Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reading for Pleasure

I often read books for intellectual and spiritual growth. Other times I read to support my work as teacher and librarian. Sometimes I like to read just for the pleasure of reading. Recently, I decided I needed to read a book just for pleasure. I picked up a book I had read before that I enjoyed reading. The book is Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Berry is one of my favorite writers and I have read many of his books. Jayber Crow is an interesting story. It tells the story of a young boy orphaned at ten and sent to an orphanage. During a revival meeting he accepted a call to the ministry. To receive training for this calling he go to a theological school. After being at the school one year he leaves the school and return to his original home before being orphaned and becomes a town barber. In some sense he lives out God's calling as a barber. This story resonates with my own story. I too soon after conversion felt a call to ministry. I attended Louisiana College, a Baptist institution, to prepare for the ministry. After one year I decided to return home and study at a state university. After receiving my B.A. I attended New Orleans Baptist Seminary. After being at the seminary for one term I decided the ministry was not for me. Instead, I returned to the state university to pursue a graduate degree in History. That was twenty four years ago. From hindsight I believe I made the right decision.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An Introduction to Kierkegaard

Peter Vardy, An Introduction to Kierkegaard. Hendrickson, 2008. 109 pages. ISBN 978-1-59856-345-0.

I had been reading E. Stephen Evans' introduction to Kierkegaard. I found it somewhat dense in some spots. I had already read Peter Kreeft's new book on Socrates and Kierkegaard. I enjoyed it. It was mostly an overview of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments. I decided I needed an introduction to Kierkegaard for a beginner. I found Peter Vardy's An Introduction to Kierkegaard just what I needed. He does an excellent job of explaining Kierkegaard to a beginner. It probably helps that he has been teaching Kierkegaard to undergraduate students for 25 years. Vardy is Vice-Principal of Heythrop College, the specialist Philsophy and Theology college of the University of London. Other books authored by Vardy are The Puzzle of God, The Puzzle of Sex, The Puzzle of Ethics, and Being Human.

An Introduction to Kierkegaard includes eleven chapters. Topics discussed in these chapters are Kierkegaard's life, faith and reason, truth, stages of life, ethics, love, dialogue with other religions, and Kierkegaard's criticism of the institutional church. Vardy states that Kierkegaard has influenced him "more than any other thinker" (ix). This introduction does not treat Kierkegaard's works exhaustively. He does well as providing a basic overview of Kierkegaard's thought. It is an excellent book for one just beginning to read Kierkegaard.

Vardy argues that if Jesus is God certain things follow: "The truth that is revealed in Jesus' life is not like that of Gandhi or Socrates;" the supreme importance of the incarnation as a "decisive event in human history;" for an individual to accept the message of the gospel "is not like acquiring one more piece of information;" (This is Walker Percy's argument in his parable, "The Message in the Bottle") the moment when accepts the incarnation and decides to take it seriously the Eternal Truth that Jesus brings will be decisive" (12). In other words, the incarnation is not like any other event. In it the eternal entered the temporary. E. Stephen Evans does an excellent job explaining these thins things in his commentary on Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments which I was reading at the same time I was reading Vardy's introduction to Kierkegaard.

Two other points that followed from the incarnation argued by Vardy are that "KIerkegaard . . . equates error with sin" and sin is not the opposite of virtue. If Jesus is God and we do not recognize the fact, then we are in error. Hardy thinks that this "is to assert the primacy of human reason and to refuse to accept a revelation that goes beyond reason" (13). In addition, "if someone moves from refusal to accept that Jesus is God to an acceptance of this, then this is a move from error to truth, from sin to faith" (13). There are many ways that Christians see the relationship between faith and reason. Three major ways are faith against reason, the synthesis of faith and reason, or faith above reason. Kierkegaard seems to argue either for faith against reason or faith above reason. Some argue that Kierkegaard is an irrationalist, but this does not seem to be the case. This relationship between faith and reason has captured my attention for over thirty years. I have been studying how Aquinas and Kierkegaard understand this relationship. Are there positions diametrically opposed? Can they be reconciled? This is something I am trying to find out in regards to the writings of Walker Percy.

An Introduction to Kierkegarrd by Peter Vardy does a good job in providing a concise overview of Kierkegaard and his thought. It is a good place to begin reading about Kierkegaard. He provides a recommended reading list for those who want to go further. The book is well-written and easy to understand. One does not need prior knowledge of Kierkegaard to understand it.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Christian Humanism

R. William Franklin and Joseph M. Shaw, The Case for Christian Humanism. Eerdmans, 1991. ISBN 978-0-8028-06062

Readings in Christian Humanism edited by Joseph M. Shaw, R.W. Franklin, Harris Kaasa, and Charles W. Buzicky. Fortress Press, 2009. Originally published 1982. ISBN 978-0-8006-6464-0

I have to confess that until a few years ago I had very little knowledge about Christian Humanism. I was familiar with the idea of secular humanism. However, I was also familiar with the Humanism of the Renaissance. I discovered that Christian Humanism was an important topic, so I chose these two books two learn more about it. The first book describes what it is and the second book is an anthology of readings on the subject from the ancient world to modern times.

It might be best to offer a definition of Christian Humanism. The authors in The Case for Christian Humanism provides a preliminary definition early in the book: "Christian humanism points to the deep interest in human beings, their life, well-being, culture, and eternal significance that belongs to the Christian faith. Central to that faith is Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God and brother to every human being. Christian humanism shares with other humanistic philosophies the desire to protect and enhance human existence, but it is unique in finding the source and goal of human powers in God the Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit" (5).

The authors argue for the importance of Christian humanism for Christians today. They think some Christians falsely believe that all humanists are anti-god. In contrast, the author argue that many humanists are Christians and that "it is possible to be a Christian humanist" without watering down the faith. The authors note, "Christians who are humanists have not added some liberal twist to the Christian faith but have listened to what the biblical message has to say about human concerns" (5). Christian humanism affirms that the creation is good, though fallen. God calls us to redeem his fallen creation. Second, it emphasizes the incarnation of Christ.

The Case for Christian Humanism is divided into four parts: Part I: Affirming Christian Humanism; Part II: Biblical Teaching; III: Worship; Part IV: Theology. Part one describes Christian humanism. Part two provides the biblical background of Christian humanism. Part three shows how Christian humanism is found in worship. The last part shows how the doctrine of God provides light on Christian humanism.

The second book, Readings in Christian Humanism provides readings from major authors on the topic of Christian Humanism. The authors note, "this book presents a selection of writings on humanism from the perspective of Christian faith. The authors state in the introduction that "Christian humanism is the interest in human persons and the positive affirmation of human life and culture which stems from the Christian faith."

The book is divided into six parts including an epilogue. The first part looks at Jerusalem and Athens: Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible. Part two includes writings from the first four centuries of the church. Some of the authors included are Justin Martyr, Jerome, and Augustine. Part three covers the Middle Ages. Authors included in this section include Anselm and Aquinas. Parts four and five include writings from the Renaissance and the Reformation. Writers include Petrarch, Erasmus, Luther and Calvin. Part six covers from the the seventeenth century to modern times. Some of the authors included are Pascal, Milton, Bunyan, Wesley, and Walker Percy.

The authors provide an introduction at the beginning of the book and present introductions to each section. The authors provide the essential features of Christian humanism in the introduction:

1. Human nature under God.
2. Human sinfulness.
3. An orderly universe.
4. Human responsibility.
5.The human will and its freedom.
6. Community.
7. Human gifts and talents.
8. History and human destiny.

 Reading through the book I was pleased with the selections. The selections were worth reading as an end in itself. However, one could see through readings that covered over two thousand years how Christians and others have affirmed life and human flourishing. This is a rich anthology that is well worth the time spent reading it. The authors show that Christian humanism is a vital tradition that must not be lost.




Friday, November 21, 2014

The Elements of Library Research

Mary W. George, The Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know. Princeton University Press, 2008.

The Elements of Library Research aims to provide the tools that every college student needs to do college level research. It is intended for the undergraduate student but would be helpful to other groups. The author says her "intended audience includes novice researchers in any rigorous academic setting" (xii). I believe she is right but I think even experienced researchers can retool their toolbox or learn new skills that will be helpful.

When Mary George wrote this book she was acting head of reference and senior reference librarian at Princeton University Library. She has several years of experience helping students and faculty to do research.

The Elements of Library Research does a good job in presenting the key elements of the process of the research. It show how to determine a topic to finishing the research project. She does a great job of showing the reader how to interact with sources. George not only describes the process of research, she also describes the "logic" of the process. George's book "focuses entirely on basic concepts, strategies, tools, and tactics for research." In addition, the author draws on decades of experience of her own personal research. She has taught a range of groups to do research from college freshman to doctoral students.

The author provides a chart of the research process and describes each step:

Motivation or assignment--Topic Selection--Imagination--Research Questions--Research Plan--Reference Works & Databases--Sources--Evaluation--Insight--Thesis--Argument & Outline--Drafting & Revising

The reader will find this book as an excellent tool on the process of research. It is reader friendly, even a high school student could understand it. The author writes well and the book is a quick read. The book is divided into five chapters:

1. Introduction to Research as Inquiry
The author argues that "library research is a form of structured inquiry with specific tools, rules, and techniques" (1). A big part of this research is our interaction with sources.

2. From Research Assignment to Research Plan.
George does a good job of defining the concepts she uses in this text. In chapter two she gives a basic map that the book will follow.

3. Strategy and Tools for Discovery
In this chapter she discusses different search strategies for finding the sources you need.

4. The Fine Art of Finding Sources
This chapter provides additional strategies for finding sources.

5. Insight, Evaluation, Argument, and Beyond.
This is a very helpful chapter. It shows different ways of interacting with resources. In addition, it describes the process of getting insight from the sources. Thirdly, it teaches how to evaluate sources. Last it distinguishes between an outline and an argument.

The Elements of Library Research is a well-written manual on the research process. It provides many tips on improving one's research. It also provides a road-map that can guide the research of the reader. This book is recommended for those who want to improve their research or if the reader struggles with the research process.   

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.

I have wanted to read Brave New World for several years. I had read books that discussed similar themes: C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Man, George Orwell's 1984, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. So when one of the members of our book club recommended that we read it, I was glad.

In Brave New World Aldous Huxley presents us with a future Utopia "in which humans are processed, conditioned, regimented, and drugged into social conformity." The story is set in a future London and focuses on the "misadventures" of Bernard Marx. Bernard is unhappy with his life in this society, so he takes his girlfriend, Lenina, to visit an Indian Reservation in the American Southwest. The Brave New World allows certain unfit individuals to live in uncivilized societies. This is quite ironic since in the Brave New World does not affirm the sanctity of life. One could say it is a culture of death. It could be related to Walker Percy's Thanatos Syndrome. 

While visiting this Indian reservation Bernard and Lenina comes in contact with John and his mother. In conversations with John finds out that John's mother is from the Brave New World and was accidentally left on this reservation years ago. Bernard and Lenina will bring the "savage" and his mother back with them to the Brave New World. The savage is what the occupants of the Brave New World call John. At the beginning the society is enamored with this savage from the uncivilized world. Later they see that he is a danger to their society and must be exiled with his two friends, Bernard and Helmholtz.

Huxley does a good job of contrasting these two societies through the interaction of John with the Brave New World. Based on what his mother told him this is the greatest world possible. He is greatly excited when Bernard told him that he would take him to this utopian society. The savage is quickly disillusioned by this new world. A particularly strong reaction is the death of his mother which the culture tries to sanitize. The savage is horrified how this society looks at death.

The title, Brave New World, comes from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Shakespeare is a central element of this novel. The works of Shakespeare was one of the few books that John owned. He basically learned to read from it. He reads it like a devout Christian reads his Bible. He notices that the world of Shakespeare and the Brave New World are in open conflict. This is because the worldview of Shakespeare is Christian Humanism. Christian humanism affirms the sanctity of life. The world Shakespeare provides for human flourishing. The Brave New World works against human flourishing. Maybe, Huxley's Brave New World is a warning to our culture if it continues in its current path.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Long Faithfulness

Scott Mcnight, A Long Faithfulness. Patheos Books, 2013. 79 pages. ISBN 978-1-62921-469-6.

A popular saying describes the Christian life as a marathon instead of a 100 yard dash. The idea that the Christian life is a long journey. You see this idea in classical works like Pilgrim's Progress which is one of my favorite books.

A question we struggle with is why do some believers walk away from the faith. Two prominent responses are that they have the freedom to turn away or they were never believers in the first place. This latter answer seems quite weak since we have known people that have shown all the signs of being a believer and have abandoned the faith. For example, I have a cousin who was a faithful Christian till several years ago he walked away from the faith. It is hard to believe that he was never a believer since he showed all the fruits of being a believer.

Another concern addressed by A Long Faithfulness by Scott Mcnight is what is called meticulous sovereignty. The author describes meticulous sovereignty: "If God determines everything (as in the meticulous sovereignty approach), then God not only permits but must determine that some young girls and boys will be abused while others will be spared, that some adults will suffer more in this life while others less" (1-2). In other words, everything that happens is determined by God, even evil. Not long ago in a sunday school class I sought to make a distinction between God allowing and God causing events. My view was shouted down. Those who disagreed with me stated that everything that happens is caused by God. I have serious problems with this view.

Mcknight has written this book as a response to the meticulous sovereignty view. The author relates his own personal experience as a Calvinist and how he struggled with the warning passages from Hebrews which led him to see that believers do abandon the faith. He believes that God gives people free will and because of this they can abandon the faith. In a sense, he is not speaking against all Calvinists but only a certain kind. He actually thinks that Classical Calvinists and Classical Arminians both believe in the necessity of perseverance. He writes: "For the classical Calvinist and the Arminian--and I know this may sound like a bundle of hooey to many--there is precious little difference when it comes to the necessity of perseverance" (68).

Chapter one describes the author's journey with Calvinism. At Trinty Evangelical Divinity School he became Grant Osborne's Teaching assistant. One of his first tasks was to work through Osborne's "extensive notes on the Calvinist-Arminian debate" (16). This would be the first step in a long journey where he became convinced "that meticulous sovereignty was defeated by the Bible itself" (17).

In chapter two he discusses the warning passages of Hebrews. Instead of concentrating on just Hebrews 6, he discusses all the warning passages (2:1-4, 3:7-4:13, 5:11-6:12, 10:19-39, 12:1-29). He asks all the passages four questions: Who is the audience? What is the sin or danger? What are they to do? What are the consequences? I liked the idea of looking at all the passages together and asking them the same questions. The author does a good job at looking at these passages exegetically.

Personally, I still believe in eternal security or the perseverance of the saints, not necessarily once saved, always saved. I believe only those who persevere to the end will be saved. The Christian life is a journey, not a one-time decision.




Thursday, October 30, 2014

Books, Reading, Family and Halloween

I like to read certain books at certain times of the year. The past few years I have read Bruce Coville's The Monster's Ring to my kids. I was thinking that I would not read it to them this year. My daughter asked me if or when I was going to read it this year. I do not remember which. I had been straddling the fence on the issue and her question convinced me that I needed to read it again.

The question is why did she wanted me to read it again. She is a great reader herself and could easily read it in a couple of hours. She is the same daughter who didn't want to learn to read because she thought I would then stop reading to her. Later, I shared with my family how Jim Trelease stated in his marvelous book, The Read Aloud Handbook, how college professors read to their students. This convinced my daughter that it was okay to learn to read.

Bruce Coville's is a modern day Junior Dr. Jekll and Mr. Hyde. The main character Russell Crannaker is bullied at school. Right before he stumles into Mr. Elives' magic shop. Mr. Elives bullies him into buying a magic ring. Russell has always been interested in magic and monsters. This magic ring turns out to be more than he bargained for. The Monster's Ring is the first of the Magic Shops books. My kids enjoyed hearing all of them read to them.

Another favorite book to read in October is Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comes. This is a great book that requires repeated reading. It tells the story of how Halloween came early one year in a small, sleepy town. It is told from the perspective of two boys, Will and Jim, about to turn fourteen. It is an excellent companion to Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. One of the major themes in this book is good vs. evil. Bradbury makes evil so real in this book you can actually feel and taste it.

Another important character in this book is Will's father, Charles Halloway. I strongly identified with this character. He works as a janitor at the library. He is comfortable around books and could easily have been the librarian. In a time of crisis he explores the books for a way to confront the evil lurking in the shadows.

Another important theme is time. The boys are about to lose their innocence as they face pure evil. The image of the clock and time ticking away seems to be an ever-present presence. Mr. Halloway is feeling his own age. He sees his life ticking away. He is trying to make peace with the aging process and find meaning in his life. As I said, it cuts very close to home.

Both these books will provide pleasure to you in the Halloween season or any time of the year.