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.

Not a Tame Lion

The Chronicles of NarniaTitle: The Chronicles of Narnia
Author: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Pages: 870
Rating: 5 of 5!

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

(Note: I was just taken on as a volunteer writer for a local online magazine and this is a copy of the second article I will be submitting to them)

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.

The Love of Money…

Title: Redeeming Money:
How God Reveals and Reorients Our Hearts
Author: Paul David Tripp
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: 5/31/18 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley…this does not affect the content of the review)

How you handle your money says a lot about your heart. Paul Tripp explores what Scripture has to say about money and how it fits into a “Gospel Worldview” that centers on God and his glory. His style is blunt without being rude or arrogant, and he provides much needed perspective in our materialistic society. I would have appreciated a little more discussion of situations where circumstances beyond a person’s control (e.g. medical debt) put them in financial difficulties, but overall it was excellent.

What this book does not do is offer practical solutions if you have gotten yourself into a “money mess.”  This is more of a big-picture book, all about heart attitude, motivation, etc.. I would love to see the author write a follow-up with “now that you have a godly perspective, let’s fix this.”

Racism in the White Church

Title: Plantation Jesus:
Race, Faith, and a New Way Forward

Authors: Skot Welch, Rick Wilson, Andi Cumbo-Floyd
Genre: Theology / Social Justice
Pages: 196
Rating: 2.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 5/22/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC through Net Galley…this does not affect the content of the review)

This book addresses a genuine problem in white American Evangelicalism: an attitude that says (though usually not in so many words) “serious racism doesn’t really exist anymore, you lazy, over-sensitive whiners.” However, for a book with “a new way forward” in the title, it offers relatively little practical help in dealing with the issue (just some “how do you think you can help fix this?” questions in the discussion exercises).

The book as a whole focuses almost exclusively on getting white Christians to acknowledge that they are cavalierly ignorant of systemic racism and shamefully benefited by white privilege. The lack of specific applications left me with little more than the (I’m sure unintended) message that “you and your ancestors are bad and you should feel bad.” Add to this the occasional poisoning the well argumentation (implying “if this is painful for you or you disagree with this it’s because you’re racist/ignorant”), and I just wasn’t at all impressed (and slightly worried about writing this review). Basically, I think that these authors do have important things to say (I have observed and confronted serious racism in both churches I have pastored), but I don’t think that those things were said in a helpful way.

Some Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up on the books that I’ve read that didn’t warrant a full scale review (which doesn’t necessarily mean that I didn’t enjoy them):

Title: Saga of the Jomsvikings
Translator: Lee Hollander
Genre: Norse Saga
Pages: 116
Rating: 3 of 5

I enjoy Norse mythology (especially in poetic form) but find the more historical prose sagas a bit “meh.” There is certainly historical, cultural, and poetic interest in this tale of a brotherhood of warriors and their participation in a major battle with Earl Hakon, but the Old Norse style is a bit dry.

Image result for the informer liam o'flahertyTitle: The Informer
Author: Liam O’Flaherty
Genre: Irish Crime/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This felt a lot like Crime & Punishment…if it were set in Ireland during “the troubles” and the protagonist was a brutish moron instead of a sensitive, philosophical type. We get to watch the mental torment of an oaf who betrays his friend as the vengeance-seeking revolutionary party plays a game of cat and mouse with him. The plot crawls through the seedy underbelly of Dublin and was surprisingly deeper/better than I expected.

Image result for Night Squad GoodisTitle: Night Squad
Author: David Goodis
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 200
Rating: 4 of 5

This is a good, solid noir tale, featuring an ex-cop, who unlike his “chump” father (an honest cop  killed in the line of duty), looks out for his own interests even if it means a bit of corruption. He eventually finds himself working for the local mobster and reinstated as a cop on the infamous Night Squad. This isn’t necessarily Goodis’ best work (Dark Passage is much better), but it’s well worth a read if you’re a fan of noir.

Image result for Right ho Jeeves book coverTitles: Right Ho, Jeeves / Thank You, Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 256 / 282
Ratings: 4.5 & 5 of 5

I love the Jeeves and Wooster books, and these are two of the best. Unlike the previous books in the series, these are each one continuous (though episodic) story rather than a collection of loosely related short stories. As usual, good-hearted but dim Bertie Wooster tries to help his friends and relations, gets himself in trouble (which usually means engaged to someone he doesn’t want to marry) and has to be rescued by his genius valet (which frequently seems to involve temporarily throwing Bertie under the bus, but it’s all good in the end).

Title: The Adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser
(omnibus containing Swords & Deviltry, Swords Against Death, & Swords in the Mist)
Author: Fritz Leiber
Genre: Swords & Sorcery
Pages: 520
Rating: 3 of 5

There’s really not a whole lot to say about this one. It’s fairly standard antihero swords and sorcery featuring a northern barbarian (basically a less broody, less rapey Conan) and a thief/swordsman who dabbles in magic (though we seldom see him use any). It’s entertaining enough but nothing special.

Title: Immeasurable:
Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc.
Author: Skye Jethani
Genre: Practical Theology
Pages: 210
Rating: 4 of 5

This insightful little book offers bite-size reflections on what it looks like to biblically lead, serve in, and be the church in a day when many churches and Christians are all about counting attendance, perpetuating programs, offering the “full service church” experience, and honoring celebrity pastors. While I disagree with some of his views on preaching (e.g. that it should inspire rather than teach), it offers some thought-provoking insights that would be helpful for both pastors and church members.