading to offset some of my Calvinistic cage-stage zeal.  I suspect that the holiness centered thrust of this book would have been as puzzling to me for a time as was other theological revolutions I was experiencing.

Even today, people who define themselves or who are defined by others as Calvinists need this book.  I certainly do wish to better understand and explain the extent of the atonement to people around me, but it is more important that I am focused on the unlimited grace that God shows sinners and has shown me. Calvinistic youth can be snotty, if they work a bit on doctrine.  Calvinistic churches can be a bit stuffy.  Calvinist thinkers can be condescending.  It is not that such behavior reflects badly on John Calvin, but rather that it reflects badly on Calvin’s Savior.

Maybe the book is both 45 years late and just right in time for me.  I heartily recommend this to you.

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