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.

Where is your true citizenship?

Title: I Pledge Allegiance:
A Believer’s Guide to Kingdom Citizenship in 21st-Century America
Author: David Crump
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 240
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 2/1/18 (Thank you to NetGalley for a free eARC!)

This book confronts a pervasive problem in Evangelical churches in America: idolizing the US and prioritizing politics (especially conservative Republican politics) above all else. David Crump calls Christians back to remembering that we are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of God, called to live according to the (often counter-intuitive) example and teachings of Jesus. The New Testament does not instruct us to transform society by seizing the levers of power, but pictures us as “strangers and foreigners” in the midst of society that will only be transformed when Christ returns. In this, he has hit the nail on the head! Unfortunately, I have many serious disagreements with how he fleshes out and applies his position, finding his handling of Scripture problematic and inconsistent. For example:

  • He claims that the Old Testament has nothing to say about Christian ethics (after all, God sometimes condones violence in the OT)…but makes extensive uses of the poor/welfare laws in the Torah to support some of his social justice arguments.
  • He uses some questionable cultural/grammatical arguments to radically reinterprets Romans 13:1-7 so that instead of being primarily about being law-abiding citizens (a face-value reading of the text), it becomes his platform to talk about civil disobedience.
  • He interprets Jesus’ teachings on personal non-violence/non-retaliation to a blanket prohibition on serving in the military. He gives some lip service to this being a matter on which Christians disagree, but also paints military service as morally equivalent to helping film a porno or burn a cross for the KKK.
  • He all but ignores faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection as the means of salvation (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9) in favor of salvation maintained by living like Jesus, declaring that “he lived for us to exemplify the way of salvation.”
  • While castigating conservative Christians for working together and trying to increase the kingdom via pragmatic politics, he repeatedly brags about being arrested at an anti-NATO rally and states, “disciples can eagerly join hands and collaborate with anyone who shares similar goals for social, cultural, and political transformation.”

…and I could go on. Overall, the basic premise of this book is something that American Christians need to hear and consider (and probably do some repentance), but there is so much cherry-picking, ax-grinding, inconsistency, and other mishandling of Scripture going on throughout the book that I’m not sure if it is worth reading.

Not the unique book I hoped for

Title: Mere Sexuality:
Rediscovering the Christian Vision of Sexuality
Author: Todd A. Wilson
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 187
Rating: 3 of 5

Tod Wilson’s goal is to articulate the common beliefs that Christians of virtually all denominations (whether Catholic, Orthodox, or some sort of Protestant) have historically (down through the centuries until the last 50 years or so) held on the topic of sexuality (by which he primarily means sex in the sense of maleness and femaleness especially as expressed in sexual relationship). I was looking forward to this because so many books on biblical sexuality are focused almost exclusively on explaining why homosexuality is incompatible with the original teachings of the Bible rather than offering a full-orbed discussion of sexuality.

The author does a decent job of providing a fairly comprehensive overview. However, he does this with an eye constantly turned to how it relates to homosexuality and with little or no discussion of how this has played out historically in the writings/practice/etc. of the church. While I didn’t disagree with many of his conclusions, I don’t think his argumentation effectively took the issue much past basing it on biblical authority and the example of Jesus (and while I have no problem with those as bases, the author was supposedly going to distinguish his book from similar ones by going beyond that).

Overall, I think that the biggest contribution here was on the empathy of Jesus, and there are some other good points, but it really wasn’t the stand-out book I was hoping for after reading the publicity blurbs.

Fascist Utopia

Image result for starship troopers coverTitle: Starship Troopers
Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Classic Military Science Fiction
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

This classic sci-fi novel has surprisingly little action compared to the sub-genre that it spawned/influenced (e.g. the Warhammer 40,000 franchise). The entire middle section of the book is essentially a philosophical glorification of militarism and fascistic government (“…the power of the Rods and the Ax…political authority is force.” – p. 145). Most of the book focuses on our narrator’s education in “History and Moral Philosophy,” brutal military training, camaraderie with fellow infantry, and experience in the chain of command. The various lectures and conversations along the way serve as an opportunity for the author to express his views.

In this “glorious” future, the “noble but misguided” democratic governments of the 20th century have failed, and humanity is united into a multi-planet federation in which citizenship and the right to vote and participate in politics (i.e. wield force – p. 145) is limited to military veterans (from an all-volunteer military in which anyone can try to serve out a discouragingly-difficult term). This arrangement is justified with the argument that a veteran is the only one who has demonstrated “that he places the welfare of the group ahead ahead of personal advantage” (pp. 144-145). No exposition is given of how non-citizens fare in this “utopia.” Any mention of civilians quickly dismisses them as mostly-contented, ignorant, cowardly sheep who very occasionally need to be kept in line with public flogging or hanging.

Throughout the course of the book, there is much more exposition of questionable (at best) views on the nature of morality, warfare, leadership, etc.. Humanity’s war against “the bugs,” an aggressive hive-mind race, provides some plot and a couple action sequences that keep the book from being a purely philosophical treatise.

As much a I found most of Heinlein’s views disturbing, the book was very interesting. Its vivid description of military service and unashamed advocacy and explanation of fascistic oligarchy provide a useful perspective on how and why some (by no means all or even most!) veterans and/or extreme-right-wing people think…not to mention that it’s just good, solid sci-fi.

Zarathustra the Godless

Image result for thus spoke zarathustra coverTitle: Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
A Book for None and All
Author: Friedrich Nietzsche
Translator: Walter Kaufmann
Genre: Philosophy
Pages:  349
Rating: 1.5 of 5

Last year I read the excellent The Tweetable Nietzsche by C. Ivan Spencer to get a basic overview of Nietzsche’s thoughts, and I decided to follow it up this year by reading one of his actual works…not because I was expecting to enjoy it or agree with it (after all, he’s known for despising/mocking Christian morality), but because I like to try to understand what other people believe  by hearing/reading it in their own words.

There’s way too much going on here to give any kind of in-depth review on a single reading, so I’m not going to try. It covers concepts like the overman, the will to power, beyond good and evil, nausea, and eternal recurrence. The presentation of the ideas by “Zarathustra the godless” is snarky, melodramatic, and convoluted. Overall, it kind of reminded me of of a couple Bible passages…

Much of it seemed to be a slight reworking of

“…God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5 – the Serpent)

Other parts felt like disillusioned King Solomon: ”

 All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11 …and I suppose a fitting end to this review)