How America’s Political Parties Change by Michael Barone

 

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How America’s Political Parties Change (And How They Don’t) by Michael Barone, longtime political analyst, is published by Encounter Books.

If you are looking for a fun, rip-roaring tale of politics and politicians, don’t look here.  If you are looking for a searing attack on the bad guys (whoever you think they are), don’t look here either.  But if you like a good, serious, fact and detail filled study of political trends, this is the book you should read.

I love politics.  I have taught government and history for over forty years.  Somehow, the details of the legislative process, the levels of court jurisdictions, and the dynamics of the bureaucracy fail to excite me.  But political campaigns–that’s a different story.  Polls, primaries, speeches, endorsements, dark horses, front runners, and old time conventions are sheer delight for me to read about.  The series of books that Theodore White wrote, beginning with The Making of a President 1960 going up through America in Search of Herself, are beloved volumes.

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I have read lots of books on the candidates, winning and losing ones, the elections, and the campaigns.  Concerning the last Presidential campaign, 2016, I have, so far, only read two books.  One was John Fea’s Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  This book was weak, whiny, and unconvincing.  There were a few useful parts here and there, but it was mainly an shaky evangelical lament that Donald Trump won.  (And I was not happy with the 2016 choices either.)Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by [John Fea]

The other book was P. J. O’Rourke’s How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016.  O’Rourke’s book was sheer delight.  He is an incredibly witty writer, but it only took some reporting of the story to write comedy about the 2016 election.

I await the time to read a good coverage and analysis of the 2016 election.  I don’t want to read a Trump supporter, a whining liberal, or a Never-Trumper, so I may have to wait a while to read about what we experienced.

Back to Michael Barone’s How America’s Political Parties Change:  I have been reading Michael Barone’s political analyses for years.  He is a conservative of the Reagan-era type, but he is not using his books to grind ideological axes.  Instead, he compares numbers.  Lots and lots of numbers, percentages, vote totals, trends, demographic changes.  He has visited every congressional district in the United States, and I reckon it was for research purposes.  He has been a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics since 1972.

In 1940, FDR ran for an unprecedented third consecutive term and was opposed by a political neophyte and former Democrat and businessman named Wendell Wilkie.  Roosevelt won the election, in large part, because the impending war made some nervous about switching Presidents, and in larger part because of the political coalition that the Democrats had assembled.  That coalition was winning control of the Presidency, the House, and the Senate from 1930 to 1996.

In 1944, Roosevelt told an aide, “We ought to have two real parties–one liberal and the other conservative.” That was not true for many years, because both parties were made up of coalitions of both conservative and liberal factions.  It is more closely true today.

Overall, the American electorate is fairly evenly divided between Republican and Democrat voters.  In a given Presidential election, if the Democrats run unknown Candidate X and the Republicans run unknown candidate Y, the Democrats will net somewhere between 47 to 49 percent of the vote.  The Republicans will tally somewhere between 45 to 48 percent of the vote.

In only two of the past seven elections have the winning party actually won a majority of the popular vote.  In two of the past seven elections, the Republicans won in the Electoral College vote while losing the popular vote.  The spread has been less than 5 percent difference in five of those seven elections.  Winners have been determined in large part by rallying the certain voting factions or groups or by edging out the opponent in a few key swing states.  In other words, a small number of voters in a small number of states or districts could have changed most of those election results.

The House and the Senate, predominately Democrat from 1930 to 1994, have switched back and forth several times since the mid-term elections during the Clinton Administration.  While congressional seats tend to remain in the hands of incumbents, there are always incumbent Senators and Representatives who don’t seek re-election or a few who become vulnerable for a variety of reasons.  Almost every election cycle has included a realistic possibility of the majority party in either house losing control.

Barone surveys several periods in the past where similar cases prevailed.  Along with that, there have been a few times where one party or the other swamps the losing party in several elections for a period of time.  In our own time, there are Red States  (Republican) that are inching toward turning Purple (undecided) or Blue States (Democrat) that get flipped and go red.  It wasn’t all that long ago that California was in the Republican column in several Presidential elections.  In recent years, West Virginia, a long-time Democrat sure bet, has gone for Republican Presidential candidates.  2016 was a surprise because the big mid-western Blue Wall broke with Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa going for Trump over Clinton.

What does all this mean for the 2020 election?  Right now, President Trump is dealing with a wrecked economy, on-going fears and problems related to Covid-19, and riots and racial unrest across the country.  Economic troubles favor the Democrats, while law and order issues favor the Republicans.  Just a few months ago, the economy appeared to be booming.  President Trump continually displays weird, uncouth, and irrational behavior that either excites his base or at least does not worry them, but neither do such actions expand that narrow base.  Candidate Joe Biden continues to display moments of blundering thought, lack of thought, and no thought.  While confine to his basement, he seems to be a safer and more winnable candidate that he would be if he were out and about.

This is June and the election is in November.  In political terms, that is many lifetimes for a campaign.  But of this much you can be certain, the race is within a likely 5 percentage point spread.  It will be decided in a few key swing states.  That will be true if it is a Trump vs. Biden race or if it is a Candidate X vs. Candidate Y race.

 

Paul versus the Philosophers and America versus the Just War Tradition

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These two excellent morning readings of late are on very different subjects, consisting of multiple contributors, and both enriching.

America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts is edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles and is published by Notre Dame Press.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy: Reading the Apostle in Greco-Roman Context is edited by Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones and is published by InterVarsity Press.

The overwhelming criteria for my reading plans is that a particular book is close at hand.  I could wish that I had a drive to master particular topics and could read with a greater goal in mind.  But I accept my gadfly reading program and often surprise myself at how themes and commonalities crop up in spite of my non-intentions.

Paul and the Giants of Philosophy

I have been repeatedly made aware of how deficient my own education has been due to a lack of philosophy studies.  I have majors in history and English, but was never required to study philosophy.  It is inescapable for both of those fields.  I have also been involved in studying the Bible and theology since my late teen years.   I served as a pastor in the past and am still a teacher in a classical Christian school.  While philosophy and the Bible are not equal, any serious student of the Bible and theology must, as in MUST, study at least some philosophy.

This is not a case where one must go on a difficult journey to find someone, somewhere, who has written something on the connection between the history of philosophy and the history of the Church, or philosophical issues and theological issues, or of philosophers who were also Christians.  You want to get books on philosophy and Christianity?  Better get a large bookcase and a big budget.

The great thing about Paul and the Giants of Philosophy is its accessibility.  Each chapter takes one of the philosophers of the Greco-Roman world and presents their views on a topic and then contrasts those views with Paul’s writings.  There is more interaction between Paul and the philosophers in the Stoic tradition rather than examinations of Paul’s writings viewed in the light of “The Big Three,” meaning Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  Certainly, more in-depth, scholarly, weighty, academic books can and have been written.

But this book is readable, enjoyable, and geared toward the non-expert.  I firmly believe that my philosophy professor and student friends and son would find reading this book profitable, but it is geared toward those of us who read Paul a lot and Stoics rarely.  But, for those who wish to know more, each chapter ends with suggested readings giving both primary and secondary sources for the more serious pursuit of the topics.  And each chapter has some discussion questions as well.

I believe that this would be an excellent book to use in a college philosophy survey.  It could also be used in any course studying Paul in his historical and cultural context.  Some groups would enjoy this for a series of Sunday school lessons or as a book club read.  And, with strong, hot, black coffee, it is wonderful for morning reading.

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I usually begin with some readings related to the Bible and theology, and after that, I like to read something that fits into the broader Christian worldview perspective.  This is what led to my reading of America and the Just War Tradition.

America and the Just War Tradition

This book is like a long trip for a child.  What was overwhelmingly attracting me was the chapter by chapter survey of the various wars that the United States has fought in, beginning with the War for Independence and going up to current engagements in the War on Terror, meaning Iraq and Afghanistan.

But before one can get into the fun stuff, there is a long chapter written by the editors, Dr. Hall and Dr. Charles, titled “The Just War Tradition and America’s Wars.”  These 50 pages constitute what could be a short book on its own.  We all have a sense of certain wars or aspects of wars being just or unjust.  We all have a list of do’s and don’t’s about what is allowable in war.  On the one extreme, we would find pacifists who would eschew all wars.  There is within the Christian tradition a great amount of history and theology to support such a view.  As one whose military “experience” consists only in teaching about war, I have a heart-felt desire for pacifism.  But it is not easily sustained in light of real world conditions.

On the other hand, you would find extreme nationalist views which would justify any and every war that America or some other country of one’s origins has fought.  I find a certain sympathy with that position as well.  We honor the military men who, as we say, fought for our liberties and right to be free.  But exactly what liberties and freedoms for us were they fighting for in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, and possibly some or all of the others?

The weighing out of justice or injustice in war is not merely a matter of gut reactions or simplistic patriotic urges.  The Just War Tradition largely grew out of the context of Western Civilization, or we could even say Christendom.  The greatest philosophers and theologians have thought seriously about the ethics of conflict on both a personal and nation-wide level.  Growing out of the thinking of such people as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, philosophers have agreed (always a slippery word to use) on what constitutes justness before, during, and after war.  The Latin phrases which permeate this book and topic are Ius ad bellum, Ius in bello, and Ius post bellum.  

Ius ad bellum, justness before war, begins with just cause, which is followed by just authority,  and right intention.  Ius ad bello, justness in war, hinges on discrimination and proportionality.   Ius post bellum deals with how the results are handled, what happens to the people and countries that were defeated, and what follows from that war.

As might be guessed, a war could be started for wrong reasons, conducted honorably (according to the criteria), and ended well.  Or you can mix and match the ingredients in a wide variety of ways.  As helpful as the criteria are, such things are not always clear cut.  War is so horrible that it sometimes seems insane to try to make it a subject of calm, reasoned discourse.

I majored in history in college.  I have taken courses that have included or primarily focused upon the wars of the United States.  I would guess that I have a thousand books dealing with war.  But this book revealed how little I actually understood or had been subjected to understanding the historical, philosophical, and traditional views of Just War.  That is the long journey that the reader has to take before getting to “the answers” in the chapters on America’s wars.

To quickly comment upon the wars, each chapter has a different contributor.  I honestly think there is not a bad or weak essay in the lot.  Part of the delight in this book is the cases where I was surprised or even shocked by the views of the authors.  I would tend, for example, to find the American War for Independence just and defensible, but Dr. John D. Roche thinks not.  Amazing argument, this chapter didn’t convince me, but it did humble me a bit. Many chapters later, I thought that there was little or no way to defend the American experience in Vietnam, but Mackubin Thomas Owens’s chapter blew me away.

As indicated in the review above regarding the Bible and philosophy, history teachers must study philosophy.  Just War is a philosophical and ethics related tradition and a theological concern as well.  Studying this book will not give you the set of pat answers to why this war and not that one was right or wrong.  But it will give perspective.

History teachers, read this book.  As a further note, it is chocked full of other reading suggestions on both the specific wars and on the topic in general.  I am convinced that I must acquire Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars.  Also, I am confirmed in my conviction that Mark David Hall is one of the best resources for serious historical and political studies in our time.  I learned of him last year from political theorist Koty Arnold just after Hall’s book Did America Have a Christian Founding? was published.  I am now on a quest to obtain and read all that Dr. Hall writes.

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It’s Getting Western Real Fast Now: Four Histories of the American West

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History has been my life and career.  I decided in 9th grade, back in 1970, that I wanted to be a history teacher and never swerved off that path through the years that followed.  I have also been other things, such as a newspaper reporter, a convenience store worker, a pastor, a school administrator, and a teacher of other subjects, but I have always at heart been a history teacher.  The realm of history is, however, vast so I have my areas of focus, or what we might call specialization.  That is a fancy way of saying that some parts of history are of more interest to me than other parts.  Generally, I prefer 20th Century history to anything Medieval.  Always, I prefer political history over social or economic history.  I have read and taught the War Between the States without ever acquiring the ability to know when I should end the topic and move on.  Being one of the most non-military type people in the universe, I have, nevertheless, read and taught enough military history to at least get honorary rank of private, no class.

As a teacher of American history in most of my classroom ventures, I have tried to avoid getting too interested in the history of the American West.  On the one hand, that is impossible because the American West was originally the lands just past the coastlines of the original colonies.  The western frontier was a moving, fluid concept with different boundary lines, different cultural events, and different settlers all the up to 1890.  On the other hand, there are too many events that are directly tied to the west, as defined by the areas across the Mississippi River that were settled, fought over, and brought into the union from the time of the Louisiana Purchase and beyond.

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I tried to avoid the numerous Indian Wars, except the Nez Pearce’s ill fated skirmishes with the U. S. cavalry when they were led by Chief Joseph.  I tried to keep cowboys and cattle drives, saloons and settlements, outlaws and sheriff’s posses all confined to the television shows I loved as a kid and still enjoy on occasion.

But recently, I slipped away by night from the 20th Century, from Puritans, from Confederates, and from all other realms of history, and headed out west.

It all started with Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West by H. W. Brands.  This book was published by Basic Books in 2019, and I acquired it with a gift card from Christmas.

I have several books by University of Texas (Austin) history department chairman Dr. Brands.  He is not only quite prolific as an author, but he has written on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from both Roosevelts, to Benjamin Franklin, to Andrew Jackson, to books on western settlement.  He is one of those few authors who is both an academic professor and a writer of popular narrative histories.  In short, I would not hesitate to pick up any book that he has written (which total over 30) and would find them enjoyable reading.

This book goes back to the earliest of American (here meaning United States) explorations.  The western (here meaning west of the Mississippi River) expansion began with the fur trade.  For certain, the western man was rugged, tough, engaged with weather and conflicts, and resilient.  We have lots of myths about frontiersmen, but the myths exist only because there were actual people bearing mythic qualities.

The west is a complex story, filled with fur traders and Indian conflicts, religious migrations and Indian conflicts, wagon trains and Indian conflicts, gold strikes and Indian conflict, cattle drives and Indian conflicts, the Civil War and Indian conflicts, railroads, buffaloes, untamable lands, impassible mountains, raging streams, frontier justice/injustice, territorial expansion, broken hearts and bodies, and Indian conflicts.

As a non-specialist in American western studies, I was continually amazed at how much I was familiar with.  There is no study of American history without a Conestoga wagon being pulled (hopefully) by oxen and mules and heading toward the direction of the setting sun.  While El Dorado, the mythical city of gold, was never found, many El Dorados were found.

Brands’ book might be bypassed by the college professor who wants a more scholarly, footnote laden, “this scholar contends, while that scholar objects,” politically correctly, and horrendously overpriced university press book for a 300 or 400 level history course.  I disagree.  This book is good history and good reading.  Add on, Mr. or Madame Professor, a few more in-depth monographs, but assign this book.  Historians must never forget that story is essential to history, and that story must be engaging.

Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862–The Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Dr. Anderson is an authority on western, Native American, and U. S. history, with having authored a dozen books.  He even wrote one criticizing Texas.  That is one brave historian, and I hope he has had facial recognition surgery to protect himself from some of my Texas friends.

This book was for me what reading history must be like for many people.  I was largely unfamiliar with most of the names, places, and events in the book.  My knowledge of Minnesota history basically begins with the late 1940s and 1950s when Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy began rising to prominence as leaders in the Democrat Party.  I had heard of the mass hanging, eerily photographed and often reprinted, that was part of the outcome of this event.  The Dakota tribe was just a name that merged in with the several dozen Indian tribes that I have read over and past through in many surveys of American history.

After feeling frustrated for not grasping more of the details of this event (and surprise that I never really knew about it), I remembered that Dr. Anderson began the book by telling that how he had been studying, thinking through, and researching this story for four and a half decades.  Why should I expect that one book read over a period of a few weeks would fast forward me through what he has spent a lifetime studying?

There are basically three stories in this book, and all three of them are sad, tragic, and painful to read about.  History is not for sissies.  If you want knights rescuing damsels in distress, pure heroes and heroines, and truth, justice, and the American way, go to some source other than history.  (Hence, referring back to Dr. Anderson’s book on Texas, even the Lone Star State is a collective sinner in need of grace.)

The first story is one that is overall familiar.  Treaties, reservations, and corruption were endemic problems.  No one wishing to make a case for government involvement in human affairs would want to call in examples from how the Dakota tribes were dealt with.  Some people benefited greatly from these actions, but they were usually the government agents who were mishandling funds.  The Dakota people had few resources and means to combat and certain few, if any, to correct the abuses.

That led to the second story which was an outbreak of hostilities between Indians and whites.  As has often been said, when whites fought and won a conflict, it was called a battle, but when Indians won, it was called a massacre.  This part of the story is a horror story equal to the best/worst accounts that we have read about or watched on old television westerns and movies.  White communities were attacked, men, women, and children were killed, torturous methods were used on human beings.  In many cases, the news accounts became exaggerated and accounts were tweaked to satisfy the morbid curiosity of those far from the scenes.  Then there were the stories of rapes and abuses of women.  White people who had co-existed near Indian tribes were victims of the attacks; militia units hastily formed to stop the attacks suffered as well.

This was all happening during 1862, so the United States was so focused on what were the worst years of the Civil War for the Union that few resources were available to rescue the area.  In what was the only bit of humor found in the book, one U. S. soldier said that the weapons he and others were issued were so bad that they  should have been given to the Indians to help defeat them.  As expected, as is the case in every book and account of white and Indian civilizations at war, eventually, the power, numbers, and resources fell to the whites.

The third story may be accounted as the most tragic and horrible of them all.  It is the story of injustice.  Indians were not reckoned as a military enemy in the traditional sense.  Nor were they citizens.  There were trials of large numbers of the captured warriors.  These trials sounded more like things I have read about “justice” in Stalinist and Nazi regimes than what I would have expected in America.  Bereft of counsel, deficient in understanding of the English language, totally lacking knowledge of the justice system, one after another, Indian men were hauled before the courts, given a brief (often less than an hour) of trial, and sentenced to death by hanging.

This world is complicated.  Understanding doesn’t always excuse evils, but it often helps explain why things happened.  In many cases, Indian men took white women and made them their wives.  That was their way.  In the white world, this was abuse and rape.  I honestly felt grief for both sides in this situation.  I could wish that mercy had triumphed over justice.

Over three hundred Indian men were sentenced to hang, but President Lincoln pardoned most of them.  Granted, some who died had been criminal in their war waging, but again, the system was complicated.  Thankfully, there were Christians among both white and red peoples who sought to do right; however, these instances were far too few.

I wish I were convinced that we actually learn from history and correct the wrongs of the past.  There is so much to learn here.  Grievous though this story is, it needs to be read, remembered, and mourned over.

The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M. Rein is published by the University of Oklahoma Press

I am still reading this book so I will limit my remarks.  First, this book is a useful follow up to reading Thomas W. Cutrer’s Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River.  That book is my “go to” work on any of the campaigns and battles that took place in that most neglected part of the Late Unpleasantness.

Second, Colorado was a territory, along with New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and other places in the far west.  Like the California Gold Rush of a few years earlier, Colorado had drawn hordes of men interested in finding gold.  Some came out of the South, some from the North.  In some ways, the small battles, whose numbers pale before the fight going on along the eastern and middle parts of the country, seem inconsequential.  The Confederacy tried, unsuccessfully, to extend the boundaries of their nation to the western regions.  Units like the Second Colorado Cavalry tied into battle and stopped them.

What difference did it make?  Or could that have turned the course of the war?  Interesting questions, but those who fought, died, were injured, or maimed in those battles were just as much dedicated soldiers fighting for beliefs and visions as were those who are buried at Gettysburg.

I hope to report more on this book later. Perhaps it is of interest only to those who are really engaged in not just the Civil War but the less known theaters of the war.

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Author Stephen Harrigan standing outside the Alamo holding his book.

 

Big, Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan is published by the University of Texas Press.

Weighing in at close to 1000 page, this history of Texas promises to be fun.  I reckon that like the two books immediately preceding this one, there are some terrible tales that will make even Texans humble themselves into a repentant attitude.  But this book, which I have yet to start, looks to simply be lots of fun.

I count it as a near miracle that I survived 7th grade Texas history class.  I even became a history teacher, not because of, but in spite of that class.  It was terrible.  The “bless her heart” teacher apparently knew nothing about Texas, 7th grade boys, or teaching.  (I warn’t no saint either.)  When I taught Arkansas history, I often told my Arkansawyer students that most of their (now mine as well) state’s history was the story of people passing through on the way to Texas.

James Michener wrote a fat novel called Texas.  The very state just demands BIG.  Granted that Michener’s writing tended toward obesity of prose, he would have made a novel about Monaco at least 500 pages.  I have often taught a portion of Michener’s draft that got cut out and then was revised to make a separate book.  Titled The Eagle and the Raven, that historical novel compares and contrasts the careers of Santa Anna and Sam Houston.  But, I have read far too little about the state I grew up in.  In fact, I know far too little about the state.  Unfortunately, when I was able to travel, we usually opted to head north to north east to find cooler climates and mountains.  Living in the corner of northeast Texas and now southwest Arkansas, Texas was too hot during the summer to draw me into traveling there.

I hope Emily Dickinson was right in saying, “There is no frigate like a book to take us miles away,” because I am going to travel across geography and time to visit the great state of Texas in this book.

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The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church by David S. Steele

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The White Flag: When Compromise Cripples the Church by David S. Steele was published in 2019 and is available through Amazon.

A few months ago, Dr. David Steele sent me a copy of his latest book The White Flag.  Being the diligent and quick book reviewer that I am, I was able to turn to this past week to read it.

First of all, I think it is good and necessary that pastors write.  David is senior pastor of Christ Fellowship in Everson, Washington.  This is, I believe, his third book, and the other two are on Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Pertaining to the topic sentence of this paragraph, I believe that writing, on the one hand, is a good discipline for pastors.  (I often cringe when I know that teachers assign themes and papers, but never write such things themselves.)  But more than just the discipline and focus that writing entails, it is good for a congregation to have written messages from their pastors and leaders.

Preachers are, whether they wish to acclaim the title or not, public theologians.  So, their writings need to address both doctrinal positions of their church, but also the greater cultural issues swirling around and affecting the minds of people both in and out of the congregation.  Also, written articles, newsletters, and, even better, books by the pastors enable the congregation to share, evangelize, and edify those they come in contact with.

Second, David has addressed some vital topics here in this book.  Scrolling through Facebook (with both the good and bad benefits of such), I am constantly made aware of heretical preachers, misleading theological deviations, denominational fights, and, in short, surrenders to the wrongful ideas that are battering the walls of the church.

The history of Christianity is a history of all too many surrenders.  As a student of history, I have read many accounts of armies surrendering.  Some surrenders were long overdue, but what is painful to read about is where an army surrenders unnecessarily.  (I am thinking here of the British surrender at Singapore in 1942.)  In contrast to the debatable historical examples, the church need never surrender its claims before the threats it faces.

The dangers can be put into two categories:  Outward dangers and Inward dangers.  The Outward dangers are probably the easiest to confront and are the least likely for the church to embrace.  In recent years, there has been a resurgence of atheism with several key figures who are the public apologists for such positions.  In my youth, that role of public atheist was carried on by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, who was something of an obnoxious buffoon. The big names today are more formidable.

The idea of a church surrendering to atheism is absurd.  (That doesn’t mean that it may not have happened in some case or another.)  Even the far from Fundamentalist or Evangelical churches in your community are not likely to hire an atheist pastor.  In past decades, most of Christendom was pretty firmly against the then-present threats of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.  There were compromises, sell-outs, surrenders, etc., but it would not be expected that a church today would tolerate swastika or hammer and sickle symbols in their presence.  And thankfully, even in some of the whitest of Southern churches, the KKK is not welcome.

These outward threats, which must still be identified and confronted, do not constitute the greatest dangers.  Don’t look, in other words, over the wall of protection at the raging worldlings out there.  As the old Pogo cartoon character said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The key word in understanding what Dr. Steele addresses is compromise.  The middle and largest section of the book examines compromises.  No, neither your church nor mine will tolerate an atheist, Communist, Nazi, Mafia don, KKK member, or whatever else, but we are all susceptible to compromising what we believe, what the Scriptures teach, and what churches have historically affirmed.

I recognize that finding a balance is sometimes tricky.  Maybe some issues would be easier to confront if we just adopted a full-fledged Amish approach and cut off the world and most modern gadgets.  While I admire much in such separatist and pietistic efforts, I don’t think such an approach is reasonable or Biblical.  On the other extreme would be an antinomian embrace of “Christian liberty” where “all things are lawful” (wrenched out of context) and we get to enjoy “all this and heaven too.”  That would also allow for a libertarian Christianity that boldly proclaims in creed:  Whatever!

The solution is embarrassingly simple.  Adhere to the historic, creedal doctrines of what the Bible is, who God is, what Christ is, what faith is, and how we should then live and worship.  Yes, we will have some brush-ups and spats between ourselves and others.  Dr. Steele is a Baptist, while I am a Presbyterian. We can have a water fight at some point, but there are just too many clear and agreed upon doctrinal immovables for the two of us, and for Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Reformed, Protestant, and creed affirming Christians to join together on.

Finally, I found myself thinking, while reading this book, that I may not tend to raise the white flag of surrender, but I am all too willing to seek detente.  That term, going back to the 1980s, refers to mutual coexistence.  On the one hand, I don’t want to fall into the mean-spiritedness that Christian convictions can wrongly cause us to embrace.  I want to have friends and connections with people on the other side of issues.  I wish every solid standing Christian could have a friendly relationship with at least one atheist, Muslim, LGBTQ person, and a dozen varieties of heretics.  How else can we share the Gospel with them?

But I don’t want to reach the point of affirming to myself that my friend X is Y, but I can accept that because of Z.  We recently watched the movie made about the life of Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist, whose life was overwhelmingly difficult because of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  There were many wonderful things included in this movie about this man, including his lifelong atheism.  I can’t give him a free pass because of his rejection of even a mere belief in theism.  Nor can I overlook the soul killing heresies or unbelief or wrongful lifestyle choices of people around me.  Compromise does not just lead to surrender:  compromise is surrender.

David Steele’s book contains some vital reminders for us.  It is as timely as the daily news, but its message is far more lasting.

God Sings by Douglas Bond and Sing! by the Gettys

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The term often used is “worship wars.”  Along with a hundred thousand other doctrines, practices, and preferences that divide Christians, we are prone to take up the sword and shield against, not our many enemies comprising the world, the flesh, and the devil, but each other.  The Church today not only cannot unite on many doctrinal fronts, but it cannot unite over who is going to lead the music and what music it is that is being led.

I don’t want to sound like I am minimizing the implications of the war for the keyboards and soundboards.  Important doctrines and actions are at stake here.  In the worst cases, we must love the singer, but hate the song.  Much singing and music should create as a collateral grace, amazing patience.  Flannery O’Connor tells in a letter of a man who was converted after attending church with his wife for years.  “The preaching was so bad,” he said, “That I concluded that there must be something important to all of this to cause people to keep coming.”  Maybe the same can be true of music.

I admit that I don’t want to wade into the worship wars battlefield.  I have fought with the brethren over Calvinism, baptism, the eldership, tongues, theonomy, weekly communion, congregational rule, charismatic gifts, church discipline, the application of Old Testament laws, the Sabbath, the role of women in the church, and more.  On some of these issues, I know I have been right at some point because I have been on both sides of the arguments at some point.  And I have not successfully avoided the sharp points of spears and barbs in fights over music.

But I would like to cross by on the other side of the road while the wounded musician lies there, beaten and robbed of his lyrics.  I will hope for a Samaritan heading to Brentwood, Tennessee will do what I don’t want to do.  Call me war weary, if you like, or maybe just a passive coward, if you prefer.  I confess that I really don’t know what to do to change music in the Sunday morning hour where we are all united in our being divided.

So, as a partial concession to the need to engage, I will comment on two excellent books on the music issue.  Read carefully, lest my tongue-in-cheek comments be taken for serious reflections and my serious reflections be taken for veiled attempts to rival the Babylon Bee.

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God Sings! (And Ways We Think He Ought To) by Douglas Bond is published by Scriptorium Press.  Check out Mr. Bond’s website (click HERE)   where you can either order two copies of this book, or get the book along with a free CD called Rise and Worship, containing hymns he has written.

Douglas Bond is best known for his cottage industry that produces Christian historical fiction.  While many of his books are geared toward younger readers, they are enjoyable for readers of all ages.  His novels War in the Wasteland (set in World War I) and The Resistance (set in World War II) are recent works of his that I have read, enjoyed, and reviewed in the past year.  His book Hostage Lands, set in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall, is a delightful book my junior high class and I read together.  It was that reading experience that cause me and Douglas to “Bond” as reader and writer.  (Yes, I know that was awful.)

But Bond is not stranger to the subject of music.  He has written biographies of John Knox and Isaac Watts, both being part of the “Long Line of Godly Men” series published by Ligonier Ministries. (Outstanding series, by the way.)  Moreover, anyone who has been a Christian for a long time and has had the occasion to sit in a variety of Christian worship services and conferences acquires a wide range of experiences with music.  Although music often is done almost as the opening act to a sermon or lecture, it is, upon reflection, more than that.  It is not merely an appetizer before the main course of a meal.

Side note:  We have attended services where the music part was referred to as “the worship” while the preaching that followed was…well, I am not sure what.  We are worshiping while we sit under the preaching of God’s Word as much or more so as when we are singing or listening to singing.

Bond suffers from the same possible tendency as I do:  Grouchy old man syndrome.  I am a bit older than he is, but his hair is totally white!  It is easy to write off the old, curmudgeonly Calvinist who is against everything except for some sparse, cold, doctrinally obtuse worship service.  So, one picking up his book and giving it the quick glance might conclude:  Here is another old man who is railing against the very thing we need to draw the young, unchurched into our churches.

I assure you that the description above is not who Douglas Bond is or what he seeks in his book.  (Whether it describes me or not is a different story.)  God sings.  Read Zephaniah 3:17.

“The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Music is essential to sound worship.  Musical lyrics are doctrinal.  Music teaches, which means that it can build up or lead astray.

I have experienced both the unsingable, overly long, ancient church hymns that leave me cold and the loud, overly repetitious, shallow, syrupy creations that pass for music today.  All old and staid or all new and hip are not the choices.  But we do need to be singing doctrinal truths that are well written, learn-able and teachable, singable and delightful.  As Douglas Bond points out in example after example, such hymns have already been written in the past and they are still being written in the present.

God Sings! is good, convicting, and convincing.  Everyone on the church staff needs to read and discuss it.

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I picked up a copy of Sing! How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church by Keith and Kristyn Getty a month or so ago at my son Nick’s house.  I took it home with me to finish reading it.  Nick said, “It looks like one of those coffee table books.”  By that he meant the type of Christian fluff that has large print, double to triple spacing, with little text and even less content.  I agree, for I did not expect to find much beyond a bit of light topping in the contents.

However, this book is a solid study–yet very readable–that is calling the Church to do something radical: Sing!  I have experienced (even with limited travels) too many cases where there is a loud performance group (called the Worship Team), plugged in instruments, words flashed on a screen, and a soundbooth working overtime to mic the singers, but only the tiniest of sound coming from the congregation.  I have watched my wife and children, all trained musicians, stop even trying to sing the randomized melodies of the shallow songs.  I myself refuse to go along with the “repeat 20 times” of a song.  I abhor the moment when the oft sung refrain is sung yet one more time quietly for some emotional effect.

But even as hard hearted as I can be, I am always moved when I hear and feel the surge of volume coming from a congregation singing the hymns.  Sometimes the effect is from the large size of the congregations (where I am visiting), but usually it is the participatory engagement rather than the numbers that affect the songs.

Read both of these books.  Distribute copies of them if you are able.  Pray for a revival of congregational singing of solid hymns old and new and yet to be written.

Post Script:  Incremental steps are often good.

  1.  Turn down the volume of the mics on the singers up front and turn way down the volume of the instruments.  (I am not talking to first rate pipe organ players!)
  2.   Introduce and learn a solid hymn or two.
  3. Be patient with enduring old favorites that are weak (like “The Old Rugged Cross”) or new favorites that are shallow (“Bless the Lord O My Soul”).
  4. Teach on the importance of good hymnody.
  5. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that a U2-type concert will grow your church into stalwart Reformed soldiers.
  6. Allow songs to convey their messages.  Songs dealing with sin and the death of Christ don’t need to be set to dancing jig tunes.

 

 

 

 

American History–An Incurable Passion

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American history  has paid the bills at my house for several decades now.  (Hey, American history, I would not object to you generating a few extra bucks.)  I have walked the breadth and depth of historical studies and found myself falling in love with many different ages, countries, and periods of history.  But when I fall back on my druthers, I had druther read, study, and teach American history than any other place, story, or phase.

I want to highlight very briefly each of the books above.  Most are review books lined up in my never ending queue of required readings.  Other are books I have shelled out the hard cash to purchase and really want to read.  Some have already been read through; some are being read; some have been started; but all are books I certainly hope to get read in the next few months. (Unfortunately, more books will show up demanding immediate attention.)

From left to right, I will identify and comment briefly on the books pictured above and below.

Protestants and American Conservatism: A Short History  by Gillis J. Harp.  Outstanding study of a long relationship between the often changing ways that Christians have, for both better and worse, embraced every changing modes of conservative thinking.  I have reviewed this book on this blog.

The Price of Greatness:  Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Oligarchy by Jay Cost.  More a survey of the economic and political agendas of these two men, rather than biographical studies of two sometimes allies, sometimes enemies.  Useful study of the hows and whys of early American economic successes and challenges.

Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 by David Cannadine.  Someone slipped a bit of UK history into my line-up of American history stories.  British history runs a strong second to my love of American history.

Baptists and the Holy Spirit: The Contested History with Holiness-Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements by C. Douglas Weaver.  I am interested in looking into this story with no dog in the hunt.  American church and Christian history is a sub-genre of American history and is a consuming interest.

Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Conflict in American History by Gary Clayton Anderson.  Sent by Oklahoma University Press, this book struck me as one of marginal–at best–interest.  Then I read from the introduction and realized that this event–totally unknown to me–sounded incredibly interesting.

The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M Rein.  In spite of my best efforts to wean myself away from Civil War reading, I keep returning.  The western campaigns are still largely vague, in spite of having read Thomas Cutrer’s excellent study Theater of a Separate War:  The Civil War West of the Mississippi River, 1861-1865.  

The Founding of Thomas Jefferson’s University edited by John A. Regosta, Peter S. Onuf, and Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy.  While this might not sound like the most interesting book around, we must remember that Jefferson listed the founding of the University of Virginia as one of his 3 greatest accomplishments.

Thomas Jefferson’s Lives: Biographers and the Battle for History, edited by Robert M. S. McDonald.  I started this book recently, but other readings rudely pushed it aside.  Through the years, many have written about and sought to interpret the life of Thomas Jefferson, and this book’s contributors dwell on how the man has fared through it all.

Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions by Caitlin Fitz.  I almost felt guilty for spending two bucks for this Goodwill find, for I have so many books on the American Revolution/War for Independence.  Then I discovered that it focuses on the subsequent revolutions in Central and South America in relation to our national experience.  Looking forward to this read.

Great Society: A New History by Amity Shlaes.  Having read Dr. Shlaes’s books on the Great Depression and Calvin Coolidge, I knew this was a must have.  Bought it with a Christmas gift card.

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael P. Winship

and

The Puritans: A Transatlantic History by David D. Hall.

I love colonial American history, the Puritans, the Reformation and its impact on American and British history.  What is there to not be excited about with these two books?

America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration That Defined It by C. Bradley Thompson.  I have been interested in this book since I first heard about it from Bradley Birzer.  After reading the opening, I am more interested than ever.

Conceived in Liberty:  The New Republic, 1781-1791 by Murray Rothbard.  Years ago, Dr. Rothbard wrote a multivolume history of early America.  Only now is this last volume, painstakingly deciphered from Rothbard’s handwriting, made available.  Rothbard is anything but conventional and predictable as a historian, and that is what makes him interesting and challenging.

Dreams of El Dorado: A HIstory of the American West by H. W. Brands.  The settlement of the American “West” has not been one of my main priorities in my studies, but as I am learning from this book, it is a fascinating story.

Lest anyone think these are all of my current history–American mostly–books that are screaming to be read, I assure you the stack is still very high.

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Lexham Press’ Best of Christianity Today

 

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I was born in December of 1955 and Christianity Today first went out in October of 1956.  It would be many years before I gained even a shadowy awareness of the rise and travails of Evangelicalism within the Christian faith.  I was raised in the Bible Belt and most of my elementary teachers attended either the same Methodist Church I attended or went to Baptist churches in the community.  We prayed in school or at school events and the Christian undercurrents were still going strong.  In time, I became aware of a preacher named Billy Graham, mainly because his televised Crusades interrupted the regularly scheduled evening line-up of shows.

In my college years, 1974-1978, I became increasingly aware of the issues that had confronted Christians in previous decades and that were continuing to confront Christians.  Early on, I came to know enough well read, usually college educated, Christians so that I never believed or assumed that the mind and the faith were on different spheres.  My goodness, all it took was one struggling read through Gregg Singer’s Theological Interpretation of American History and R. J. Rushdoony’s This Independent Republic for me to embrace the powerful floodlight of the Calvinistic worldview.

At times, over the years I subscribed to Christianity Today.  My lapsed subscriptions were usually due to my paltry funds for magazines.  Also, I did not have easy access to the magazine in a library since public schools didn’t subscribe to many publications and certainly not a Christian one.

Along with my occasional reads from the magazine itself, I would hear and continue to hear about and read criticisms of the magazine.  Is it any wonder that a publication that seeks to speak for a large segment of professing Christians receives lots of criticism?

Most often in these times, I only hear about the magazine if something is published that outrages Christian conservatives or if an article appears that “we” really like.  The cover posted above highlights an outstanding article in the magazine by Dr. Louis Markos that praises the work of classical Christian education. As a teacher in a classical Christian school and as a fan of Dr. Markos, I loved the article.  There have probably been quite a few other articles that I would love, as well as some I would totally disagree with or just be indifferent to.  By the way, the conflicts related to Christianity Today are not new.  R. J. Rushdoony locked horns with the editors many decades ago when they published an article about William Faulkner.  And in this case, I respectfully and fearfully disagree with Rushdoony.

In the early decades of the magazine, the towering figures in the Evangelical world were being published in the magazine.  (Yes, in ever area, we always can enjoy sitting around complaining about kids nowadays and how the old days were better.)  Without creating or demanding theological conformity on every point, Christianity Today attracted lots of top notch Christian theologians, authors, and preachers who wrote fine articles addressing current issues with ancient wisdom.

Lexham Press has been wooing and winning my heart for several years now with their publications of great works by some of those amazing Dutchmen such as Geerhardus Vos, Abraham Kuyper, and Groen van Prinsterer.  If that was all that they published, I would be plenty happy with them.  (And even happier when the day comes when I buy the entire set of Kuyper’s works.) But they keep doing more and more.  I feel like a young theology student in Geneva during the days of Calvin and Farel. (Besides having many good pastor/theologians to listen to daily on podcasts/morning sermons, the printing presses were going non-stop in that town.)

One of the most attractive, irresistible, and enduring series of late is called Best of Christianity Today.  

First came Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essay of John Stott.

Alongside of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott was one of the greatest preachers and writers on Christian theology in the British Isles and across the English speaking world during the Twentieth Century.  I have probably a dozen or more of his books, but not near all of them.  He was solid in theology, a fine writer and stylist, and a powerful communicator.  As with everyone (except me), there are errors or glitches in his theological understanding, but the man was a giant. And while quite learned and educator, he was not a theologian who wrote for theologians.  He was a pastor, first to those within earshot and then to those who read or still read his works.

Second in the series is Architect of Evangelicalism: Essential Essays of Carl F. H. Henry.

Carl F. H. Henry was never the effective, easy communicator that Stott was.  But he was regularly regarded as being one of the serious heavyweights and key intellectual Christian thinkers of his times.  Like his teacher Gordon Clark and like some of his contemporaries, such as Rushdoony, Francis Schaeffer, and Henry Van Til, Henry taught lots of Christians how to think, how to expand their minds beyond church issues, and how to confront cultural and philosophical issues of the times.

Henry’s main work is a massive six volume set called God, Revelation, and Authority.  Few will be those hearty enough to plow through the volumes.  In fact, one admirer said of Henry, “It is too bad that no one has translated his works into English.” (An obscure joke since he wrote in English.) For a time, it seemed as those interest in Carl Henry faded away, but I detect a renewed interest in our times.  Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism:  Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry awakened my interest in him several years ago and sent me scurrying to my library to rediscover several read and unread volumes I owned.

Any book that is highlighting the writing of the giants of the past, even the recent past, are a blessing to the Christian community.

The third volume in the “Best of Christianity Today” series is Basics of the Faith: An Evangelical Introduction to Christian Doctrine, edited by Dr. Henry.

This volume is a collection of articles by a host of authors who constitute the “Who’s Who of Evangelicalism” of the 1950s and 1960s.  Contributors include Philip E. Hughes, John Murray, Cornelius Van Til, F. F. Bruce, J. I. Packer, and many more.  While not a systematic theology, the essays cover a series of topics one would find in ST.

The key benefit in this book, as well as the series, is that these are relatively short essays.  Many readers are daunted by heavy books, long chapters, and the high mountain ranges of theological and Christian study.  But we can all read an article, an essay.  Of course, no short essay can cover the vastness of a topic, but we are finite.  The magazine and these writers were speaking to the Christian community.  You will likely dislike the fluffy Christian books as much as I do. You may break out into a sweat or hives when trying to negotiate with the contents of a serious, somber, searching theologian who is assuming that you have attended as many seminary courses as he or she has.

Here is the middle ground.  Add to that, these books are beautifully hardback works that adorn the shelf as well as fill the mind.  And for those of you who like, and I hate to say it, there are digital copies availabe to adorn your digital devices.

Great series.  Must haves.  Easy accessible reads.  Admirable authors.  Lovely bindings.  Thank you Lexham Press for this publishing venture.

 

New Year Morning Reads–2020

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I recommend my method of reading for only one person:  Me.  It might work for you, but most likely, everyone will find their better times, places, and selections that suit their style and needs.  But for me and for the present, this is how I am doing my morning reading time.  I am also using this as a way of promoting some of the all-too-many review books that I need to read, review, promote, and share.

One of my resolves for 2020 is to read and use more Bible commentaries.  Since I left the pulpit, I have largely ignored commentaries on the books of the Bible. Even when I was preaching, I was often hastening through a commentary more in search of a quick fix to my pulpit inadequacies than in growing in Bible understanding.  Amos, Jonah, & Micah is by JoAnna M. Hoyt and is published by Lexham Press.

This is a massive book and is a part of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) series edited by Wayne House.  Twelve volumes are currently available in this series.

I am studying the last part of this commentary–the Book of Micah.  I determined to read it from beginning to end and that meant plowing through the technical and background information.  Did I enjoy that part?  Not much, but I agree with what Matthew Kim said in his book titled A Little Book for New Preachers (IVP).  He says that the preacher must immerse himself in the background and setting of the book.

I am now going slowly through the commentary portion of Micah, chapter 1.  Small bits of study each day so far.  It will take a while, but I am determined.

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Reformed Ethics: Created, Fallen, and Converted Humanity by Herman Bavinck and edited by John Bolt is published by Baker Publishing Group.

I was so excited when this volume finally came out.  I was even more excited when my copy arrived.  And then…it sat on the shelf, it got covered up by other books, it enjoyed only a passing glance or two.  In my feeble defense, I did plug away at the background information, usually on Sunday mornings.

A second resolve I have this year is to read the longer and weightier books that often get started, but never finished.  I like the thought of getting a 5 books read instead of 1.  For that, I must repent and change.

Now that I am into this book, I am truly enjoying it.

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Samuel Gregg is published by Regnery.

This is the kind of book I love.  It is a survey of history, philosophy, and theology that all tends toward an apologetic defense of the Christian worldview I embrace, teach, and read about.

The gist of this book is a refutation of a long-standing trope that reason contradicts faith.  Along with that is the notion that faith is a heart and emotion based feeling while reason is spawned by the mind.  Of course, Christianity gets jabbed in the process.

Building upon the work of men in the past like Christopher Dawson and Herman Dooyeweerd, echoing works like Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and R. J. Rushdoony’s The One and the Many, this book reclaims Western Civilization and its accomplishments.  The thought patterns of the West built upon Greek and Roman heritage in part, but even those civilizations had to be filtered through the lenses of Christendom.

Today, I was reading the portions of the book about Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.  Like any short treatment, more can be said, but we have to be grounded in the grammar of the subjects before we can delve more deeply.

America and the Just War Tradition: A History of U. S. Conflicts is edited by Mark David Hall and J. Daryl Charles.  It is published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Here is another case of combined loves.  This book deals with American history, particularly the wars that have been waged, and it is written from a Christian perspective that examines the Just War Theory.

I recently discovered Mark Hall’s scholarship and writing as a result of reading Did America Have a Christian Founding?  Determined to read more of his writings, I discovered this book.

I am still in the introductory essay which Hall and Charles wrote.  This is good, but slow going.  More details later.

Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans by Robert Elmer is also published by Lexham Press.

I reviewed this book a few days ago.  I try to read only a page or two of it with the hope of making the Puritan prayers my own.

The Hanging God: Poems and The Fortunes of Poetry in the Age of Our Unmaking are both by James Matthew Wilson, one of America’s premier contemporary poets.  The Hanging God is published by Wiseblood Books, and The Fortunes of Poetry is published by Angelico Press.

I am reading these two works for a number of reasons beyond just my responsibilities as a book reviewer.  I am using these two works as therapy so that I can recover from the often disastrous graduate course I took in the fall on poetry and literary criticism.  Let us just say that the study of literature is in danger in the modern secular universities, assuming that my experience was common and not unique.

The Fortunes of Poetry is tough reading at many points, so I suspect that I will need to re-read portions or get instruction from someone named Wilson on how to assimilate the information.

Note to blog readers:  Please don’t speculate that I am neglecting the foundational parts of morning reading:  The Bible and strong coffee.  The Book of Common Prayer is also being kept close at hand so that this Presbyterian who is a member of a Baptist church will be a better Anglican. (Thank you Zachary Jones.)

Also, thanks to my sister-in-law Toni Lemley who gave me the coffee cup with the old pickup truck on it.  I am not going to stop using it just because Christmas is nearly over. I also got a wonderful picture of old pickup trucks from my other sister-in-law Marla Robert.

 

Previews of Current and Upcoming Readings–Or Justifying Book Hoarding

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There are always more books to buy, acquire, read, start, review, re-read, shelve, stack, and hoard.  It is a hopeless quest.  And I continue to persevere and continue to fall behind.  Let me give out some comments on a few books that are on my book stacks and have book marks somewhere near the beginning pages.

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I love biographies and biographical studies.  These two books cover aspects of the lives and ministries of two very different servants of God.

The Pastor of Kilsyth: The Life and Times of W. H. Burns by Islay Burns is published by Banner of Truth.

Banner of Truth has long been known for publishing or reprinting biographies of pastors, theologians, and other Christian figures.  There is a predictability to their works of this sort.  Book collectors and hunters who are generally in the British Isles continue to comb the old libraries and collections and find long forgotten gems.  W. H. Burns is not a well known figure like George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon or other men in pastoral history.  His obscurity is a selling point.

Even in our day, there are many fine, faithful, and gifted publicly known pastors and teachers.  Thank God for these men who are in the limelight and who are preaching weekly and teaching even more often to faithful and large groups of people.  But how many pastors are there out there who are speaking to congregations of less than 100 people?  Or, in some cases, less than 50 people?  The work of God’s Kingdom depends on the faithful local pastor even more than it depends on the man whose name is well known in the Christian world.

Iain Murray, a man responsible for so many good books he wrote and more that he got published, says that this book is “One of the best Scottish ministerial biographies.”  His endorsement alone is enough for me.

Never Doubt Thomas:  The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant by Francis J. Beckwith is published by Baylor University Press.

We learn by small increments.  Names, key facts, descriptive phrases, and a few other mental bullet points make up much of the foundations for learning.  Learning begins by simplifying, and simplification is, by its very nature, distortion.  The name of Thomas Aquinas appears in virtually every study of European history or theology.  He was and is the linchpin for much of Catholic theology, but he is also reckoned to be one of the biggest names in philosophy, especially Medieval philosophy.  While philosophers come and go, there are still many who self identify as Thomistic scholars.

The simplification says that Aquinas took Aristotle’s writings and fitted them within Christian doctrines, thus creating a syncretism of sorts that was both Catholic theology and Greek philosophy.  The problem with such simplifications is that the largest work of Thomas Aquinas, his Summa Theologica, runs into multiple volumes, and there are other books as well that he did.  He was a profound and vast thinker.

Many of the authors I have read over the years gave short shrift to Aquinas.  Granted, they were not writing about him specifically or in depth, but I picked up the mode of dismissing Aquinas and anyone who claimed to be in his camp.  “Fools rush in…” as the saying goes.

There are a number of respected Protestant theologians and philosophers who hold Aquinas in great esteem.  The list includes Alvin Plantiga, J. P. Moreland, Carl Trueman, and most notably, the late R. C. Sproul.  Sproul listed Aquinas as one of his five favorite theologians, with the others being Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Edwards.

I welcome this book and this study.  I am too little informed in Aquinas to give a sound yea or nay.  I figure he said plenty to serve as grist for the anti-Thomistic mill, but I suspect he was solid in many areas.

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As a further effort to understand Aquinas, I am looking forward to reading Scott Oliphint’s short study Thomas Aquinas from the Great Thinkers series now being published by P & R Publishing. I suspect that this book may not be as favorable to Aquinas as Beckwith’s study.  I will comment later on how thrilled I am that there is a new Great Thinkers series being done by P & R.  I have read some of Oliphint’s works.  He is an apologetics professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and is considered to be an expert on Cornelius Van Til.

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Enduring Divine Absence: Modern Atheism by Joseph Minich is published by The Davenant Institute.

I have gotten to know Joseph Minich a bit better over the past few months through Facebook connections and messages back and forth.  I was impressed with him as a young, dedicated, and sharp philosophy teacher and Christian man.  Now I am reading his engaging and short work on atheism.  I always approach these books with a bit of hesitation.  For whatever reason, I have always been too simple minded to be an atheist.  Lots of sins are attractive, but denying God has just never been a vulnerability for me.

Nevertheless, there are many who grapple with this issue personally, academically, socially, and evangelistically.  The issue is not as simple as “You are stupid if you don’t believe in God.”  (Although, I admit that is my basic presupposition.)  Minich gleans from a number of scholars, both believers and unbelievers, is setting for his case.  I especially enjoyed reading his comments today on John Updike’s novel In the Beauty of the Lilies.  I am trying to reappraise my negative feelings about that book after reading Minich.

This book is published by The Davenant Institute.  I hope, soon, to post a whole article on their flooding the market with powerful and weighty books.

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Cresap’s Rifles: The Untold Story of the Riflemen Who Helped Save George Washington’s Army was written by Robert L. Bantz, Karen E. Cresap, Nina Cresap, and Champ Zumbrun.

I am continually going back and studying the American War for Independence.  That war competes with both the World Wars and the War Between the States for attention in my mind, but it does attract a share of my reading.  One of the things I realize continually is how little I know of the lesser known details of that war.  As this book’s title says, it is an “untold story.”

The American riflemen were one of the main reasons why the small and struggling Patriot army was able to survive year and year and finally witness the defeat of the British.  The British army, and the mercenary Hessian forces as well, were outstanding on the battlefields of America (and Europe).  In certain types of set fighting, their skills, discipline, and methods were superb.  To back that up, one only needs to look at such books as Matthew Dziennik’s The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in North America  and Matthew H. Springs’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America.

The Kentucky Long Rifles, as they were sometimes called, were game changers.  The rifled barrels, especially when used by able frontiersman, had a range that exceeded the traditional muskets.  Small numbers of these riflemen were able to offset the balance in between the European and home-grown American armies.

This book is filled with pictures and personal details as well.  Michael Cresap was not well when he got called to raise up riflemen and trek across the country to join Washington’s troops.  Our freedom was not easily won, and this book chronicles some of the cost.

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A Guitar and a Pen: Stories by Country Music’s Greatest Songwriters is edited by Robert Hicks.  I am delighted by this book for two reasons.  First, I like…make that love country music, especially the older versions that are without question truly country.  Second, I read Widow of the South by Robert Hicks of Franklin, Tennessee several years ago and have gathered up every book I can find that he has written.

Thanks to Phyllis Buckman for thinking of me and giving me this book.

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Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence by Jessica Hooten Wilson is published by The Ohio State University Press.

This book is going to simply be too good.  I know that because it combines two of my greatest loves–Southern literature and Dostoevsky.  Add to that that is was written by Jessica Hooten Wilson.  I first heard of Dr. Wilson from my daughter, TaraJane, who was attending John Brown University.  As TaraJane kept describing the style and intellectual challenge of this teacher, I kept thinking that it was a reincarnation.  Only the late Louise Cowan from the University of Dallas could be that incredible.

Sure enough, Dr. Wilson studied under Dr. Cowan and imbibed the same approach to literature and love for many of the same authors.  Earlier this year, I read Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  That was a great study of two Christian authors from different times and circumstances.

I say this too many times about too many authors, but it must be said again of this author:  I want to buy and read everything that Jessica Hooten Wilson writes.

New Titles from InterVarsity Press

 

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There is a down side to being a book reviewer.  “Time’s winged chariots” are rarely allow me the privilege of merely enjoying a book.  I need to get it finished. I need to post a review.  I need to share that review on Amazon and Goodreads.  I need to assure the publisher that I am worth their efforts to supply me with the goods.

In days past, there was a world where time could sometimes stand still while I dug deeper and deeper into the books at hand.  There were always more to read and stacks of unreads, but there was a time carved out for the book in front of me, a conversation with the author, and a slipping away from the constraints of time and time’s tyrannies.

That idyllic memory aside, I must highlight a few reads from recent weeks and months from InterVarsity Press.

Disruptive Witness

Just this morning, I finished reading Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble.  (Published by IVP.)

One of my favorite things about IVP books is that so many of them are aimed at middle-level serious readers.  Some, alas way too many, Christian books are fluff.  I despise their large print, double spacing between lines, and easy, sweetened, and calorie free content.  On the other hand, there are tomes and monographs where Christian scholars and academics toss boulders back and forth, laden with footnotes, foreign sources, and theological underpinnings that leave me quaking on the sidelines.  Many of IVP’s titles are academic, scholarly, serious, and yet very readable by laymen and non-academic folk.  They are challenging, but accessible.  This book is one such case.

Do I need to argue the case that we live in a “distracted age”?  I have no assurance that you will even finish reading this blog post (in spite of its brilliance) because it is so easy to click to something else.  Digital things, the cyber world, and gadgets have compounded the distractions in a world already inhabited by machines, schedules, and pressures that prevent us from engaging ourselves with our Creator, His Creation, and our fellow men and women.  Even in sitting still long enough each morning for a week or two to listen to Alan Noble’s case, I found myself wanting the easy list of bullet points.  “Write the chapters, Alan, and then give me a list of 5 simple things to do.”  Although Noble gave plenty of suggestions and exhortations, he did not give me the Cliff’s Notes version of applications.

In what should not surprise us, one of the key emphases of his book was on worship.  Without slipping over between the trenches of the worship wars, I will summarize his arguments by saying that he calls for us to have real, participatory worship that is not geared toward imitating the world.  He also calls us to observe the creation.  I own five acres of God’s earth.  Of course, I am really only a steward of it, but even with land, I am all too prone to slip right past the wonders and awe of God’s creation that surrounds me.

One final note:  For at least the 10th time (maybe 20th time or more), I find an author who borrows heavily from Christian philosopher Charles Taylor’s work A Secular Age.  Glad I have that book; wish I could get serious about reading it.

In Search of the Common Good

A few weeks ago, I read In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador.

Both Meador and Noble are young authors and thinkers.  Their youth has not prevented them from thinking of some issues and concerns that call for wisdom and discernment.  Meador’s book is a call for community.  His discussion of the “fractured world” is not all that different from Noble’s discussion of a “distracted age.”  My problem with community and connectedness is that it sounds like something that was just fine back in the days of slower moving automobiles, party-line telephones, and long established neighborhoods.  But the fact that that world changed doesn’t mean that we as people have changed.  Christians are often as rootless and clueless as the worldlings next door.

We are also often as lonely and fractured as those outside of Christ.  There is always that nagging concern that we are getting more and more things, and that the things we are getting are better and better, and yet, we are more isolated, more unconnected, more fractured than ever.

Just make this easy on yourself:  Get both of these books and read them one after the other.  The hard part will be making the life-style changes and implementing a different outlook.  These are not two old men remembering the good old days.  These are young Christian men with young children who are seeking to find those practices rooted in Scripture and tradition that will enrich our lives.

On the other hand, Eugene Peterson was an old man and is now home with God.  The term paralleling with “fractured world” and “distracted age” that shows up in his book is “instant society.”  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society has been reprinted in a finely done hardback “Commemorative Edition” by IVP.

I first read this book several years ago and was delighted to see it reprinted.  Re-reading it was a joy as well.  Peterson’s book is actually a running commentary on the Psalms of Ascent, those being Psalms 120 through 134.  He presents each psalm through a discussion of its meaning and application.  This is not an in-depth Bible study, nor is it a quick devotional.  Once again, it fulfills that middling operation.  Each discussion is filled with typical bits of Peterson’s allusions to literature, personal anecdotes, and insights into the meanings of the passages.

The amazing thing is that the remarkable title comes from an unlikely source–Friedrich Nietzsche.  Nietzsche wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”  As Peterson notes with a chuckle, no doubt, Nietzsche was probably turning over in his grave to see his very used being used by a Christian pastor and author and being read by Christians for over forty years now.