Who’s on First?

Buckley

Good. Fun read. I read it first in 1982. Read it again in 2015, but I didn't think I was reading it again. I had actually forgotten I had read it the first time. It is that kind of read. Of course it is hard to fault Buckley for this. Most potboilers don't stay with you for 33 years. … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/April 2015

Christian Imagination

The mind of G.K. Chesterton was a field of corn. Not only was he a prolific source of thoughts, each one a stalk of corn, but each one of them contained hundreds of kernels, each of them capable of multiplying as well. He didn't just write a lot -- he was fruitful. He was at his most fruitful when he talked about the arts and imagination because that is where he was discussing the center of his power as a writer. And in this book, Thomas Peters brings together a delightful set of observations from Chesterton on the arts, and competently discusses them himself. If you love Chesterton, if you want to write with effect, if you are fond of inexplicable explanations, or all of the above and more, then this is a book you must have. Gems from Chesterton on the imagination and its failures are found throughout the book. If you are involved in this arena at all, then this book is indispensable. It is probably indispensable regardless. "Towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble" (p. 71). "I am not … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/March 2015

God's Wisdom

As it happens, three years ago this month I began posting a monthly book review of books that I wanted to promote, and the book I selected to kick off this feature was The World-Tilting Gospel by Dan Phillips. As it happens, on the three-year anniversary of this salutary custom, the book I have selected is another book by Dan Phillips, this time his book on Proverbs called God's Wisdom in Proverbs. I want to beat the drum for this book for three reasons. The first is that this generation of Christians needs the sanctified horse sense of Proverbs in the worst way. The grace of God is present in the miracles of Scripture, sure enough, but the grace of God is also present in the way the world usually runs. And nothing is better at describing how the world usually runs than the book of Proverbs. A little sleep, a little slumber, and you don't usually win the lottery. It is not legalism when things fall down as you drop them. It is not binding the conscience to observe that wringing the nose bringeth forth blood. Describing the grace of God does not run contrary to the grace of God, and the book of Proverbs describes the ways and means of grace in a way that our cheap grace … [Read more...]

Book of the Month: February 2015

Living Zealously

The choice for this month is Living Zealously by Joel Beeke and James La Belle. This is one of those rare books which, having finished, I think I am going to start over reading again. Lewis once said about courage that it was not so much a separate virtue as it was the testing point of all the virtues. It is a similar kind of thing with zeal. No one is able to simply radiate zeal. Zeal always accompanies something else, always has a particular object other than itself. A man might be zealous for God's honor, or be zealous for evangelism, or have a zeal in preaching, and so on. That said, zeal is a true grace, and it is not optional. “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Tit. 2:14). What Beeke and La Belle did in this book is provide a compendium of Puritan teaching on the subject of zeal. This is a subject that the Puritans knew a great deal about. Their zeal -- which transformed the Western world, to insufficient thanks -- was not an accident. They knew what they were doing. They pursued it as part of their discipleship. They knew and taught on the dangers of false or misguided … [Read more...]

Our Last Christening

A year or so ago, I read through Marilynn Robinson's novels, which was a treat for the most part. I read all of them except for Lila, but there I had the excellent excuse that it had not yet been released. But now it has been, so it comes to pass that I have now read it also. Robinson's descriptive powers remain as great as ever, and she does what every novelist dreams of, which is to hold your attention page to page. What she does not do, however, is provide a compelling case for universalism. Robinson specializes in exquisite descriptions of broken characters, but here her theology unwittingly becomes one of those broken characters, lame and blind, and with no one to help. In universalism, the human is constant. He or she does things, and those things can be good or bad. Universalism focuses on those things, and wonders whether God is so arbitrary or so irrational as to be unwilling to forgive such things. And it is also pointed out that someone else has been forgiven for those very same things, and if one person is forgiven, then why not all? Meanwhile, the perpetrator is standing off to the side, a constant subject whose role is to have done a list of bad things without … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/January 2015

Lesser Magistrates

This month the book of the month is a brace of books. You should get them together, and read them both. Together they address the central political issue of our day, one that rests underneath whatever the turmoil of the moment might be. The doctrine of the lesser magistrates is one of our lost doctrines, an essential part of our civic heritage, but one which we have shamefully neglected and now are in desperate need of again. We are not going to get it back unless we resort to the reading of old books, and books that recover old doctrines. After urging you to get and read these two books, I will add a few thoughts of my own below. The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates by Matthew Trewhella is a very fine introduction to what was once a standard understanding among conservative Protestants. Calvin treats this doctrine in Book IV of his Institutes, and John Knox has a clear-headed treatment of it in his Appellation. In this book, Trewhella gathers together the basic questions that surround the doctrine, and answers them systematically. What is the doctrine? What are some historical examples? Can the doctrine be abused? And so on. A companion volume, The Magdeburg … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/December 2014

Brave Young Handsome

Leif Enger's other novel, Peace Like a River, was an earlier selection of mine for "book of the month," a year ago today, in fact. And now comes his other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome. Let me first say that I don't really care for his titles. Peace Like a River is taken from the prophet Amos, but comes off like a mash up of an evangelical cliche and a folk song. After you read the book, you don't care, but there it is. So Brave, Young, and Handsome is taken from a song called "The Cowboy's Lament." We beat the drum slowly and played the fife lowly And bitterly wept as we bore him along For we all loved our comrade, so brave, young, and handsome We all loved our comrade, although he'd done wrong The book is set in the West, in the early days of the twentieth century, when the old ways of the West were still a living memory, but the new ways had settled in. The book is written in the first person by a writer from Minnesota named Monte Becket. He had published one book, Martin Bligh, that had been a best seller, and now after many attempts on the second one, was coming to grips with the fact that writer's block had him by the windpipe. He is happily married to Susannah … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/November 2014

Rise Christianity

I really appreciate this book. In it, Rodney Stark applies some of the tools of analytic sociology to a particular historical phenomenon which in this instance matches the title of his book exactly -- the rise of Christianity. Full disclosure: I won't be done with this book for a couple more days, but it is November 1 already. But I have already read enough to know that I really want you to read it too. He asks obvious questions -- but that are only obvious once someone has asked them. For example, he has a chapter that starts with a thousand Christians in the first century, and notes the number of Christians there likely were when Constantine officially abandoned paganism. He then asks the obvious question -- what growth rate was necessary in order to get between that first point and the second one? Another chapter examines the likely class status of converts to Christianity. Contrary to class struggle advocates, the gospel grew the way it did, and was as effective as it was, because it appealed strongly to the middle and upper classes. Christianity was as appealing as it was because of its work with the outcasts, but there was a strong appeal in this to those who were not … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/October 2014

System Soul

Hunter Baker does very good work. This new book is called The System Has a Soul. His earlier book The End of Secularism was really worthwhile, and now he is out and about with this collection of essays on similar and related themes. Secularism is completely bankrupt, and the more people we can get to talk regularly about this useful fact in public, the better I like it. People used to believe that secularization was part of the inevitable march of evolution. Now the ground has shifted, and people are just acquiescing to certain practical realities brought about by the mere fact of pluralism. But, as Baker points out, "There is nothing about that situation that guarantees a secular future" (p. 54). What the future will look like is always an idea, and unless there is divine inspiration for your eschatology, you need to be a little bit careful about your pronouncements. There is no historical inevitability to secularism at all. Baker is one of the few writers today who is willing to point that fact out. The subtitle of this book is Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life, and his work ranges between a number of related themes. He talks about the crisis that higher … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/September 2014

Chlidren Living God

In this wonderful book, Children of the Living God, Sinclair Ferguson carefully discusses the new birth, the glory of adoption, and the ramifications of living together in God's family. Regeneration "means to come to share in the risen life and power of Jesus Christ, and to enter into vital fellowship with him" (p. 18).  This is the work of God, and no one else can do it. When He does it, He displays the nature of His power -- which is infinite. "It is no easier for God to give you a new birth than it is for him to give it to the worst man who ever lived" (v.  21). "There are, then, two dimensions to our sonship. The first is re-creation (or regeneration); the second is adoption, God's acceptance of us into his family" (p. 26). Adoption "is not a change in nature, but a change in status" (p. 36). We are men before God does this, and we are men after. But before God brings us into His family, we are members of another kind of family, with a usurping alien father. The devil is our father, using all the gifts and faculties that God gave our race to hasten the day of our damnation. When someone is truly converted (which is not the same thing as joining the church), he is adopted … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/August 2014

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

For this month's installment, I am going to do something a little bit different. I am going to throw some superlatives into the second paragraph, explain some obstacles in the next, and then add my own observations following all that. This book, Is Administrative Law Unlawful?, is one of the most important books of this generation -- magnificent, magisterial, monster-mojo-fun. Everyone who is directly or indirectly connected with politics needs to get it, read it, and digest it. It is an unlikely contender for best seller status, but we need to make sure it gets there anyway. I am taking the unusual step of reviewing a book for this spot before finishing it -- but bear with me. I want to take it all in slowly while getting the word out quickly. Okay, there are some obstacles. The book costs about fifty clams, which works out to about a dime a page -- worth every penny. This thing has a tight weave of 511 pages, with 111 pages of dense footnotes on top of that. It is a carefully written academic tome, published by The University of Chicago Press, in a nondescript powder blue cover, with the title looking suspiciously Times Romanesque. Take all these things together, and you … [Read more...]

Book of the Month/July 2014

Seeing Beauty

When reviewing a book written by a friend, there are two basic ways the thing could go, one of them very bad. Say that you had been duck hunting for forty years with your very bestest friend, and then, after retiring from his job as CEO of Whatsit, Inc. he gets it into his head to write a book, a novel, say, about the Amish End Times, and there are lots of apocalyptic bonnets, which is a disturbing thought in itself. He is a rich guy so he is going to have some vanity press do it up right, and he gives you the manuscript and asks you, his very best friend, to blurb it for him. Ten pages in and you are murmuring "shoot me now." Twenty pages in and you have an inexplicable quarrel with your wife. Thirty pages in and you realize that you are already in the Amish End Times. The fiction has come to surrealistic life, and you are being chased through a spooky field in the gloaming, pursued by the Manure Slinger of Death. If you hadn't guessed, this one is the bad scenario -- when you get along famously with someone, except for that part of their brain that writes books. A part that you didn't realize was there for all those years. The other scenario is the happy one. A friend writes … [Read more...]

Statist Solutioneering

Wright's last three chapters were really very good. They were "How to Engage Tomorrow's World," "Apocalypse and the Beauty of God," and "Becoming People of Hope." What I want to do is make a few brief comments about each, and then make two observations about the book as a whole, and Wright's influence generally. In these chapters, Wright is doing what he does best, which is declare the biblical basis for the ultimate lordship of Jesus Christ over all things -- the resurrection -- and then to insist that this lordship is not an airy fairy spiritual abstraction, but rather that it has nuts and bolts applications in the here and now. "Our confidence is in Jesus and him alone" (p. 185). "Jesus is lord of the world, so all truth is his truth; let's go and explore it with reverence and delight" (p. 185) He cites C.S. Lewis insisting that there is absolutely no neutral ground anywhere in the universe. Every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan. "Lewis was echoing the view of many Christian thinkers, going back to Abraham Kuyper and ultimately to Paul himself; but in doing so, he, and they, stand firmly against the great division that is … [Read more...]

Bet You a Can of Corn

I should begin by saying that this bit of writing is not a rant. I can assure you that at no time in the composition was the screen spittle-flecked. I remained in a good humor the entire time. And I mention all this because it is my intention to step out a bit, high, wide, and handsome. My criticism of Wright at this juncture is going to have a little tang to it. My adjectives and my metaphors are going to be slathered in West Texas barbecue sauce, that one for instance. The title of this chapter is "Our Politics Are Too Small," when the actual problem is that our politics are far too large. If responsible government were considered as two or three of those little marshmallows, the kind you put into jello for the kids, our modernist concept of idolatrous government is that marshmallow puff monster at the end of Ghostbusters. True, our cultural vision is truncated and pinched, and much of what Wright is arguing here could be used to broaden that vision -- but he doesn't do it. If, under the lordship of Jesus, our politics assumed a more reasonable size and shape, our culture, free of coercion, and also under the lordship of Christ, would be in a position to truly … [Read more...]

What the Pimp Needs to Do

In this installment, I want to commend Wright yet again, briefly summarize what he says, and then try to supply a key element that I think he is missing. Were he to gain that element, either from me or from a reputable dealer, I believe the good points he is urging here would gain a great deal of additional potency. So I am not really disagreeing here, but since the next chapter is on politics, I think I might resort back to this chapter in order to explain our anticipated differences there. The chapter is titled Idolatry 2.0, and it is quite good. In it, he points out rightly that every kind of nature abhors a vacuum, not just physical nature. Whenever you banish the gods, others come creeping back in. "But history shows again and again that other gods quietly sneak in to take their place" (p. 152). Three of the most obvious gods in our day are Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite -- war, money, and sex. In a nice touch, Wright associates each of these three gods with their respective prophets -- Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud. Each of those guys would sit on their tall three-legged Delphic stools, get the fumes into their heads, and start raving about how it was all about "power," or … [Read more...]