Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen

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Political books abound.  Political books by conservative authors and publishers abound.  I steadfastly avoid at least ninety-nine point nine (99.9) percent of them.  I avoid the books that are written in the heat and issues of the moment.  The only point of interest for me is wondering how they get written so fast.

I avoid, reject, and almost abhor political books that feature pictures of the author on the cover.  In fact, the books where the author’s picture is the cover are effectively “Keep Out” signs for me.  If I want such a book, it is easy enough to find it a year or so later in the bargain or used book bins.  But usually, a year later, such books are no more relevant than last week’s newspaper.

To a large degree, I also avoid the people who are considered the media representatives of conservatism today.  Sad to say, most of those who have radio and television spots as conservatives are devoted to ranting endlessly, to defending President Trump shamelessly, and beating dead horses furiously.  Yes, such voices often say true things and things with which I agree.  But I find little of interest in tide of cultural or social or media conservatism.

The hype of the day, the popular cries of the moment, and the trending internet stories can easily obscure real political thought.  Magazines such as National Review are a welcome relief to such trendiness and trite fluff.

We have been cursed with living in interesting times.  I have yet to figure out what happened in the 2016 election.  The political successes and failures of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump all astound me.  Everything I predicted was wrong.  But I am in good company there.  Everything just about anyone predicted was wrong.

The greatest consolation in this political climate can be found in going back to the roots and sources of our world. Many times I am reminded of the wisdom of the Roman historian Livy:

“The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind; for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”

But the study of history, roots, and original sources is never to be done as a way of escape from the current age or as an excuse for pining away for the good old days.  We live in an age where the cracks in the foundation are showing badly.  The structures of our world cannot stand.  “The centre cannot hold,” as Yeats said in “The Second Coming.”

For these reasons, reading Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen is both a relief and a source of hope.  Dr. Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame University.  This book, published by Yale University Press, has been subject to many book reviews and discussions.  Dr. Albert Mohler, a leading evangelical intellectual, interviewed Dr. Deneen in an enjoyable discussion found HERE.

With all the commentary (both favorable and critical) and buzz about this book, I could easily say:  “Read the book while I start my second reading of it.”  If all my ________________ (millions, thousands, hundreds, dozens, or 5) followers did that, we would all gain from the process.  And I am going to read the book again (after having finished it today).

The first key point to take note of is that the words Liberal and Liberalism are not just descriptions of the Left Wing of the Democrat Party (yes, I know that the right wing of that party died years ago).  Why Liberalism Failed is not a boast-filled celebration of the defeat of Madame Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer,  and company.  It is not an attack on the media, the education system, the Washington establishment, or any of the usual targets of the political news.

The words “Liberal” and “Conservative” are best seen as relative terms, like tall and short.  Directly stated, both the Democrat and Republican parties, both our modern day liberal and conservative spokespersons, both the left and the right are part of the greater tradition of Liberal Thought in the West.  Remember that the word “Liberal” was often used in Europe to describe those who wanted more political freedoms and less governmental interference.

Anyone wanting to see Democrats and the media bleed need to look elsewhere for a book to read.  That is not to say that there is not a lot of bloodshed in this book.  But it is the West, the American system, the Founding Fathers, and the core values of what many of us hold that are shown to have gaping wounds in this book.

Second, there were three great ideologies in the twentieth century:  Fascism, Communism, and Liberalism. Fascism failed when the combination of Allied armies (made up of a coalition of Liberal Democracies and a Communist regime) crushed Mussolini’s Italian Empire and Hitler’s Third Reich. Victor Davis Hanson’s remarkable book The Second World Wars retells the story of the fall of Fascist regimes.  (Franco’s Fascist regime lived on until his death and the transition of Spain back to a more constitutional monarchy.)  Communism died or continues to die more slowly as a result of its own internal failings as well as the success of the West both militarily and economically.

Liberalism survives, but as Deneen notes, it has failed.  It is not outward armies and empires at the gates that threaten Liberalism.  It is its own successes.  Liberalism has created a people and a mindset that believes certain premises about life and government and society that have long-term detrimental consequences.  It has created a view of government and actual governments that have become all reaching, all encompassing, and all promising.

I was made more aware of one of the saddest facts I know:  Changes in political parties do not change our overall culture and government.  That being said, I will still hope for and vote for a dozen future Ronald Reagan-types over the alternatives, but the problems are not skin deep or Washington-centered.  We have installed a government of consent that consistently and naturally overflows its boundaries.  We can vote ourselves the largess of government-controlled money and controls.

Years ago, I read Herbert Schlossberg’s book Idols for Destruction.  That influential book still resonates with me.  One of the idols of our age is our own combination of government, society, and culture.

Third, the book is not without hope.  Deneen cites several authors who have probed these issues.  Wendell Berry of Kentucky has written both essays and fiction that provide a glimpse of a better way of life.  With all its limitations, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher also has some really helpful guidelines.

There is no big meta-solution issuing from the bowels of a centralized order to solve our problems.  That is the problem.  It will take a large degree of self-control, self-government, family life, church life, and local focus to start the long march back.  Wait, I meant the long march forward.  Deneen strongly asserts that no one can sensibly try to move us back in time or back to some pristine age.  There is wisdom in the past, but the movement is forward.

Christians, read this book.  Your family and local church, the education of your children, and the culture you create in small societies is vital to the future.  Yes, read this book while I get started back on my second reading.

I received this fine book as a review copy from the publisher.  As such, I am not bound to review it glowingly, but I have by personal conviction.  I recommend you buying a copy because it is both a great read and is affordably  priced.

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Masquerade: Treason, The Holocaust, and an Irish Imposter

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Masquerade: Treason, The Holocaust, and an Irish Impostor, by Mark M. Hull and Vera Moynes, is a recent publication from the University of Oklahoma Press.  I am a book reviewer for that university and am, therefore, a literary Sooner.  As might be expected, that press is responsible for the publication of numerous books on Native Americans and the American West.  But UOP is also the publisher of a great series of military works under its Campaigns and Commanders series.

And in an age that is hesitant or unsure about classical studies, UOP continues to publish scholarly studies on Homer, Virgil, and the other ancient authors whose writings once constituted the basic core of academic education. Those books are part of the Oklahoma Series on Classical Culture.

Masquerade is not part of a series and is classified as world history and biography.  While I was reading it, I tried to shelf it alongside studies of World War II.  The book is about a woman named Phyllis Ursula James, who went by the names Nora O’Mara, Róisín Ní Mhéara, and Rosaleen James.  Her role in World War II, although treasonous, was minor.  Her role in Irish affairs after the war was a bit more prominent, but I suspect she is not well known in Eire.

There were Englishmen and women before and during World War II who looked favorably on Hitler, the Nazis, and the Third Reich.  The novel and movie The Remains of the Day by Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro is about that subject.  The best known among the treasonous was William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” and the American Mildred Gillars, best known as “Axis Sally.”  (“Lord Haw-Haw” was hanged for his treason after the war, while Gillars served time in prison.)  In contrast, Rosaleen James was never actually accused of her actions to aid the Nazis.

With a thousand plus figures from World War II, ranging from key political and military leaders to lowly privates and civilians, of what importance is this woman?  She did opt to live the war years in Germany.  She did defend and support the Nazis.  She continued throughout her life to blaming Churchill, the Allies, the bombing campaigns, and all opponents to the Third Reich for the defeat of what she viewed as the more virtuous power in the war.   She faked Irish heritage and was consumed with avenging Irish wrongs at the hands of the English.  She did try her hand at broadcasting during her years in Germany during the war.  She attempted to help with efforts to recruit Irish to the Nazi cause or to use Ireland as a source of intelligence for the Abwehr (the German intelligence department).

But in many ways, she could be discarded as a subject of interest and relegated to the category of a kook.  But two historians found her life worth studying and investigating.  This book is an investigative history.  Her story is not found in the standard works and resources for World War II.  Dr.  Mark Hull’s previous book is titled Irish Secrets: German Espionage in Wartime Ireland, 1939-1945.  Vera Moynes is a historian with the National Archives of Ireland.  They are, therefore, well equipped to deal with this case.

The book is fascinating in several ways:

First, it is a testimony to a really difficult and troubled life.  Rosaleen James was an abandoned child.  But she did not have a Dickinsean experience.  Quite the contrary, for she was basically adopted and raised by Lord Hamilton and his wife. I say “basically adopted” because Rosaleen’s connection and status with Lord Hamilton was not good. Lady Hamilton claimed Rosaleen as her adopted child, but Lord H didn’t.

In time, Rosaleen would have two children but would not be married.  Her relationships were a bit murky.  She never knew her biological parents, and this was the basis for her claiming Irish descent.  Growing up with aristocratic benefactors put her in good society, but she was not a good person.  The Hamilton’s, by the way, were Hitler sympathizers before the war.

Second, Rosaleen translated several works from Gaelic into German, and she wrote newspaper columns and a couple of books.  She was a gifted person, for the Gaelic language is not an easy climb.  Her autobiographical works concealed as well as revealed parts of her life and the persona she created.

Third, she was an unabashed defender and apologist for the Third Reich and the German people.  She loathed the English, especially Winston Churchill. Her main criticisms of Germans was cases where the German government performed acts of contrition for the Nazi crimes.  She contended that the deaths found in the Bergen-Belson concentration camp were largely exaggerated in terms of numbers, due mainly to an outbreak of typhus, and were made worse by Allied bombings.  The primary evidences of the Holocaust never seemed to have lessened her insistence that the whole thing was an Allied deception.

Fourth, while this book is listed as history and biography, I would mentally place it in another file.  I think it fits better under psychological and mental disorders and under pastoral studies.  I don’t have the background to evaluate why people like Rosaleen James function like she did.  But I have been around the block a few times in dealing with people as a Christian pastor.

While we are all prone to shade, twist, or conceal the truth (part of our sinful nature), some people are prone to live lies.  While it is easy to see why one tells a lie to get out of an immediate situation, living a life of lies is puzzling.  Rosaleen lived a life of twisting what she knew about her background, lying about people she knew and personal experiences, and lying about her Irishness.  She so embraced her connections to Ireland (not a bad thing in and of itself) that she concocted stories of visits there that never occurred and about historical connections.

The authors of the book tried to meet with her as they were doing research on her life.  Her son conveyed the message to them that ill health prevented such a meeting.  Rosaleen died in 2013.  But her family also refused to share any personal insights or interpretations of her life.

This story is a dark tragedy. Rosaleen James actually achieved some minor fame and notice in her life.  There are those who think of her as heroic.  But while she achieved little in her early efforts to become an actress, she played a life-long role that was a fiction.

I received this book as a review copy and am not bound to review it favorably. But I did enjoy this obscure story and think the two historians did a fine job of putting the pieces together in the mystery of this woman’s life.

Damning Words–a Biography of H. L. Mencken

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“Love him or hate him” goes a frequent saying.  But with H. L. Mencken, it is possible to do both.  He was a vicious attack dog toward Christianity and religion in all forms.  He could unleash powerful vitriol against the American South, working class people, American culture, and America in general.  But he was also capable of being incredibly funny, engagingly readable, and often right on target.

The life of Mencken is told in the book Damning Words: the Life and Religious Times of H. L. Mencken by Dr. D. G. Hart.  It is published by Eerdmans and is part of their Library of Religious Biography series.  (I have quite a few volumes of that series.)  Dr. Hart has previously written such fine books as Calvinism: A History and biographical studies of J. Gresham Machen and John Williamson Nevin.

Mencken was and never ceased to be a newspaper man, a journalist, a scribbler in the heat and passion of the newsroom working to get the latest edition out.  He was a cynic, a curmudgeon, a skeptic, a doubter, and a critic.  He could find the worm in every apple of pleasure.  It is apt that the cover of this book pictures him sitting in front of a typewriter.  That is where he lived so much of his life.  But it was far from being a dull or limited life.  He dwelt in the fascinating world where words live and meet, join together, reproduce, and create new sentences, paragraphs, pages, and ideas.

Maybe more than any other American, he should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He would have rejected it if he had won, by the way.  Worldly and brazen in many ways, Mencken spent much of his life living with his mother and taking care of her and other family members.  For a few years (after he turned fifty), he was happily married.  His wife, Sara, was ill when they married, and they knew it would be a short-lived marriage.  He was nevertheless devoted to her.

Perhaps one of the most attractive things about Mencken was his opposition to the New Deal and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  He was largely what we would call a libertarian.  At the same time, he was out of touch with the nation and its economic crisis in the 1930’s, so he really never grasped what was going on in the hearts and minds of the populace.  It was this same willingness to venture opinions when they went against the grain that gained him friends and foes and cast him in many battles of the times.  Mencken’s life, as the title suggests, is a study of the times in which he lived and the religious issues of that age.

The big religious conflict that Mencken was associated with was the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  For a number of reasons, Mencken loathed William Jennings Bryan.  Bryan, a 3 time Democrat Presidential nominee and loser, was a prominent evangelical and opponent of Darwinism.  A great orator in his day, he was not on his best game at the Scopes Trial.  While he was bested by Darrow on the witness stand, Bryan grasped some of the more dire implications of Darwinian thought.  Implications is a mild term considering some of the actual statements found in the eugenics-oriented biology texts of that time.

In Mencken’s eyes, Bryan could do nothing right.  Bryan’s death almost immediately after the trial ended did not elicit any sympathy or kind words from Mencken.  Along with the attacks on Bryan, Mencken went after various forms of the Christian faith of his time. Granted, there were aspects of Victorian moralism that were held up as Christian, but were not really defining of the Faith.

Mencken was a street fighter in many of his literary battles.  He railed against enemies high and low, in general and in particular. His forte was the newspaper column.  In fact, he is the prototype of many today who write columns bewailing various cultural and political issues.

But Mencken was also a largely self-taught scholar.  At several points, Hart reminds us that Mencken had only a high school education, and the school he attended was vocationally based.  From his youth, he read.  All of his life, he cultivated a rich harvest with words.  His book The American Language was and still is a major linguistic source.  He wrote several volumes that were loosely constructed as memoirs of his life.  He also published many of his columns in book form.

At a time when few Americans were reading Friedrich Nietzsche (okay, few have ever read Nietzsche), Mencken wrote a book analyzing the German philosopher.  Prior to that, he had written a book about the plays of George Bernard Shaw.  One wonders what Mencken would have done if he had pursued a higher education and landed a safe position in academia.  (Translate that as “he would be forgotten today.”)

Any reading of the life of Mencken is bound to give moments of joy alongside of some very sad thoughts.  Mencken’s last years–particularly 1948 to 1956–were quite depressing.  A stroke had impaired his ability to read and write, but he lived on.  His literary and newspaper careers had faded along the way.  The Great Depression and World War II changed the world and his reading public.  Making matters worse, Mencken was German by heritage and disposition.  While no defender of the Third Reich, he was out of step with the times.

Lots of writers, particularly journalists, enjoy their day in the sun. Later, they are forgotten.  Who still reads William Allen White, Richard Harding Davis, or Edward R. Murrow?  But Mencken is still read, loved, and quoted.  He is often good for a quote.  There is no way I would teach on Puritanism without referencing his quip:  “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

I don’t agree with it, but I always get a chuckle out of it.

A year or so ago, I wrote two article for PorterBriggs The Voice of the South titled “The Skeptic and the Theologian” that can be found here and here.  

In these two articles, I dealt with Mencken and a fellow citizen from Baltimore, theologian J. Gresham Machen.  I wish I could have read Hart’s book before I wrote the articles.  I don’t think it would change any content, but it would have enhanced my love for Mencken’s gifts and sorrow over his views and life.



By the Dawn’s Early Light–Morning Readings

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I changed.  It wasn’t sudden or even deliberate, but it happened.  Once I was the proverbial Night Owl. It was the stroke of midnight that fired up my mind and witnessed the most intense reading.  The stillness and quiet of the hours after ten p.m. were golden.  Whether sitting at a desk or reclining in bed, that was my favorite time to read.  But I changed.  Maybe it was work.  Maybe it was marriage and family.  Maybe it was the racking up of mileage on the biological odometer.  Or maybe it was the guilt of the old timers who scorned the late night person and assumed that any real man would be up before the dawn.

Coffee helped.  Helped is a weak description.  Coffee was the bridge, the fix, or the possibility.  But now it is the call to get up.  Often I awake and simply cannot wait until I can turn on the coffee maker, begin the Bible reading, and then the reading begins. All too soon–about an hour and a half later–it ends.

Choices for morning books are determined as follows:  1.  Is the book written by and for and about Christians?  2.  Will it fill a spiritual need or deficit in my life? 3.  Is it readable?  The last question relates to whether the book is on a level I can understand and be challenged by and not lost by reading.  If it is too difficult theologically, it gets a either put aside or is read in very small segments.

Now for some of my recent morning reads.

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Speak The Truth in Love: How to Bring God Back Into Every Conversation by Carmen LaBerge is published by Regnery Faith.  Carmen LaBerge’s website is found HERE.

One of the main and recurring things I learn from books is how wrong I so often am.  I have to admit to being a bit shy about reading a book by a woman who is talking about conversations.  Yes, I lean toward books by men talking about war and politics or theological battles.  No, I am not against women and have the highest admiration for Margaret Thatcher, Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Jane Austen, Louise Cowan, Jan Karon, Barbara Tuchman, and many other women.

I recognize that different writers write for different audiences.  I don’t mind being an outlier in the audience.  I had the suspicion that this would be a really good book for “the women at church.”  By that I meant that I thought this book would be like Edith Schaeffer’s books from the past or Nancy Leigh DeMoss Wolgemuth’s books now.

Stop throwing things at me.  I admit I was wrong.  I was corrected, rebuked, and even slapped before I got even a few pages into this book.   And yes “the women at church” need to read this book and discuss it, but so do the men.  Knowing the dedication of the two groups, I would bet more money on the first group than the second.

This book has earned a place on my apologetics shelf.  Apologetics is defined as “the defense of the faith.”  The reader wanting to know the particular battle ground issues dividing followers of Van Til from Clarkians and both of those groups from Classical Apologetics need to looks elsewhere.  This book is the real, in-the-street, sitting together for coffee or a meal, elbow rubbing apologetics.  Francis Schaeffer would have loved this book.

Or rip the book in half and place it on both the apologetics shelf and the evangelism shelf.  NO DON’T TAKE THAT LITERALLY.  DON’T RIP BOOKS.  There is a strong connection between the roles of the apologist and the evangelist, and this is not the book to see the comparisons and contrasts.  This book is self-help.  But it is the flotation device that is to keep you from drowning while you reach someone else who is going under.

Talking to unbelievers is difficult work.  The old door-to-door evangelism may be effective for some, but it has largely been weighed in the scales and found wanting.  The two week long mission trip to outer–who knows where–maybe some far off largely pagan land like Vermont–may result in “57 people making decisions for Christ” but I have concerns about that method.  (I am not against it.  My younger son went to Ireland this past summer for beach missions work.)

How do we talk to, share with, listen to, minister to, show compassion to, and share the Gospel with people who are outside the faith.  Typically, I describe the mission to three types of people:  Lost people (those who are “professing” non-Christians), un-churched people (for all kinds of reasons), and under-churched people (people who are part of a church but are not being fed, or being fed the wrong stuff, or not taking what feeding there is).  The last two categories fit most people I run into.  Here in the deep Bible-belt South, most people have some sort of loose connection to Christianity and church.

How do we reach people?  Some well-meaning Christians load their FaceBook accounts with blistering rants against all the unbelievers in range.  For some, unbelievers include all Catholics, every Protestant who doesn’t adhere to every jot and tittle of “right doctrine,” and a lot of other semi-innocent bystanders.  I love the opportunities that FB provides to share the Faith and to be encouraged by other believers, but it is no substitute for actually facing our neighbors.

On the opposite and even worse extreme than our beloved zealots are the namby-pamby of every age.  “Maybe if I could soften some of the rough edges of Christ’s message, then more people will respond.”  Many people create evangelism that presupposes that God in Heaven is saying, “Wow.  Why didn’t I think of that?”  We have to be uncompromising on the truths of who God is, what Jesus came here for, and what changes Christianity brings into our lives.

We have to talk.  We have to listen.  We have to respond.  And we have to respond faithfully to the Bible.  That is what this book is about.  It is vital stuff.  Worse than my prejudging the author and content is my failure to apply what this book is saying.  The men at church–any church, every church–really need to read and discuss and implement this book.

Let me end with some good quotes from Speak the Truth:

“Jesus spoke with people; He didn’t speak to issues.  Why is that? Because for Jesus the issue is always the same: the issue is redemption.  We can learn a lot from the way He reframed conversations to help others see the supernatural and eternal perspective on temporal realities.”

“Whether the issue is pancakes, porcupines, politics, or parenting, the issue is God.  ‘What?’ you ask.  Yes, really. From the subject of pancakes, you can talk about manna, bread of heaven, and from there the bread of life, Jesus Christ….”

“We must not reduce the Gospel to anything less than its comprehensive nature. People living in deep darkness need the fullness of the Light of Christ, nothing less.”

“Being a Christian is an identity; it is a calling, it is a way of life, it is a mission, and it is a post.  It informs and influences every part of life: how we think, what we watch, what we buy, how we work, who we date/marry, how we relate to others, how we parent, how we vote, what we expect from government, how we serve, how we spend our money, and what we say in conversation.”

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1917 Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Order

“Emerging from the forge of war in 1917 was the active role of government in every aspect of daily life, and the rising expectation that government can fix every problem and deal with every crisis from economic depression to childcare and climate change.” (Page 236)

This past year marked the 100th year anniversary of the Russian Revolutions.  Most of the applauding and celebrating came from those who rejoiced in the fall, rather than the rise of Communist Russia.  The Russian Revolution(s) is a story filled with all manner of drama, tragedy, near fulfillment of hopes, and unexpected turns of events.  It might have been simply a sideshow to World War I, but it became something much bigger, more enduring, and more terrifying.  The death count related to world-wide Communism has been listed as 100 million, and the count is not yet complete.

It is surprising that as 1917 was beginning, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin were still sidelined on the cataclysmic war that was engulfing Europe.  By the end of the year, they were the two prime movers and shakers in what was happening. There are, no doubt, plenty of books with plenty of positive things to say about Wilson and Lenin.  By no means are the two men just alike.  Herman notes clear differences as well as gifts and strengths of each man.  But as his subtitle indicates, the results of their tampering with the world, 1919 gave us a world recovering from war and preparing for decades of disorder and preparation for the next war.

The story of Woodrow Wilson is painful.  Brilliant, no doubt, Wilson was insufferable. His idealism was matched by a theological bent that convinced him that he was or his vision was God’s plan for the world.  He imbibed much from his upbringing in a Presbyterian manse, but he did not seem to be grounded in sound doctrine.  He did, for better or worse, want to avoid bringing the United States into World War I as a fighting power.  At the same time, he wanted to rise above the powers of Europe and the older ways of war and diplomacy and craft a more perfect world.  The key statement of his vision in found in the Fourteen Points.

Germany, reeling from the war by 1918, called for an armistice, hoping the 14 Points would work to their advantage.  They didn’t.  Wilson was as vindictive as he was idealistic.  But all that came out after the firing stopped.  Prior to that, the United States entered a war that it was totally unprepared for in 1917.  A year later, even with troops pouring into France, the U. S. was not producing equipment for its own still fresh men.  As a manager and administrator over a war government, Wilson was a disaster.

Lenin had plenty of problems of his own.  His return to Russia was financed and provided for by the German government.  As a measure to produce chaos behind the lines in the east, it worked better than any could have imagined.  Russia underwent its first revolution and toppled the Tsar in February.  In October, revolutionary actions finished off the provisional government headed by Alexander Kerensky, and moved the soviets into positions of power.

With Leon Trotsky overseeing the military, and a young Stalin perfecting ways of eliminating enemies (broadly defined), a totalitarian state was being put into place.  Everything that would, in time, characterize the Evil Empire (Ronald Reagan’s term) was started during this time:  acts of terror against the citizens, arrests right and left,  establishment of the Gulag system, and the implementation of a secret police (forerunner to the KGB).

Russia gave up tremendous concessions and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  This freed numbers of German divisions which were raced to the western front in a last attempt to end the war.  It almost worked.  But this part of history is chock-full of “almosts.”

Arthur Herman, author of quite a few fine histories, has done a magnificent job in telling a terrible story in a way that is gripping.  Full of insights, a few jabs at recent events, plenty of good narrative, this book will be a hard one to best in this upcoming year of reading.


Reading Habits and Helps

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If this were my room or study, it would not be nearly so open and empty.

Abandon hope all who read this!  Nothing works for everyone.  Nothing works all the time.  There are always more books than time.  We only remember 3 percent of what we read–at best.  Some books are too hard to read.  We are all too busy.  Reading is hard.  Life is short.  For some reason, we have to waste lots of time holding jobs, running errands, and doing stuff other than reading.  Speed reading is a myth for most.  Some authors we adore wrote upwards to a hundred or more books.  Reading translations restricts your experience of reading foreign authors.  And Faulkner’s middle section in “The Bear” which appears in Go Down, Moses is almost impossible to make sense of.  And Faulkner is easy compared to Herman Dooyeweerd.

Still with me?  Okay, I will share some of what I have picked up and learned about reading, reading habits, reading for knowledge, reading for pleasure, reading with a focus on study and mastery, and reading as a way of life.  My habits and patterns are not for everyone.  They don’t even really work for me!  But what I do has helped me get a few steps along the way.

First, I will take note of three books about reading.  I could expand this to ten or twenty, but three are enough.

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Today, I finished reading Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of Men and Nations by George and Karen Grant.  This was my third time to read the book all the way through.  It is light, entertaining, and easy to read, but filled with loads of wisdom (via dozens of quotes by dozens of authors) on books and reading.  It inspires and directs, but has some practical guidelines as to how to read, what to read, what to collect, and the like.

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Several times, I have read and taught from the book How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren.  I have been told that the original edition which was written solely by Adler is better.  The first several chapters of this book are indispensible.  It is funny (but I am not laughing) that we teach kids how to read in the early years, but then neglect teaching them how to read in the latter years.  Meaning, we teach them how to sound the words so they can read a book, but then don’t teach them enough about how to analyze, think about, and use books.

The reading lists at the back of this book are overwhelming and helpful.  The chapters on specific areas can be scanned or skipped, but the first several chapters need to be pre-read, read, and reread repeatedly.

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How to Read Slowly by James W. Sire probably strikes many as a book to avoid.  We all want to know how to zip through a book.  We want to be able to knock out War and Peace during a lunch break.  “I already read slowly.  Why do I want to read that book?”  Shut up! and read the book.  Yes, we all read slowly–we think–but this book has some helpful tools for what the subtitle says, Reading for Comprehension.

2.  Have a balanced diet.  Many years ago, William Hackett, an octagenarian at the time and the main book seller in Arkansas, told me, “You can’t just eat meat.  You need to have some dessert and other things.”  Four or five heavies are too many.  Meaning, if you are reading Calvin’s Institutes, Plato’s Republic, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the same time, you are either too smart to be reading this blog or you are wondering why you are failing as a reader.  Get thee to a salad bar and dessert table.

Read some fun stuff.  I have my dessert readings.  Sometimes, I don’t get to the desserts until after I have read the more serious or required readings.  For dessert I like narrative histories, biographies, and fun types of fiction.  Some of the fiction I enjoy (like the spy novels of Daniel Silva or the crime mysteries of C. J. Box) includes lots of murder and mayhem.  I enjoy it.  If Silva or Box were to write a book about grading test papers, I would be truly horrified.  Killing bad guys in a story is relaxing.

I love political histories.  I read lots of military history.  I love reading about the lives of political and military people.

Find some truly enjoyable writers.  Whether Lewis and Tolkien, Mark Twain and P. G. Woodhouse, P. J. O’Rourke and Rick Bragg, find those authors and types of books that are well written (hopefully) and enjoyable.

But balanced diet means you have to include the other more meaty, protein filled readings as well.

3.  Discover and carve out your prime reading times.  Some people will say things to me or about me like this:  “You must read all the time.”  Nope.  I devote an hour or so solely to reading in the mornings and an hour or so at night when I go to bed.  I get a few snatches–and I mean snatches–sometimes during the day.

As much as is humanly possible, nothing, meaning NO THING, intrudes upon, interferes with, or distracts me from the morning and evening reading times.

Callie the dog tries.

My wife always has at least one thing she has to tell me.

My kids no longer come in the room crying, but they do come in the room (at night more than morning) to tell me something.

But mainly, I have my hand to the plow and my eyes fixed upon the furrow.

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4.  Teach yourself to get through a book–from beginning to end.  One of the main and hardest lessons I teach in school is this:  Finish the book.  Even parents will object and tell their kids to make sure they are comprehending and remembering what they read.  I am all for comprehension and remembering.  But step one is perseverance and completion.  There are times when books have to be jettisoned, started over, or slowed down.  But generally, my approach is a FORCED MARCH  through to the end.

The point is to embrace the discipline of reading in spite of all obstacles.  Obstacles include distractions, weariness, lack of comprehension, and time.  FINISH THE BOOK.

One of the best helps for this discipline is reading fiction that is engaging.  Meaning, you teach yourself that you have to find out how the story ends. (But don’t cheat and skip to the ending.)

5.  When necessary, make use of every little help you can get.  When I am struggling with a book, I will sometimes go and read a short review of it.  I read what Amazon readers have said.  I go to Goodreads and glean from the reviews.  I look for Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, etc.  I ask others what they think of the book.  This means little helps.  Don’t buy the 500 page book on Plato’s Republic to help you get through his much shorter work.  But if you find Plato’s Republic for Dummies in an abridged edition, read it.

When I was reading Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot  some years ago.  I was struggling to follow the story.  Each night I would read a chapter or so.  The next day at work, I would look up that chapter on the Sparknotes website.  This was like talking to a friend who had read the book.  Sometimes I realized that I had missed something vital in the chapter.  Occasionally, I was right on target.

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5.  Be reading several books at a time.  I really already covered this in point 2 above.  Unless you are completing a book every day or so, you will likely need to have anywhere from two to twenty books you are reading from.  Yep, some will get abandoned and left behind.

6.  I usually read in chunks of 10 pages a day from each book I am currently working through.  Or I read a chapter a day.  The ten page goal is my go-to setting for the more challenging reads.  If the book takes off and I am galloping through it, great.  If not, ten pages gets you through 300 pages in a month.  It works for me.

Again, sometimes books with chapters around 12 to 20 pages get read by chapters.

7.  This morning I read from four different books.  Since I am out of school today, I was able to read a bit more from each one than usual.  There was a fifth book I tried to read from, but my mind was too zapped at that time.  The book Long Before Luther was too much like the book I had just finished reading from (Reformation Thought by Alistair McGrath).

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Before the day is over, I will read from at least three more books, God willing.

8.  Concerning note taking, underlining, and highlighting:  I never highlight any more because highliters tened to bleed through the pages or fade.  They also ruin the look of the book when the highlighters’ colors are too strong.  I never underline in a really nice edition of a book.  I occasionally mark in the margins of  cheaper books or school related books with an “n.” for “note” or “n.b.” for “note well” or a check mark for something funny or witty or a “c.” for “consider and think about this” or a “q.” for a good quote (meaning a quote from another source).

Books I teach from–like my copies of The Iliad or The Unvanquished–may have lots of underlining, cross-references, and notes.

I love Moleskine notebooks for writing in.  But I don’t take time usually to write any or many good quotes in them.  My reading time is limited, so writing notes and quotes stalls the end result.

Please share any ideas you have that work for you.  This is not the final say-so on reading.

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The Christian Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several points in reference to the Gospel Coalition essays:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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