Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Study History?

John Fea, Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Baker Academic, 2013. 182 pages. ISBN 978-0-8010-3965-2

John Fea is the  Associate Professor of American history and chair of the history department at Messiah College. He is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Fea in his book, Why Study History provides the reasons why everyone should study history. He also presents the nuts and bolts of the discipline of history. The book is motivated from his survey course in American history. Many of the non-history majors in the course do not really want to be there. Early in the semester he attempts to persuade these students why they should study history. This book is intended for history majors and anyone who might be interested in history.

Why Study History includes eight chapters. The author in the first chapter explains what historians do. Fea notes, "Historians are always driven by the sources--they cannot make things up--but they do have the power to shape the their narratives in a style that might be described as 'artistic' " (3). Historians uses the records of the past to create a narrative of what happened in the past. History books does not just fall from the sky. Historians use both primary and secondary sources in writing about the past, but the emphasis in on primary sources. Primary sources are directly related to an event or a first-hand source, for example, diaries, autobiographies, reports of events as they are happening. Secondary sources are sources that are not directly related to events or second-hand sources. A biography on Franklin Roosevelt written today would be a secondary source. In addition, the author says "that history is a discipline that requires interpretation, imagination, and even literary or artistic styles" (29). One might say that history is both a science and an art.

In chapter two Fea states that historians are searching for a "usable past." He means that how is the past meaningful to us today. He claims the "past reminds us who we are." Without our memory, we do not have any identity. The past is also used to teach us how we are to live today. It provides guidance for our life today by inspirational examples from the past. It also creates community. We learn about common themes that bind us together with other citizens.

Chapter three analyses how the "past is a foreign country." For example, "the past often forces us to confront characters or events that seem utterly strange to us. People in the past burned witches. People engaged in human sacrifices" (48). In other words, values we hold today might be different from the values people held in the past. This strangeness of the past cautions us from distorting the past by emphasizing too much the similarities between the past and the present. We can easily force our own views on the past and not see it for what it really was. WE must also be sympathetic in attempting to understand the past and not let our own views hinder us from understanding the past.

Chapter four discusses "providence and history." Many Christians believe they can see God's hand in the past. They think they can view the past with a God-eyes view. There is a danger here. Humans are finite and are not God. We are unable to see events just like God. This danger often distorts the interpretation of the past. Fea notes, "I can imagine that a providential history might be useful in helping a religious congregation or some other community of Christians make sense of the way that God has led them through the days, months, and years. Such a providential history would obviously be celebratory in nature and be written to encourage the faithful with the things God has done. But such providential history must always be written with a sense of humility and a commitment to the mystery of God" (82-83).

Chapter five discusses certain tools from Christianity in studying the past. Some of these are the image of God, "the reality of human sin," "an incarnational approach to the past," and moral reflection. The author believes that the teaching of God's image in humans and the reality of sin can be helpful in using the study of history to create "a more civil society and a more compassionate Christian faith" (107). A good point he makes in this chapter is that historians are story-tellers. Too often  students think history is only about dates.

Fea's Why Study History? provides many excellent reasons to study history. He shows that the study of history is not only for history majors. In addition, he shows how the study of history can make us more human.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Introducing the Reformed Faith

Donald K. McKim, Introducing the Reformed Faith: Biblical Revelation, Christian Tradition, Contemporary Significance. Westminster JOhn Knox Press, 2001. 261 pages. ISBN 0-664-25644-9

Donald K. McKIm is Editor of Academic and Reference Books with WEstminster John Knox Press. He has edited and written many books including Calvin's Institutes: Abridged Edition, The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, The Westminster Handbook to Reformed Theology and many more. Introducing the Reformed Faith is a beginner's guide to sixteen theological doctrines: Confessing our Faith, The Scripture, Trinity, Creation, Providence, Humanity, Sin, The Person of Christ, Work of Christ, Holy Spirit, Salvation, Church, Baptism, Lord's Supper, Christian Life, and Reign of God. The purpose of this book is to "suggest ways in which a particular theological understanding--the Reformed faith--has approached a number of important Christian doctrines."

The book is divided into nineteen chapters. Besides having a chapter for each of the sixteen doctrines discussed in the book, there are chapters on "Distinctive Emphasis of the Reformed Faith," common questions about the Reformed faith, and "A Catechism of Christian Faith and Life." Each chapter has a similar organization: the Biblical foundation for the doctrine, the doctrine in Christian Tradition, and Reformed emphases, and contemporary significance of the doctrine. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection or discussion.

The author states in the introduction that this book is meant as an introduction to the Reformed faith. In other words, it is not an exhaustive look at these doctrines. McKIm says this book can be studied individually or as a group. The chapters are short enough to be read in one sitting.

One emphasis in the Reformed Faith is confessing the faith. The Reformed faith accepts the early creeds of the creeds of the Christian creeds, for example, the Nicene Creed. It also accepts major creeds of the Reformation period: Heidelberg and Westminster.  McKim says the following about the authority of the confessions: "Confessions of faith have authority. They gain their authority as expressions of Christian beliefs in a certain time and place. These beliefs are appropriate expressions of the biblical message, the claims of Jesus Christ, and what the Spirit is leading the churches to confess" (8). The creeds and confessions are important guides to what the church has believed since its beginning. The Reformed faith is ecumenical because it accepts the teachings of the church before the Reformation. The author states that "the Reformed faith expresses itself in confessions of faith." Confession of faith is not only for believers, but for the world.

In the chapter on some common questions, McKim answers certain questions people ask about the Reformed faith: "Do we have free will?," "Is there salvation outside the church?," "What is TULIP?," and others. On the chapter on the distinctive emphasis of the Reformed faith, McKim shows what the Reformed faith has in common with the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation, and the disct emphasis of the Reformed faith. For example, the Reformed faith accepts the Catholic teachings of the trinity and the incarnation. It accepts the Protestant emphasis on Justification by faith alone and the sufficiency of the Scriptures. Some of its unique emphasis are sovereignty, election, covenant, stewardship, sin, and obedience. I like how he states that part of the "ethos" of the Reformed Tradition is "The Life of the Mind as the Service of God." The Reformed faith teaches both that creation is good, even though fallen; and that the life of the mind is a way to worship God. It also emphasizes the importance of redeeming all of creation. All of life must be seen from a Christian view-point.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Schall on Chesterton

James V. Schall, Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes. Catholic University of America Press, 2000. 267 pages. ISBN 0-8132-0963-3

It is a real treat when you have one of your favorite writers writing about one of your other favorite writers. Fr. Schall says in this book that he is using essays by Chesterton to think with Chesterton on the truth of things. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a famous Catholic writer who lived from 1874-1936. The publisher has this to say about Chesterton: He "was a gifted journalist, essayist, biographer, poet, novelist, playwright, philosopher, debater, and defender of common sense, of Christianity, and of the Catholic faith." Reading Chesterton gives the reader a well-rounded education. Chesterton was also a major influence on the life and writings of C. S. Lewis. Two of the most influential books on Lewis's life and conversion were The Everlasting Man by Chesterton and Phantastes by George MacDonald.

We have steadily been reading through the works of Chesterton in our book group. What I have found in reading his works is that Chesterton has a broad Christian humanistic vision. He writes within the Great Christian Tradition. His writings tie in faith and reason, reason and imagination. One cannot get a better view of the Christian faith than Chesterton.

The publisher summarizes the content of the book: "In this book of essays, Father James V. Schall, a prolific author himself and a prominent Catholic writer, brings readers to Chesterton through a witty series of original reflections prompted by something Chesterton wrote--timely essays on timeless issues. Like Chesterton, Schall consciously leads the reader to the reality of what is, of what is true and what is at the heart of things." Schall is a gifted essayist, as was Chesterton. These essays helps the reader to think on the important things of life. How can I see life from a Christian perspective. It is written in clear prose and is intelligible to the general reader.

Schall on Chesterton includes an introduction on Chesterton and a reflection on Chesterton at the end. He makes the following observation of Chesterton: "Chesterton in fact possessed a singular intelligence in which everything, even the smallest remark, seemed to be related to Wisdom. He could not see something without seeing everything, yet he really saw the something, the particular, the variable, the unique." Schall also notes that paradox is a prominent element in the writings of Chesterton, as it is in the Bible.

This book includes over 40 essays. Some of the topics discussed: pride, tradition, the direction of the world, stars, books, dectective stories, war, babies, virtue, duty, humanism, secular things, Belloc, return of Christ, dogmas, the ten commandments, and many more. It is quite interesting how Chesterton can talk about any one thing and talk about everything. This is a book of wisdom that leads to the "truth of things." What is truth? How are we to live our life? How can we experience joy and wonder in this world? These are the types of questions answered by Schall and Chesterton.

Schall makes an interesting note about the writing of these essays: "Let me say one final thing about these essays. I almost never knew, when I sat down to write them, what I was going to write about. They usually arose from something that I just picked up and began thumbing through. I began to realize that Chesterton was simply alive with thought, that he was amazingly coherent. Once I began a line of thought that he had somehow suggested to me, it was impossible not to continue, to complete the thought in my own fashion. These essays are, in this sense, my essays, not Chesterton's. All good teachers, even ones that we have never met, lead us not to themselves, but to the truth, to what is. Chesterton never failed to do this. I realize, now that I am older, that I shall simply never have the time to read and fathom all that is in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aqinas, Johnson, or Chesterton. It cannot be done. And yet, one has the uncanny impression with all these writers, Chesterton included, that everything that they knew and wanted us to know was somehow contained in a mere fragment of their work" (Xiii-xiv). I have never met Chesterton or Schall. I know them, however, through their books. One could not hope for better teachers than Chesterton and Schall.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis

Alister E. McGrath, The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. 191 pages. ISBN 978-0-470-67279-2

The reader might wonder if we really need another book on Lewis. The books on Lewis is a publishing industry in itself. Alister McGrath and others believe that there are areas of Lewis's thought that have not been probed. The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis is a companion to McGrath's biography on Lewis. McGrath thinks that "Fifty years after Lewis's death, it is clearly appropriate to reflect further on his intellectual achievements and heritage" (2). The author notes that in his research for writing the Lewis biography he discovered that "many aspects of Lewis's thought needed detailed and careful reconsideration, especially in the light of their intellectual context" (2).

The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis is divided into eight chapters. The author states that these chapters have not been published before.  These chapters "aim to set Lewis in the greater context of the western literary and theological tradition, exploring how he appropriated and modified its narratives, ideas, and images. Lewis himself was nourished by this great tradition . . . (2-3). One can see clearly from the writings of Lewis that he was well read in the western tradition. He says of himself that he never set out to write any original thought. Some of the themes addressed in these chapters are myth, philosophy, metaphors used by Lewis, joy, reason, imagination, and Lewis as a theologian.

I have read many of Lewis's works repeatedly over the years and have read much of the secondary literature on him. The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis does a good job in placing him in the intellectual context of his time. In these essays he explains much about how many of the writings of Lewis came about and how to interpret them. For example, he shows how everything in Surprised by Joy should not be taken literally. He even shows the traditional dating of Lewis's conversion is incorrect. One might ask why this is important. It shows that it was a longer process where Lewis spent an extended time thinking things over before converting to the Christian faith.

In the chapter on "Lewis as a theologian" shows how there has been much bias against Lewis. McGrath notes, "As a young theologian, I was taught to despise Lewis; as a thinking person, I found him refreshing and energizing. As I listened to then-fashionable but now-forgotten voices faulting and dismissing him, I heard a deeper dissenting voice within me. All this may be true, I thought, but Lewis seems to have seen and grasped something that you have missed. That's why people still read him. Of course, they need to go beyond him. But as I have discovered in countless conversations since then, Lewis is the point of access for a large number of people to the serious study of theology" (164). My life resonate with these words. I first discovered Lewis one Christmas break when I was an undergraduate. I checked out the Chronicles of Narnia to read during Christmas. My life was changed forever. I went on to read other works by Lewis. I learned that it was okay for a Christian to pursue the life of the mind. I learned there was no conflict between faith and reason or reason and the imagination. I have read Lewis on and off for over twenty years and I agree with McGrath that he has something important to say.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport

Richard J. Mouw, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today's World. Zondervan, 2004. 141 pages. ISBN 978-0-310-23197-4

This is what the publisher says about the book:

"Let's face it, many non-Calvinists hold a less-than-positive view, sometimes due to caricatures. This friendly, conversational book helps clear up some misconceptions and distorted views. If you're not a Calvinist, here is an engaging inside look. And if you are a Calvinist, Richard Mouw shows how to live gently and respectfully with others--Christians and non-Christians--who hold different perspectives. Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport focuses not on what Calvinists believe but on how they live. From a movie scene to the author's personal experiences in Las Vegas, you are invited to travel with Mouw and see the Reformed faith in a new light. Yes, it still does travel well!"

Richard J. Mouw returned to the classroom as Professor of Faith and Public Life after serving as President of Fuller Theological Seminary (1993-2013). He originally came to Fuller as professor of Philosophy in 1985. Before coming to Fuller, he served seventeen years as a professor at Calvin College. Mouw has written many books including: Uncommon Decency :Christian Civility in an Uncivil World; Consulting the Faithful; He Shines in All that is Fair: Culture and Common Grace. In Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport Mouw asks the question: Is Calvinism still viable in the 21st century? He believes it is. He sets out in this book to correct distortions or myths that non-Calvinists have of Calvinism. One might say that he presents a kinder, gentler Calvinism. Two things one can say about Mouw is that he is respectful of other views and is willing to learn from other. These are virtues that we all should emulate.

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport is divided into twelve chapters. The chapters are short and can be easily read in one sitting. The book has one chapter which explains the TULIP acronym. Mouw calls this chapter "Mere Calvinism." The rest of the book describes the larger Reformed faith and responds to caricatures of it.

In the chapter, "After the Election," Mouw shows how Christians are elected to serve. He argues that Christians are called to be active in the political and social arenas. He describes his own involvement in political activities in the 1960s and how it shaped his life. He also mentions the Reformed emphasis on "covenant theology" and how this teaching softens the teaching of predestination. It is interesting that in this chapter Mouw shows how he has learned from both a Catholic priest and a Jewish Rabbi how to live a Christian life. This is a common theme in the book on how Mouw is willing to learn from others. Mouw does say that "God saves us as individuals;" but He does not want "us to live our lives in isolation from a corporate involvement" (67). This is a good point made by Mouw. One of the weaknesses of Northern American evangelicalism emphasis is the emphasis on the individual. Mouw also says that "We need to find our individual callings in the context of the larger calling of the Christian community to which we belong" (67).

In his chapter, "Confessions of a Traveling Calvinism," Mouw points out some of the weaknesses of Calvinism. One of these weak areas is ethics. Mouw speaking of Calvinist says, "Calvinists have certainly not stood out in the Christian community as especially pure people when it comes to the way they behave. They have frequently been intolerant, sometimes to the point of taking abusive and violent action toward people with whom they have disagreed" (114-115). He thinks that Calvinists must develop the important virtue of humility in dealing with others. They must have "a desire to learn from others." Mouw calls himself an "ecclectic Calvinist." He has needed to learn from other traditions to flesh out the beliefs of Calvinism. He sees Calvinism as a world and life view. An important emphasis in Calvinism is the Soevereignty of God. God is sovereign over every area of life. God calls us to expand His kingdom to all areas of life.

Calvinism in Las Vegas is an excellent introduction on how Calvinism is applicable to the 21st century. Mouw notes that though his Calvinism is not completely the same as the Calvinism that his grandmother brought from the Netherlands, but it is rooted in it. This is a good book to see what Calvinism looks like from the inside. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine: A Novel. William Morrow, 2006. 267 pages. ISBN978-0-380-97726-0

I recently read Bradbury's Dandelion Wine for the third time. One of the themes that stood out to me is how a young boy comes alive one summer. Another theme is the importance of memory. A third and fourth  theme are technology and community. There are more themes in the book that I will not mention.

Our book group read and discussed Dandelion Wine a couple of weeks ago. The conversation focused mainly on the importance of memory and seeing with new eyes. One can see the importance of both memory and seeing with new eyes right in the title. A dandelion is an insignificant flower that most people do not even notice. Is this symbolical of the events of our life that seem insignificant to us? The metaphor of making Dandelion wine stands for the memories we preserve for a future time. These bottled memories can be opened up again in bleak, winter months.

Dandelion Wine tells the story of a young boy named Douglas who comes alive one summer. He expects great things to happen this summer and they do. One thing he does is record two types of entries in his notebook: events that occur and reflections on these events. If we are reflecting on events can we experience them? I think both C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton said experiences are incomplete without reflecting on them. James V. Schall says there is a certain pleasure in thinking on things or what is.

There is also a sense of awe or the numinous in the book. One sees this in the book when the boys go berry-picking in the woods with their father. There is a sense that the woods are alive and something will jump out and reach them. It is almost like a spiritual presence.

There is also a sense of danger in the book. There are two examples that illustrate this. First there is the ravine. This ravine reflects the untamed or uncivilized part of life. There is also the "Lonely one."  This person goes around killing women. One does not know if this person really exists or he is only in the people's mind. After this person is killed, the boys think that they must think that he escaped so they can still be fearful of his presence.

An interesting example of community is when the generations are conversing with one another on the porch. In a sense this is informal education for the younger generation. Here is an excerpt from the scene on the porch: "What they talked of all evening long, no one remembered next day. It wasn't important to anyone what the adults talked about; it was only important that the sounds came and went over the delicate ferns that bordered the porch on three sides; it was only important that the darkness filled the town like black water being pored over the houses, and that the cigars glowed and the conversations went on . . . Sitting on the summer-night porch was so good, so easy and so reassuring that it could never be done away with. These were rituals that were right and lasting; the lighting of pipes, the pale hands that moved knitting needles . . . For at some time or other during the evening, everyone visited here. . ." What are the rituals we practice that keeps the memories alive?

Another example of memory is Colonel Freeleigh who is a link to the past. Once he dies, a big part of history dies with him. I was just telling my family yesterday that there is a whole history that lives within my grandmother. We must somehow acquire this history or it will die with her. This reminds me that part of scholarship is preserving the ideas of the past. You do not know how important this memory of the past is till you lose it.

I could talk of many other things that exist in this wonderful book by Bradbury. I could speak of how the Happiness Machine never brings happiness. I could speak how the children do not believe Mrs. Bentley was ever twelve years old. There are many other wonderful themes in this book. I recommend you get you a copy of Dandelion Wine and read it for yourself.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Amazing Grace: God's Pursuit, Our Response

Timothy George, Amazing Grace: God's Pursuit, Our Response. Crossway, 2011. Second edition. 152 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4335-1548-4

Timothy George is the founding dean of Samford's University Beeson Divinity School. He teaches theology and church history. He serves as executive editor of Christianity Today. He has written over twenty books. One of my favorite books by Timothy George is Theology of the Reformers. It is one of the best books I have read on the Reformers' theology. I have talked a couple times with George is person, and have always found him to be a gracious person. I have the greatest respect for him.

Amazing Grace was originally published as the 2001 Doctrine Study for the Southern Baptist Convention. I read it several years ago and enjoyed it. I find George to present the "Doctrines of Grace" or Calvinism in a balance way. The topic of Calvinism is now even more heated in the Southern Baptist Convention now than when this book was first published. I am glad that George has published a second edition. George notes there are only slight changes in the new edition. One of the changes is the title. The original title was "God's Initiative--Our Response." The new title refers to one of the most popular hymns, "Amazing Grace" which was penned by John Newton, a former slave trader. George notes, "Grace is the great theme of the Bible from first to last. Sola gratia, by grace alone," is the most fundamental affirmation of the Reformation and of all true evangelical Christianity." George's book emphasizes the grace of God, but it also includes human response. He shows how both is affirmed in Scripture.

Amazing Grace is divided into six chapters. Some of the titles are "Our Gracious God," "The Providence of Mystery," "Saved by Grace," "A Graceful Theology," "Grace and the Great Commission," and "Living by Grace." In the chapter on providence, George provides "lessons from providence." Some of these are: "God is the sovereign Lord of history;" we can often see the hand of providence "only in retrospect;" God works in "suffering and tragedy" to bring about His glory; "God's grace is sufficient when the answer is no;" the cross is the place where grace and providence meet."

George presents a different acronym to replace TULIP in his chapter on salvation. The acronym is ROSES.
R-Radical Depravity
O-Overcoming Grace
S-Sovereign Election
E-Eternal Life
S-Singular Redemption

George thinks total depravity is not "the best way to express" the pervasiveness of sin. It imples there is nothing good in mankind. He thinks irresistible grace is "misleading because it seems to suggest that sinners come to God in a mechanical, impersonal way . . ." In contrast, the Bible teaches both "human free agency and moral responsibility." Unconditional election can also be viewed incorrectly. For it  "suggests that God's election to salvation does not involve a genuine human response. . ." He also disagrees with double predestination. George states that "no lost sinner who ever comes before the judgment bar of God will be able to blame his eternal condemnation on the fact that he was not elected." The chapter also looks at others aspects of the two acronyms.

Chapter five discusses objections that Calvinism undermines evangelism and missions. George disagrees with this contention by providing two examples who were committed to both Calvinism and evangelism: William Carey and Charles Spurgeon. The last chapter discusses how the whole Christian life is lived by grace. George tells the reader why grace is so amazing: "It is undeserved;" "It's Unexpected;" and "it's inexplicable." In other words, there is nothing we can do to earn it. George argues how God's sovereignty and human response can be reconciled is a mystery. The last part of this chapter George describes the "marks of a gracious Christian." These marks are "a grateful heart," "a humble countenance," "a forgiving spirit," "a life of love," "a passion for souls."

Amazing Grace is a well-written book which shows that salvation is by the grace of God. We did not do anything to earn such a great salvation. It is a gift. Georhe likes the acronym GRACE--God's Riches at Christ's Expense. It is through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that our sins can be forgiven and we can be reconciled with God.