Book of the Month/December 2014

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.Brave Young 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 and has a precocious son named Redstart.

Book of the Month/November 2014

Rise ChristianityI 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 outcasts.

This relates to another chapter. Stark examines the impact of deadly epidemics on the growth of Christianity. Pagans would scatter and flee at the first sign of an outbreak, and Christians would not. Christians would stay and minister to the sick, and despite this — and as Stark shows, because of this — the Christians had a much better recovery and survival rate. This meant that recovered Christians, now immune, could continue the task of nursing the sick.

Because of the adamant stance of the Christians against abortion and infanticide, they had a robust female population, and the pagans didn’t. This was because infanticide was frequently — as abortion is today in places like China — a means of selecting against females. In this context, the Christians had a lot more women, and they honored them highly.

The book is not perfect, and some of this is the result of certain realities not yielding to quantification. Another reason for the occasional stumble is that Stark is not as careful as he ought to be one the question of women holding church office. He is right about how the women were honored, but wrong about whether they wielded authority in the church. A deaconness in the early church was not a deacon who happened to be a woman.

Nevertheless, with all this said, this is a book that begins with some mundane number crunching, and moves on to treat some fascinating subjects, and in a way that is quite moving.

Book of the Month/October 2014

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.

System SoulThe 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 education faces, he addresses whether social conservatives and libertarians can find any common ground, and what relevance the resurrection might have for political theory. Baker is an intelligent observer of the emperor’s parade, and he has the courage to comment on the emperor’s lack of suitable apparel.

Secularism had already gotten wobbly all by itself, and then God introduced the wild card of fundamentalist Islam. Secularists simply won’t follow their premises out to the logical conclusion, and so God arranged for ISIS to chase them there.

In the midst of this chaos, Baker reminds us that Christians in a society must learn to embrace their high calling.

“The church is a huge influence on the values of the culture. The church works to help the state when it is right and calls the state to righteousness when it is wrong. The church is the soul of the system” (p. 50).

There was an early church father, name began with a D I think, who said very much the same thing when he said Christians something something soul of something society. I was surprised that Baker didn’t quote him as I have done, the quote being so apropos to the subject at hand.

Without a return to something like what Baker is outlining here, we have had it. He deftly uses Elton Trueblood’s metaphor to refer to our “cut-flower civilization” — retaining our shape and glory for a time, but stuck there in the vase, and almost ready to be pressed between the pages of a fat history book.

Book of the Month/September 2014

Chlidren Living GodIn 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 by a new Father, and his status changes completely. His old faculties are still operational, but they are pointed in a different direction entirely, devoted to a new love.

When we are brought into God’s family, we are being changed into human beings. So with that being the case, what were we before then? The answer is that we were “wreckage of human” — and headed toward the abyss, the outer darkness, where our status would finally become “ultimate wreckage of human.”

Book of the Month/August 2014

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 scarcely notice the fuse sticking out of the top. But then, after a double take, you realize it is a lit fuse. Despite all these challenges, one time I checked it was ranked around 12,000 at Amazon. That is remarkable for a book like this, but we need to have it do a lot better than that.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

But don’t just buy it to make a statement. Read it, and let the good law professor make his statement. Scott Johnson of Powerline has a review of the book in the current issue of National Review, an adaptation of which can be found here.

We have been told that the modern world is a complex place, and that the archaic rules laid down for our governance in the Constitution have not be able to keep up. Modern! Shiny! Techno! Faster! How could we possibly expect the powdered wig guys, however much we revere them, to have anticipated the modern challenges that confront us Today?

In this book, Philip Hamburger simply destroys this glib assumption, not to mention the hubris it rode in on. The modern administrative state is not the shining achievement of technocratic man, but is rather a retrograde political movement returning, like a dog to its vomit, to a certain medieval form of governance that our constitutional forms of government first arose and smote.

The only thing missing is that the EPA has not seen fit to start meeting in a Star Chamber. Enough with the disparagement of constitutionalism as powdered wig governance. The “modern” administrative state is governance by despots in Elizabethan breeches and piccadills. There is nothing new about any of this.

The growth of constitutional liberty was a long slog, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was one great victory over the dogma of the “royal prerogative.” The American War for Independence was another great moment in that same struggle. The result of the American resistance to arbitrary government was our written Constitution, a document expressly designed to prohibit the kind of governance we now suffer. The fact that this Constitution was designed to prohibit the current shenanigans is something that Hamburger demonstrates again and again.

Royal Prerogative

We have determined that the employer mandate may be waived for the present, as it suits our pleasure . . .

Do you want to know why Obama thinks he can simply alter the requirements of Obamacare? Congress passes a law, he signs it into law, but then when aspects of it land heavily upon certain lords and barons who are friendly to the crown, he just issues his administrative waivers — his “suspending and dispensing powers,” as Henry VIII would have called them. As Scott Johnson put it, this is a “new old regime.”

There are two great takeaways from this book. The first is that our current regime is an old enemy in a new guise. It was not a development that the Founders could not have anticipated — it was their old foe. They knew it quite well. They knew the arguments of expedience and necessity, and they rejected them. They rejected them at the root and in the flowering fruit. They wanted nothing to do with it.

The arguments for administrative law are therefore arguments for absolute power. The whole thing is deeply and profoundly unlawful, illegal, and subversive. The ruling elites always gravitate toward this kind of dry rot polity, all while assuring us that everything is perfectly sound. But this book will forever dispel their ability to lie that particular lie.

The second takeaway is an implication of the book for those Christians who take their faith seriously, and who therefore believe that we have an obligation before God to be law-abiding citizens (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).

In this respect, the title of this book is explosive. Is Administrative Law Unlawful? The answer to this question is provided over and over in the course of the book, and the answer is that administrative law is unlawful. It is not binding. It is lawless. It is rebellion. It is subversive. It follows then that those who reject its authority are not rejecting authority — just the reverse, actually.

There are of course a host of practical questions that arise. But before tackling the practical questions, it is important to get the theory straight. Whether or not a particular agency has enough SWAT teams to take my property away from me, I should at least be clear that when they do, they are the ones being the outlaws. Resisting them in whatever ways I can ought not to be a burden on my conscience. And to be perfectly frank, not resisting them should be.

Whatever you do, get this book. For all your getting, get wisdom (Prov. 4:7).

Book of the Month/July 2014

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.Seeing Beauty

The other scenario is the happy one. A friend writes another book and you realize yet again what the basis of the friendship actually is. This was perhaps a roundabout way of introducing it all, but this month’s book selection is Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully by John Piper. This book, like John, is passionate and meticulous in equal measure, and on a topic like this it really needs to be. Without passion, poetic effort is dry and mechanical. Without meticulous care, poetic effort melts into a fairly large puddle of sensate lamesauce.

“This book is about the relationship between poetic effort, on the one hand, and perceiving, relishing, and portraying truth and beauty, on the other hand” (p. 17).

In the introduction, Piper addresses the dilemma which the apostle Paul created for all Christian wordsmiths when he rejected words of human wisdom. Does this restriction mean that we should labor to always say exactly the wrong thing the wrong way — the non bon mot? Non bon for short? Piper argues, very effectively, that the apostle was not rejecting a thoughtful use of words, but rather the sophistry that was very common in Corinth at the time.

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 come upon us in the West” (p. 187).

That great division is the idea that there is somehow a disjunct between actual facts and religious truth, or that truth itself can be divveyed up and placed in separate compartments. No, Christ is Lord of Heaven and earth, and we call it a universe for a reason.

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 flourish.

But Wright doesn’t do this. He is like the constables in Penzance. “We go, we go, we go!” “But you don’t go!” Let me splain.

First, Wright is absolutely correct that the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is necessarily political. Jesus rose from the dead in the middle of history, and so the old ways of doing politics must be abandoned. This happens progressively in history, not all at once. Building on the foundation of the resurrection, the Church is God’s plan for getting this task done, and He is willing for it to take a while. And those who hold to power in the old ways don’t want to let go of it. “God acting in public is deeply threatening to the rulers of the world in a way that gnosticism in all its forms never is” (p. 173). The “political implications [are] inevitable” (p. 163). Wright correctly stands against the notion “that God doesn’t belong in public life” (pp. 164, 169).