Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

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Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?  Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock by Gregory Alan Thornbury is published by Convergent Books.  Dr. Thornbury has worked and taught at Union College in Jackson, Tennessee and King’s College in New York City.  He currently serves at the New York Academy of Art.  A few years back, he wrote a fine study of Carl F. H. Henry, titled Recovering Classical Evangelicalism.  My comments on that book can be found here.

My attraction to this new book was based on the skills of Thornbury the author.  Of Larry Norman, I knew little.  Back when my son Nick was at Wheaton College (2011-2015), I found some Norman CDs at a local thrift shop where I often buy books and music.  I called Nick and asked him about the music.  “Get them,” he said.  “Norman is the father of Christian rock.”  So I bought them and passed them on to Nick.

I was in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but I was not of the 60’s and 70’s.  It was not a spiritual retreat, but a cultural one.  I marched to a different drummer.  More exactly, I marched to a fiddle and steel guitar.  I not only listened to country music, but I listened to what even then was the older, more rooted country music of the 1940’s–early 1960’s.  The defining rock music of that era was all a blur.  I vaguely knew some of the names and was exposed to bits of the music, but generally gave it very short shrift.

By the mid-1970’s, I had become a Christian and by 1977 became Reformed.  I added classical and Big Band music to my list of preferences, but apart from a Beach Boys album, I still had little contact with rock music.  My early exposure to what people called Christian Rock was totally unappealing.  (Oh yes, I did really like the Christian-like/lite B. J. Thomas record.)  It was only after having a student directed seminar on music of the 60’s-70’s (with some really bright kids that year at Genoa School) that I was exposed to rock.  Later, as in much later, my son Nick developed into both a musician and musical scholar.  He taught me to like such radical groups as Simon and Garfunkle.

All of this is to say that began this book with little background experience.  End result:  What a fascinating story of an incredibly gifted artist who devoted his life and energy to serving God.  Up close, like all close examinations of we who are recipients of grace, is the story of a complicated, contradictory, sometimes confused, and struggling man who, nevertheless, blazed a trail for Christian music.

In spite of the fact that Elvis Presley had strong Christian roots, many evangelical people had little regard for the more edgy types of music in the 1960’s.  Conversion to Christ was supposed to result in a person leaving behind the music and hippie, rebellious, long-haired culture, communes, and life-styles of the times.  There were standards and mores neatly defined by traditional Christian culture.  Pressing the limits was not considered a good sign.

We have to reset our mental frameworks to look back at that time.  Remember that Francis Schaeffer, soon to rise as an intellectual leader of evangelicals, was way off the mark because he actually watched movies, listened to popular music, and looked at modern art with an attempt to be constructively critical.  Worldview was the not the way of those times; rather, it was world retreat.

The song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music,” from which the book gets its title, tells it all:

I want the people to know
That He saved my soul
But I still like to listen to the radio
They say that rock and roll is wrong, we’ll give you more chance
I say I feel so good I gotta get up and dance
I know what’s right, I know what’s wrong and I don’t confuse it
Why should the devil have all the good music
I feel good every day
‘Cause Jesus is the Rock and He rolled my blues away

Being a trail blazer, being on the cutting edge, pushing the envelope all meant that Norman faced lots of rough waters.  Christian folks often disliked the music (and hair).  Non-Christians were a bit nervous about the religious message. But Norman pressed on.  He sang and talked.  Sometimes his talk was more radical than his music.

Overall, Larry Norman was an incredibly talented musician, artist, producer, and creator of a whole new style.  At the same time, living when he did and how he did, he was sometimes a real kook.  He had two unsuccessful marriages.  His first wife, a model, was way off the spectrum of sanity.  Some of his friends and associates were loony as well.

Larry Norman needed a strong pastor, accountability group, godly wife, and more thorough theology.  He would have been a better man if all those factors had been in place.  That is all just to say that he is just like the rest of us.  To the end, despite some real stumbling and misguided efforts, he sought to serve God in his singing and performances.

Post Script:  I am now listening to and learning to like his music.

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I’ll Be a History Teacher Someday

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Learning history once seemed so easy.  I would go to college for four years.  I would teach history for a few years.  Then I would go to college some more.  Then I would teach some more.  Somewhere around age 30, I would know history.

Nothing like that happened.  Well, I did go to college for four years, and I did go back to college at nights and in the summers and add on graduate hours.  But I have never reached the point where I know history.   I am still laboring to learn, re-learn, and un-learn history.  I feel like I am almost ready to begin–if I could begin over.  But beginning might mean beginning my teaching career over.  Or it might mean beginning college over. Or it might mean beginning elementary school over (but that only if I could be socially and physically less awkward).

Here I am facing yet another stack of history books.  I will share with you some readings that I am finishing or anxious to start.

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When I heard about this book last fall, it was an immediate “I must have it or I will perish.”  That was no exaggeration.  It was critical for me to get the book.  I should finish it today.  I has been a long, hard slog to get through it, but it has been worth it.  This is not a beginners’ story of the war or a narrative highlighting the drama and personalities of World War II.  It is a detailed analysis of the Allied and Axis powers in terms of weapons, manpower, effectiveness of tactics, and leadership.  Great book.  Watch for my upcoming review.

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Two events conspired to cause me to want the book Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River 1961-1865.  First, it is a history book and not just any history book, but a book about The War and not just any book about The War, but a book about a part of The War that gets overlooked–the Trans-Mississippi theater.  Second, I met the author.  Now, I would like to say that I met him in some scholarly setting where we were exchanging ideas about history, but that is not the case.  I met him in a store where I was buying a light for our bathroom (that has not yet been installed).

Last month, I read the introduction to this book and was hyped to get it started.  I should be diving in this next week.  Watch for a review soon.

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Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History is by the duo history authors Brian Kilmead and Don Yeager.  Their books are best sellers and are popular histories.  I have yet to read them to be able to give my take.  I should have read this book before last week when I talked about the Tripolitan War in class.  This book looks good and is a short read.  I will be reading it this next week.

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John Witherspoon’s American Revolution is by Gideon Mailer.  I suspect this book is going to be a challenge, meaning this is not an easy read for the midnight hour.  That is fine, for I have plenty of midnight reads and usually fall asleep before that time.  But John Witherspoon is, after all, John Witherspoon.  Sometimes called “the Forgotten Founding Father,” he is the man most dear to the heart of Calvinists who love history.  I desire anything and everything I can find and read about him.

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Another book I should have read prior to my recent classroom lectures is Thomas Jefferson: Revolutionary: A Radical’s Struggle to Remake America by Kevin R. C. Gutzman.  This book was published some time back, but just came out in paperback.  Jefferson is a pivotal and key figure in understanding American history.  He is one of the few U. S. Presidents who would still be a major figure even if he had never served as the Chief Executive.  Last year I read Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M. S. McDonald.  That was a surprising and delightful book. It seems like there is no end to fascinating studies on Jefferson.

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Another book that is not quite so urgent is Sons of the Father: George Washington and His Proteges, edited by Robert M. S. McDonald.  This book consists of essays about some of the key figures in Washington’s life and career, including the military men, like Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox, and the political men, like Jefferson and Hamilton (who was also a military man)  Being a collection of essays, this book lends itself to being read in part based on which figure one wishes to study.

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Like Washington and Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt was a man who dominated his times and extended his influence into our times.  Loved and hated by the left and the right wings of political folks, he had a personality and style that transcends mere political likes and dislike.  The book The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire by Stephen Kinzer explores the political differences between two titans–Roosevelt and Mark Twain.  Having the proverbial meal with famous people would not go well if your choice guests were TR and Mark Twain.  They would likely pick back up with an argument that set them at odds back in their times.  Can’t wait to start this one.

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Reading history is not all fun and games.  I am duty bound to labor over a weighty collection of essays titled What Is Classical Liberal History, edited by my friend Michael J. Douma and Phillip W. Magness.  I read Dr. Douma’s opening essay which warns me of the depth of water I will be swimming in.  I am not in the camp of classical liberal historians, but I think I am very sympathetic to them and their approach.  By the way, don’t confuse the term “classical liberal” with our current political discussions concerning folks we call liberals.

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Calllie the dog is a therapy dog who is trained to help me understand parts of books that are above and beyond me.


Intentional Christian by Daniel Ryan Day

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One should not complain about being a book reviewer.  Often books show up that both sound really good and turn out to be great reads.  But some books, like stray animals, show up that we never asked for and are not sure what to do with.  Walk into any Christian bookstore and you will be overwhelmed at the number of titles.  Many I skip right on past after assuming that the book is likely merely okay at best.  After all, on a given Sunday morning, there are thousands of Sunday school lessons and sermons being given across the land.  But how many are really worth going to extra trouble to hear? They are likely helpful for the congregation at hand, but not “keepers.”  (That is true of many of my sermons and lessons over the years.)

Discovery House (no relation to me) sent me a copy of Intentional Christian:  What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do by Daniel Ryan Day.  Here is a book to help a believer discover the will of God for their life.  At this point in time, perhaps due to age and other circumstances, I don’t think much about the will of God for my life. It is a more frequent concern for younger Christians.  And it is a topic full of dangerous, although well intentioned, advice.

Day discusses in this book his own concerns in his younger years (and he is still a young man).  An interest in Christian music and serving God left him often wondering what the will of God was calling him to do.  In this book, he weaves in lots of autobiographical and anecdotal stories to make his point.  Knowing lots of Christians who are young and facing life decisions and others who are confused about where they are, I was sympathetic but skeptical.

Then came the good part, the sudden shift in the book and topic, and the blinding-light moment of truth.  Neither the Bible nor signs or angelic appearances are going to tell you where to work and live, where and in what areas to educated, whom to marry, or any of those matters.  The will of God is “your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3a).  That passage makes the point even more pointed by adding this politically incorrect exhortation “That you abstain from sexual immorality.”

Then there is 1 Thessalonians 5:14-18:

 14And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing,18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

In other words, the Bible reveals lots of “secrets” about the will of God for our lives.  We are to be growing in grace, living in faithful community with fellow believers, forgiving, doing good, rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks.  Basic good old Christian living 101.  That, and not whether you get to record your Christian rock song, is what God’s will is for your life.

Day uses the term Common Calling to elaborate on this topic.  A chapter is devoted to worship, another to loving others, another to living intentionally, and yet another to overcoming fear and loving our enemies.  We have a calling, but that calling is common to all of us and revealed in the commands and exhortations of Scripture.

This book is short, easy to read, anecdotal, and useful for a morning devotional study or a group or family study.  I am thankful that I got past my initial apprehension and read the book.

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Sometime last year, I read a book on a similar topic titled Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will by Kevin DeYoung.  My interest in that book was simply because I have enjoyed and profited from everything I have read by DeYoung.  Notice the bit of sarcasm and wit in the sub-title:  How to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc.  

DeYoung’s book, which was published in 2009, gives a tighter Biblical case for using the Bible correctly and not mystically. It is a warning about many shaky and outright wrong ways Christian people go about deciding what to do.  This book is a great companion volume for the Daniel Ryan Day’s book.  The same topic generally with different approaches.  I believe the two authors would find each other in much accord.

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Young, restless, and Anglican, Daniel Ryan Day–author of a helpful book on finding the will of God.

Morning Reads of Late

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Years ago, I was a night owl.  A combination of age, jobs, children, and other factors changed me.  I love getting up in the morning and sitting down with some time for Bible reading, coffee, and a stack of books.  Some days, my mind is still too inert to grasp much on the page, but on other days, it is a sponge.  The key is perseverance.  Good days or bad days, busy days or leisurely days, in sickness and health, I get up and read.

Here are some of the recent reading experiences that I have either finished or am still working on.

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I cannot say that First John is my favorite book of the Bible, but it is the book that challenges me the most. The structure–the repeating patterns, the beauty, the brevity, and the depth of it always leave me wanting more to understand it.  This commentary–1, 2, & 3 John by Constantine R. Campbell–makes a fine daily study in the three short letters John wrote. It is part of a series called The Story of God Bible Commentary, published by Zondervan.

These commentaries have three portions in each chapter:  Listen to the Story, Explain the Story, and Live the Story.  The method is useful for morning studies, but would also be beneficial for sermon preparation, family devotions, or any other format.  Listening to the passage of Scripture is self explanatory, but it is also important not to forget.  I confess to having jumped into a passage when working to prepare a lesson or sermon without having spent enough time just looking and listening to the words of the Bible.

In the portion on explaining the story, Campbell weaves in the textual issues regarding Greek words, interpretive challenges, and different views held by other commentators.  I especially enjoyed some of the quotes Campbell included from Augustine.

Living the story is the application.  Here Campbell includes stories and anecdotes along with specific suggestions on how to practice what is being learned.  As a fan of Charles Spurgeon’s methods of using anecdotes and quips to enhance his sermons, I found this book full of plenty of encouraging and usable material.

Although the largest portion of this book was devoted to 1 John, I really found the chapters on 2 and 3 John quite enjoyable.  All too often, those books are raced through without being given much thought.

This book was enjoyable to read and would be enjoyable to read again either for morning devotions or for lesson preparation.

Praying the Bible

Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney is published by Crossway.  The Crossway website also has a video and additional helps for using this book.  Some of you are probably familiar with Mr. Whitney fine book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.  If so, then you know that his writings are clear, practical, convicting, and Biblical.

This book is a short read of ten chapters and is less than 100 pages.  It is easy to read one or two chapters in the morning.  There are lots of good books on prayer that I have read.  What stands out about this book is that it is not written to convince or convict us to pray, but tells us how to pray.  Basically, Whitney focuses on using the Bible–as in the exact text we are reading–to formulate our daily prayers, weave in the various needs, expand upon the topics mentioned, and use the language of the Bible to pray.

Read it for yourself or share it with the family.

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After several occasions where I glanced at and scanned a few pages, I have finally begun seriously reading Speak the Truth: How to bring God back into every conversation by Carmen LaBerge.  Her website and more information about the topic (including a free read of the first chapter) can be found HERE.

After I received this book, I had a few doubts about reading it.  First of all, I was not familiar with the author.  Second, I found myself suspecting it might be a shallow read.  Several chapters in, I am better acquainted with the author, and this is a solid and in-depth, but very readable book.  It is not shallow or sappy.  Every time I suspect the author might give a weak or watered-down answer, she hits a home run (to mix metaphors).

I will share a few quotes I have particularly enjoyed.

“To conceal from others the truth and grace of God’s reality, His love and the hope He offers in life and in death may well be the greatest sin we ever commit.”  pages 10-11

“We treat life like Monopoly.  When we land on a square God ‘owns,’ we owe Him rent money.  He can have those certain properties, but as far as the rest of the board goes–we pursue it for all we’re worth.  Truth is, it all belongs to God….” page 15  (Reminds me of the Kuyper “every square inch” quote.)

“The Gospel is the solution to jihad in the Middle East and the Gospel is the answer to famine in Africa. The Gospel confronts human sex trafficking in Asia and resolves the lonelines of your single neighbor.” pages 17-18

“If we are not taking God’s viewpoint into the conversation at the bar or in the bleachers, then it is not the culture’s fault that God’s perspective goes unheard.  People can’t hear what no one is saying.”  pages 39-40

Augustine and the Problem of Power

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A recurring argument for a book is “the test of time.”  There are exceptions to the rule, for some really good books vanish from sight and mind while other mediocre books continue to be read.  In the field of academic studies, an abiding book is even more rare.  Continued scholarship, new insights, the chipping away of older interpretations results in scholars being interested in the latest work from the presses.  Certainly, there are problems with this approach, but it has its merits as well.

Almost unimpeachable are the books considered as the fundamental classics in the western world.  Many of us have now spent decades trying to erase the shame of having degrees and supposedly being educated without having to read the great minds from Homer to Augustine, from Aquinas to Dante, from Luther to Kuyper.  But along with the great books and world-changing authors are the books that are built upon, that comment and expound, that interpret and apply the great books.

As a matter of practice, it is better to–especially when playing a decades overdue catch-up–to try to hit the actual sources.  Besides, many of the books about Plato and Aristotle are harder to read than Plato and Aristotle.  Many classic works are really short (excepting Herodotus’ Histories, Aquinas’ Summa, or the Leatherstocking Tales of Cooper).  Many classic authors wrote some selections that are short and readable.  One who cannot wade through Calvin’s Institutes can manage the excerpt from it titled The Golden Book of the Christian Life.  For every classical epic, there are plenty of sonnets.

One indisputable giant in Western Civilization is Augustine of Hippo.  (Of course, he is disputed, all the way down to how to pronounce his name.)  The corpus of his works are daunting to tackle.  The City of God itself is a massive and weighty read, but he can be approached through Confessions and through On Christian Doctrine as well as sermons and shorter selections.  Still there is a need for some, many in fact, to attempt to have a working understanding of The City of God.  I know the challenge, for I have read it a couple of times and have taught large portions of it in a high school class.

While it may not have remained on the best seller lists or on the most popular surveys for 1500 years, it has impacted our civilization and has yet to be a spent force.  City of God is relevant to today and is more relevant than many of the current and trending topics and issues.

Charles Norris Cochrane lived the short happy life of a professor grounded in history and literature.  An Oxford trained Canadian, Cochrane served in World War I and then began his academic career at the University of Toronto.  In 1940–not the best year for publishing a book–his defining work Christianity and Classical Culture came out. The intellectual community praised it.  Jaroslav Pelikan  called it “the most profound book I know on Augustine.”  The poet and literary scholar W. H. Auden said, “I have read this book many times, and my conviction of the importance  to the understanding not only of the epoch of which it is concerned, but also of our own, has increased with each rereading.”

Cochrane was positioned to occupy a major role in scholarship for decades to come and was invited to lecture on Augustine at Yale University.  But a heart attack led to an early death and left the world primarily with only the one book. (Cochrane had previously written a work on the Greek historian Thucydides.)

Yet the man of one book remained a key force for studies related to Roman history, Christianity, the transition to the Middle Ages, philosophy, and theology for decades to come.  Christianity and Classical Culture remains in print to this day having been reprinted by the Liberty Fund.

Now, over seventy years since Cochrane’s book first appeared,  we have the sequel.  Cochrane gave a series of four lectures at Yale on “Augustine and the Problem of Power.”  These lectures can be seen as a distillation or summary of his larger work.  He had also written and spoken on other topics related to Roman culture, Machievelli, and Edward Gibbon.

Augustine and the Problem of Power

Long lost to the academic and book world, these papers were discovered by his granddaughter.  As the scattered writings began to be read and thought about, a decision was made to publish them in book form.  From that unexpected series of events, we now have the book Augustine and the Problem of Power:  The Essays and Lectures of Charles Norris Cochrane.  This work is edited by Professor David Beer, who also wrote a lengthy introduction to the collection.  It was published this past year by Wipf and Stock.

I readily, but cautiously, recommend this book.  Readily because of the reputation of the author and the blessing of having a further work by him.  Cautiously because this is not a “Augustine for Dummies” work.  This book is a slow read.  The title of the book is also the title of the four lectures which make up over a third of the book.  The lectures delve into the Greek and Roman views of society and politics that Augustine was answering and refuting.

Quite simply, the Greeks (and the Romans who followed) believed that a perfect or model or ideal society could be fashioned by the right political order, the right political philosophy, the right legislation.  Man and society were, at least to a large degree, perfectable with the correct philosophical and governmental actions.  In short order and directly, Cochrane labels the Greek and Roman political worldview as idolatry.

The antidote to the idols of that age or this one is the Christian faith.  Cochrane says, “Christian faith rests upon the unshakable conviction that, not withstanding the efforts of secularism to rationalize and justify its pretensions, the order of nature revealed by Christ and the Scripture is, the true order; to acknowledge which must therefore be the starting-point for all genuinely fruitful investigation into the problem of perfection”  (pager 78).

The statement above is not easy to swallow without some serious chewing.  It is not bumper-sticker or sound-bite Christian answers to current questions.  It takes unpacking and thinking.  And that is why this book–Augustine and the Problem of Power–and Cochrane’s previous work–Christianity and Classical Culture–and Augustine’s City of God–are so important today.

I received a review copy of Cochrane’s book and am not obligated to sing its praises, but will do so anyway.

History Books–That’s Right–Books Dealing with History

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I never quite feel honest when people ask me what kind of work I do.  My career has mostly consisted of avoiding all things I consider as work and pursuing the things that I think are fun.  To satisfy the questioner, I say, “I am a teacher.”  That grand title covers the fact that given enough wealth and time, I would spend all my time reading and talking about things I like to read and talk about.

First on any list of interests is history.  “What can you do with a history degree other than teach history?”  Any and all history department chairmen can tell you all kinds of ways that your history degree will open doors.  For me, personally, I never seriously considered doing anything with my history degree other than teaching history.

All of this discussion is leading up to this posting of some worthwhile books on and related to history that I have read this year.

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Revisions and Dissents: Essays by Paul E. Gottfried is published by Northern Illinois University Press.

Dr. Gottfried has authored a dozen or more books, many of which are on topics such as Marxism, Fascism, and political ideology.  He was a history professor at Elizabethtown College, and he still writes on historical topics.  A friend, John Pendergraft, newspaperman after the order of Douglas Southall Freeman, called my attention to the book last spring.  I felt duty bound to acquire a copy and see what it is like.

This book took two tries to get into.  The reason is that the book consists of fourteen essays that are ten to fifteen pages long and are serious, in depth, and challenging.  Add to that–really good.  Gottfried is, I think I can safely say, a conservative historical thinker.  But if you think that conservatism consists of what you hear on “conservative talk radio” or Fox News (which I like), then you are in for a culture and brain shock.

First up on the dock–actually, the second essay–is titled “Robert Nisbet–Conservative Sociologist.” This essay was explanatory of Nisbet’s thought and writings.  I have long owned several books by him.  P. Andrew Sandlin of the Center for Cultural Leadership has spoken of and recommended Nisbet’s books frequently.  This essay is a good preparation for reading a man who was a key conservative thinker in the twentieth century.  When I do my duty and read Nisbet himself, I believe this essay will be worth reading again.

Another outstanding essay is titled “Defining Right and Left.”  This essay is indispensible for doing serious political thought.  The terms “right and left” have been bandied about, used, abused, mis-used, and misunderstood in most political discourse.  A few sentences are worth citing:

“Although there is no evidence that many of the great conservative theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…were orthodox Christians, their political worldviews would have been unthinkable without some kind of Christian theological foundation.”  page 31

Now, here comes a counter-blow:

“The Left has also benefited from being rooted in a Christian heritage….While the Right saw in Christianity a justification for settled authorities, the Left drew from it the vision of a world in which ‘the first would be last’ and ‘the meek would inherit the earth.'”  page 32

“Christopher Dawson and Mircea Eliade have both observed that the modern Left would be unthinkable without its distinctly Christian, even Judaic, matrix.”  page 32

Gottfried also devotes a chapter to the classic work The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield.  Since I read Butterfield’s book this past year, I found the discussion of it worthwhile.  The essays cover other aspects of intellectual and political history, such as the English constitution, Fascism, Heidegger, Strauss, liberal democracy, and the origins of the state.

This is not bedside reading, but the essays are well worth the effort.

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Past and Present: The Challenges of Modernity, from the Pre-Victorians to the Postmodernists by Gertrude Himmelfarb, published by Encounter Classics.

After I read The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Dr. Himmelfarb several years ago, I became a diehard fan of her work.  I have a half dozen or more of her books and am in quest of every single one.  She is to the field of history what Dr. Louise Cowan was to literature.  By that, I mean that she is brilliant and continues to produce good stuff as the years go by.  Her husband was author and political thinker Irving Kristol, and William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, is her son.

The essays in this book range from ones written decades ago to some that are recent.  Historical figures who are discussed in this book include Leo Strauss, William James, Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold, Winston Churchill, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Disraeli, Albert Einstein, and others.  This book is on my “to read” stack, so I cannot comment further on these essays.  But again, if Dr. Himmelfarb wrote it, I want to read it.

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If anyone would rather just sit back and relax and enjoy the pure joys of history, try The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For by David McCullough.  All of McCullough’s books are delightful reading.  Only David McCullough could persuade me to tackle some 500 pages on American artists, scientists, and authors who trekked their way to Paris to study.  That story was found in his book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.  I can easily recommend his books on John Adams, his account of the year 1776, or his books on Theodore Roosevelt, the Panama Canal, or the Wright Brothers.

The American Spirit consists of talks that he gave as graduation speeches or before Congress or on other occasions.  McCullough is the master of the uplifting story or forgotten figure whose role in history is largely unknown, but inspiring.  Anyone who could read this book and not enjoy it is a real…fuddy duddy…to use some rather harsh language.

Of course, many other books could be listed.  I hope to highlight some great books on various wars very soon.  But I will mention some interesting works out on the horizon that I don’t have yet:

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What is Classical Liberal History?, edited by Michael J. Douma and Phillip M. Magness, sounds like both a challenge and a delight.  It is on the waiting list right now.  And speaking of Michael J. Douma, I will soon be turning the big guns on his book How Dutch Americans Stayed Dutch.  Yep, all this sure beats working for a living.

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Word on Fire Classics

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Just exactly what is a classic?

There are as many answers to this question as there are books that are called classics.  Here are the best or most popular two answers:

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”  Mark Twain

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature

Definitions ranging from pithy to profound, from wise to witty, can be found easily enough.  The book Shelf Life by George and Karen Grant shares scores of great quotes on books and classics.  The book Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, is a collection of essay/summaries on recommended classics, but it also contains an essay or two by Dr. Cowan on what constitutes a classic and why they matter.

I teach in a Classical Christian school.  People have been asking me and others for some years, “What is classical Christian education?”  Words like “classics” or “classical” add depth and luster to any advertisement for almost any item, whether it is a book, a school, a song, or a Coca-Cola. (Anyone remember the New Coke and Coca-Cola Classic fiasco?)

Concerning books (the heart of The Heavy Laden Bookshelf), discussions of classics always leads to lists and terms like “the literary canon.”  It is a fun literary joust when we all examine lists and argue about what was included or left out.  Take a jab at a classic and someone is sure to go on the attack.

When talking about classics, we have to recognize that there are many sub-listings that should fit under the broad term.  “Are you well read in the classics?”  That depends.  Do you mean the ancient works from Greek and Roman antiquity?  Or Medieval literature?  Or American novels?  Or do you mean something more specialized?  There are historical classics, military classics, science classics, or philosophy classics?

Here Twain’s saying help us.  As Twain wittily points out, the reward of a classic often comes in having completed the experience rather than the experience itself.  He was not above jabbing, mocking, and demeaning classics, but he has a good point.  The better and more lasting works are daunting.  Sometimes, they are impenetrable.  Often dull in comparison to the page turner on your nightstand.  They are frequently not easily mined, plowed, climbed, achieved, or appreciated.

Personal testimony:  The first time I read the Iliad, my thought was “That is the Iliad?”  I was not impressed.  Later I taught through it for the first time and still had a low opinion.  I thought it was overly repetitious, too long, and missing the important details, such as the Trojan Horse story.  A student in class remarked, “Mr. House sure likes this book.”  I smiled and nodded because it was “a classic,” but my inner thought was, “Not really.” It was during the third reading of the book, which was accompanied by a lecture from Dr. Louise Cowan and a session or two with Dr. Glenn Arbery that my eyes opened.

It was then that Calvino’s statement became an experience.  The Iliad began talking and revealing things to me and has never stopped.

In his book, To Light a Fire on the EarthBishop Robert Barron calls upon high school teachers (in a Catholic school) to read the serious classics in the Christian tradition.  He says,

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

As a teacher in a Protestant Classical Christian school, I am constantly wearied by the labor needed to teach the more serious stuff.  Why is it that kids know instinctively that physics and calculus are mental marathons, but they are quick to skip reading a book because it is not entertaining?  Weighty books are intricate math problems.  Math problems, by the way, are love stories with predictable solutions.

Bishop Barron has now taken a major step toward getting the classics he values into the hands of readers.  Word on Fire has launched a new series of Christian classics.  These Word on Fire Classics are handsomely cloth bound with a ribbon bookmark and charcoal sketches of the authors.  In other words, these books will adorn your living room, study, or office, and they add a touch of class to your bookshelves.

I am thankful for all the cheap reprints, reading copies, classroom editions, and dull covered books that contain great content.  But there is a place in the long slog toward Christian culture for having the right setting, nice chairs, stately bookshelves, elegant volumes, and an atmosphere that enhances the reading experience.  If you are living in a college dorm or a crowded house or other places, such a vision is for the future.  (Still, try to create a little space somewhere that highlights beauty along with truth and goodness.

These classics will send most readers out on some uncharted waters.  Classics are not necessarily designed to be mental comfort food, to be a confirmation of previously held thoughts, to be a mild sedative to the brain.  Reading a classic must call forth the words, “Yes, but…” from the reader continually.  When you need to be bolstered in your own convictions, read the dogmatic creeds and confessions of your faith.  And read books built upon those foundations.  Read the apologists who defend the basics.  Maybe that is what you need for a large part or all of your reading.

But the pursuit of a classical understanding of matters will involve mental risktaking.  When a confirmed Conservative, Reagan-Republican, Christian like me reads Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the initial thought is that this is simplistic rubbish.  But a deeper reading will unveil some of the context and complexity of what there was in Marx that appealed to readers in its time (and ours).  Now we still may resolve that it is rubbish (and I certainly do think so regarding Marx and Marxism), but there is a wider grasp that is needed to appreciate a different way of thinking.  (And as a Christian, I have to ask myself, “What was the Church saying or doing at this time to deal with the laboring masses?”)

So, the Word on Fire Classics are going to put us out on some waters that are uncomfortable for some Christian readers.  Let me briefly comment on two of the books in the series.

Confessions by Augustine.

Catholics and Protestants alike share a love, an adoration, for Augustine.  He is one of the chief theologians of all time.  The best introduction to the man is this volume–Confessions.  It has been called the first spiritual autobiography.  You will read the quote “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” cited in many times and places.

It is a lengthy meditation, prayer, dialog between the author and God, and discussion of Augustine the pagan, the philosopher, the libertine, the rebel against Christ as he slowly and painfully searches for God.  Of course, he will, as is always the case, be the one who is actually being searched and found.

If one is to read only one work by Augustine this is it.  If one is to begin reading Augustine, this is it.  If one is examine the skimpiness and fluff of his or her own prayer life, this is the book to read.

Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton was one of the largest figures in all of Christian literature in every sense of the word.  He was physically huge.  Even larger and wider and more excpansive is the number and range of his books.  He wrote novels, short stories, poems, and epic poems.  He wrote biographies and histories.  He wrote commentaries on social trends and ideas.  He wrote defending the Christian faith.  Orthodoxy is his best known work.  Exceedingly quotable, deeply nourishing, mentally soaring, GKC is a feast all by himself.

I read this book some years ago and delight in the prospect of reading it again soon.  Before I read the book as a whole, I read selections from it and some of GKC’s discussions on his coming to faith during a time of trial and crisis in my life.  When no one else could seem to reach me in my depths (realizing that God was there, of course, all along), it was Chesterton who stopped by and ministered to me.


An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman and The Seven Storey Mountain are both unknown to me in their particular content.  I am familiar with both authors, but have not read much (maybe a few short selections) from either.  On to the uncharted waters for me.

This set of books is currently on sale.  Yes, it may be a bit late for it to arrive before Christmas day.  But why not celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas and buy it for someone or for yourself or for your family?

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Beautiful under the tree or on the shelf–Word on Fire Classics