Philosophy Wrapped in Story

Resurrection audiobook cover artTitle: Resurrection
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Louise Maude
Genre: Classic Russian Fiction / Philosophy / Theology
Pages: 398
Rating: 4 of 5

I seldom read modern Christian fiction. With a few exceptions, it tends to be preachy, poorly-researched schlock full of morbid introspection and cheesy romance. I’m not sure where things went wrong, because this Russian classic is most certainly Christian, features quite a bit of morbid introspection, and still managed to wow me. This is one of those books where plot comes in a distant second to the author’s desire to explore and expound philosophical and theological points, but the characters were still sympathetic (or loathsome), and I genuinely wanted to find out what happened to them.

Tolstoy’s tale follows the spiritual journey of a privileged man who realizes that his actions, past and present, have contributed to the downfall of a poor woman: sending her into a down-spiral leading into prostitution and eventual wrongful conviction for murder. We see his inner spiritual struggle over how to rectify the situation as well as the outward struggle of living in a self-centered society that cares nothing for the poor and “criminal class.” To me, Tolstoy’s approach places so much emphasis on doing good that faith (an indispensable part of Christianity) is nearly excluded. However there was much food for thought throughout the book whether I agreed with him or not.

I listened to this as an audiobook read by Simon Vance. His narration was excellent, but I think that I might have preferred reading this myself for the sake of being able to re-read, make notes, etc. when it came to many of the philosophical points.

Overall, even though this had a lot of what I dislike in modern Christian fiction, it worked in the hands of a master like Tolstoy, and I greatly appreciated this book. Also, I am using this for my Classic in Translation category over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

God & Guns

Title: Beating Guns:
Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence
Authors: Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 288
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: March 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I come from a denominational background (American Evangelical/Baptist) where it is not uncommon for people to treat the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment (right to bear arms) with practically the same devotion as any of the basic tenets of the faith. Attempts to discuss gun violence are met with, “It’s not a gun problem. It’s a heart problem” or some similar slogan. Over my last eight years as a pastor I have grown increasingly troubled by the gun culture I see among Evangelicals and the not-so-Christlike attitudes that it seems to foster in many people. I picked up this book to try to get another perspective on the issue.

These authors contend that the US has both a heart problem and a gun problem. The book is loaded with history and disturbing statistics on gun sales, ownership, lobbying, laws, crime, self-defense, and suicide in the US (especially as compared to other industrialized nations). Furthermore, they point out Scripture passages where the prophets speak of a future without weapons or warfare (the title Beating Guns is a play on prophetic verses about “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” – Isaiah 2:4) and where Jesus speaks of non-violence and loving one’s enemies (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7). While leaving some room for individual conscience as to what “commonsense gun laws” and responsible gun ownership might look like, they rightly challenge Christians to seriously reflect on how we as followers of Jesus Christ should relate to guns as far as ownership, admiration, advocacy, voting, etc.

Unfortunately, there is some serious “cherry picking” going on in their use of Scripture. They completely ignore passages that are in tension with their completely pacifist approach…passages that, if we take the Bible seriously, must be taken into account. For example:

  • Most of the prophets who describe the coming world peace talk about it being preceded by violent judgment from God/Jesus rather than a utopia brought about purely by social reform (e.g. Revelation 19)
  • Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for attacking a member of the party who came to arrest Jesus is preceded by a difficult, variously-interpreted passage in which Jesus talks about his disciples arming themselves (Luke 22:36-38)
  • The government is said to be God’s instrument for restraining evil, including by use of the sword (Romans 13:1-5)

This is not to say that the authors are entirely wrong in their concerns, but their approach to the Scripture is selective and incomplete. This makes me wonder if some of the history and statistics have been similarly oversimplified or misrepresented.

Another minor quibble that I have with the book is that the some of the information gets repeated over and over with very little variation in wording. I did read an eARC so maybe an editor will remove some of the redundancy and tighten things up before publication.

Overall, I appreciated the roundup of information and the challenge to think biblically (not just pragmatically) about the issue, but I do feel that there was some serious oversimplification going on here.

A Guided Tour of Atheism

Title: Seven Types of Atheism
Author: John Gray
Genre: Philosophy/Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley – this in no way affects the content of this review)

I believe that it is important to understand where other people are coming from in terms of differing culture, beliefs, and worldview. It can help foster respectful dialogue rather than talking past each other or yelling at each other. To that end, I picked up this overview on atheism.

Just as no major religion is monolithic in its belief and practice, those who espouse atheism have a wide variety of arguments, beliefs, ethics, worldviews, etc. John Gray gives a guided tour of seven kinds of atheism, describing major proponents and beliefs of each category and pointing out its strengths and weaknesses. He strongly criticizes most versions, mostly alleging inconsistency via partial dependence on a monotheistic or even Christian worldview. He speaks favorably only of what he calls “Atheism without progress” (George Santayana & Joseph Conrad) and “The Atheism of Silence” (Arthur Schopenhauer & Benedict Spinoza).

Obviously, the seven categories are Gray’s own generalizations, but they were helpful in getting an overview of a huge topic. As far as persuasiveness, some of Gray’s argumentation is pretty shoddy. For example, he summarily dismisses certain topics touched on by some atheists philosophers (e.g. Nietzsche & Rand) as “silly” without any further explanation, and his main argument against Christianity is little more than “there are much more likely explanations of who Jesus was than the one offered by Christianity.” Overall, this was a helpful overview, and that is what the author stated as his primary goal, so I guess he was successful in spite of occasionally lackluster arguments.

Wise as Serpents & Innocent as Doves

Title: How the Nations Rage:
Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 272
Rating: 5 of 5

Over the last few election cycles I have grown increasingly troubled by the manner in which many professing, Bible-believing Christians participate in the political process – as if the platform of their preferred party had equal authority with Scripture; as if showing love, gentleness, and respect to their neighbor is not an obligation when politics are involved; and as if their hope for the future depends on “the right people” being in office passing the “right legislation.” None of this seems spiritually healthy or consistent for a citizen of heaven who claims Jesus Christ as their Lord, example, and ultimate source of hope (Philippians 3:20-21).

I have been trying to find a book that offers an informed, biblical overview of how and why Christian should participate in politics. Until this week, my search uncovered mostly partisan books on what and who the authors thought Christians should vote for (and why “the other side” is mistaken, hypocritical, and/or just plain evil). This week I finally found a winner: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman. The author states that, “The primary goal of this book is not to help Christians make an impact in the public square. It is not to help the world be something. It is to help Christians and Churches be something” (p. 33).*

Rather than pushing a partisan agenda, Leeman warns us to “…be leery of being too captivated by any political worldview. Your tight-gripped principles should come from Scripture, not ideology” (p. 157). He reminds Christians that our primary identity is who we are in Christ according to the glorious Gospel of grace, lived out in fellowship with the local church. One of his goals “…is to encourage us all to stop letting our political parties set our political agenda. Even more, we should not conflate our parties with our faith. Parties are good servants, but bad masters; useful instruments, but awful identities” (pp. 116-117).

He deals very practically with how Christians should approach and advocate for issues that are important to them – both issues that directly relate to clear biblical principles and ones about which individual Bible-believing Christians might disagree because they are based on logical arguments, inferences, pragmatic concerns, etc. rather than a single principle. An important part of this is the discussion on how we treat those with whom we disagree. For example: “If you participate in social media, does your tone edify or convey care? Or does it lambaste and belittle? How will it affect your evangelism? Our arguments should seek to persuade rather than to score points” (p. 165).

I have another whole page of quotes that jumped out at me as I read this. However, rather than include them all, I will settle for urging you to read this book for yourself. As with any political or theological book, you probably won’t agree with everything in it (e.g. I thought he put a little more weight on Genesis 9:5-6 than it could legitimately bear), but it provides a much-needed biblical perspective on government and our participation in it. If you claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ, be guided by God’s Word, not a party platform or the combative, contemptuous attitude that prevails in today’s politics.

 

*all quotes are from the Nook eBook edition

 

Analyzing the “Culture Wars”

Title: Pagans and Christians in the City:
Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
Author: Steven D. Smith
Genre: Philosophy/Theology & History
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/15/18 (thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley! This in no way affects the content of the review)

This book takes as its starting point a statement by T. S. Eliot to the effect that people are better off living in a Christian society than a pagan one. A hefty chunk of the book is taken up with defining what is meant by “Christian society vs. pagan society.” The author comes down on a basic definition of “transcendent religion (acknowledging or at least open to a God and objective ultimate good beyond the universe and in eternity) vs. immanent religion (finding ultimate good in this world and lifetime).

He purports to show how these incompatible views have constantly fought to be the dominant view undergirding society. He starts with the early Christians in the Roman Empire and then jumps to modern Western civilization in general and the US in particular. He examines how each view shapes society, what kinds of conflicts arise (and why), the meaning of religious freedom for each side (I found the historical and legal issues related to this to be especially interesting and relevant), and a host of other implications.

When someone talks as if they have discovered the key to understanding a massively complex issue, I take it with a grain of salt, but overall this was a thought-provoking book. The hysteria and paranoia that frequently underlie “culture war” discussions is replaced with calm, relatively even-handed description of both sides of most arguments. I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s sometimes vague conclusions (I’m deeply suspicious of trying to “Christianize” society, especially via politics), and the book is pretty lacking in the “how shall we then live?” element, but there’s a lot to chew on here. If you’re looking for an academic analysis of the “culture wars” without the usual hysterical rhetoric, this is worth reading.

A Love Letter to Liturgy

Title: Disruptive Witness
Author: Alan Noble
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 192
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free review copy via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Recently I have noticed a number of books riffing on Charles’ Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age. I have never read A Secular Age in all its 900-page glory, but it was interesting to be exposed to the ideas of someone whose thinking has been shaped by it. This is my first detailed encounter with his philosophies, so I may not be entirely accurate in my understanding of them, but here are my initial impressions:

The first half of this book offers the author’s perception of the constantly-distracted, non-introspective-yet-identity-obsessed culture in which we live. In this culture, says Noble, Christianity is seen as a collection of options in a buffet of more-or-less equal ideas, preferences, and opinions that I can adopt to express what I perceive as “the real me.” Noble desires some way to “disrupt” this “secular” way of thinking and make it clear that the Christian faith is a transcendent reality, that tells us who we are and our place in the universe (loved by God, deeply in need of his grace, etc.).

Much of his diagnosis in the first section is insightful (or at least thought-provoking), but I was uncomfortable and bemused with much of the second half. To me, he comes across as nostalgic for his (Charles Taylor’s?) vision of pre-Reformation days when Christianity was generally accepted because it was imposed from the outside by “Christendom” and “the Church” (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) who spoke with a unified voice. Throughout the second section, fidelity to Scripture (a major concern of the Protestant Reformation and the “noble” people in Acts 17:11) takes a back seat to promoting a sense of awe and transcendence.

The primary ways he suggests promoting this disruptive awe are: prayer before meals, sabbath-keeping, and especially solemn liturgy with a strong anti-technology bias. He offers little or no biblical support for anything he says. To me, he communicates far more about his own “high church” sensibilities than he does about what is at the heart of the Christian faith and the sanctifying truth of God’s Word (John 17:17).

Overall, I appreciated the thought-provoking perspective on society in the first half of the book, but was entirely unimpressed with his solution for effectively sharing the faith (and disturbed that the days of “orthodoxy” imposed by raw power should be idealized).

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Soft Determinism Defended

Title: Excusing Sinners and Blaming God:
A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil
Author: Guillaume Bignon
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 254
Rating: 4 of 5

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?”  – Romans 9:19

Few topics in theology generate as much controversy as how to reconcile divine sovereignty (God’s ultimate control of all things) and human moral responsibility. Rather than trying to limit or explain away divine sovereignty (as in Arminianism or Open Theism), Calvinism views soft determinism as compatible with moral responsibility. Soft determinism or compatibilist free will is the idea that the human will is free in that a person will choose to do what they most desire, but bound in that a person’s desires are caused by factor(s) beyond their control (ultimately by the decretal will of God in a Christian worldview).

This book offers a rigorous logical defense of determinism’s compatibility with moral responsibility and with God’s holiness. This is a highly academic book in which the author makes heavy use of formal logic. I took formal logic back in high school, but that was 20+ years ago, so there were a few places where he pretty much lost me when he started using symbolic expressions. Overall, I think that the author demonstrates his system to be internally consistent and points out some possible logical problems with alternate systems. Enter at your own risk, but if this topic interests you, this is well worth reading. For a more popular level overview of the topic, I highly recommend What About Free Will by Scott Christensen; you can find my review of it here.

Thoroughly Argued, but Disappointing

Title: Just Immigration:
American Policy in Christian Perspective
Author: Mark R. Amstutz
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 252
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Mark Amstutz addresses the issue of how a Christian’s faith should impact their approach to immigration reform with a plodding academic approach. I don’t necessarily mind meticulously dissecting a topic, but a lot of this book felt redundant with little positive payoff at the end.

For the first hundred pages or so the author describes and evaluates the state of US immigration policy and practice. This was probably the most informative part of the book as it provides a good look at the complexity of the issues and viewpoints involved.

The rest of the book describes and evaluates (i.e. heavily criticizes) the approach of various Christian denominations to the issue of immigration reform. I can save you about 130 pages of reading with this summary of the author’s main points:

  1. The church should stick to its sphere of showing love as individuals and the government should stick to its sphere of dispensing justice
  2. Churches should focus on teaching people a moral framework of general Scriptural principles that can be used to evaluate the moral aspects of immigration law rather than lobbying for specific policy changes which should be left up to those who actually understand political science.
  3. The main Scriptural principles that apply to issues of immigration are the dignity of all human beings, compassion for the stranger, and obedience to legitimate authority (with the first two frequently overemphasized to the neglect of the third).

On pages 230-232 the author gives us a bare-bones summary of his take on various moral/ethical issues discussed throughout the book…if he had focused more on this than on showing how everyone else got it wrong I think this would have been a much more profitable book.

Sustaining Life but Not Prolonging Death

Title: When Is It Right to Die?
A Comforting and Surprising Look at Death and Dying
Author: Joni Eareckson Tada
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 208
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 1/30/18 (Thanks to NetGalley for an eARC!)

In this book, Joni Eareckson Tada compassionately examines the subject of euthanasia (or whatever other “death with dignity” term you prefer). She isn’t primarily a theologian or philosopher, but a lovely Christian woman and advocate for the disabled who has spent the last 50 years as a quadriplegic.

She speaks gently, making use of examples from her own life (both personal struggles & advocacy experience) and the lives of others who have reached out to her, stories that garnered national headlines, medical data, legal decisions, and spiritual guidelines from the Bible. She asserts that the intrinsic value of human life calls for “sustaining life, but not prolonging death,” and freely acknowledges that often “knowing the difference isn’t easy.” Her overall approach is both wise and compassionate, overflowing with empathy and concern for the emotional and spiritual well-being of those who are suffering and offering practical advice in approaching difficult potentially-end-of-life situations.

Overall, you might be able to find more theologically/philosophically rigorous books advocating the same position, but the personal element in this book makes it a good place to start.