"Interesting is easy; beautiful is difficult."

- Gustav Mahler
'Biblically Based' Author Argues Against Biblical Morality

Matthew Vines is not a new author. He has been around for a few years, arguing that Christianity and homosexuality are not incompatible. He has a new book coming out next week making the same arguments, but the bigger news may be who is publishing it. It's Stephen W. Cobb, the chief executive of both WaterBrook Multnomah and the new imprint Convergent.

Cobb says the two imprints do not have the same audiences and editorial guidelines, so they aren't the identical, but he does call the final shots for both. With Convergent, those shots are "nonfiction for less traditional Christians and spiritual seekers who are drawn to an open, inclusive, and culturally engaged exploration of faith," such as Matthew Vines’ new book, God and the Gay Christian.

World Magazine makes a big deal about these imprints being unified under one corporate umbrella, but what strikes me as odd is Cobb's insistence that he isn't publishing heresy under the Convergent label. He claims Vines' "believes in the inerrancy and the divinity and the correctness of Scripture," so his book is "biblically based." He says he intends to publish only biblically based books through Convergent.

How orthodox does a "biblically based" book need to be in order to remain based on the Bible? The Book of Mormon and the Koran are literally based on the Bible, but would we call them "biblically based"? If this is the main criteria, then I would understand a wide variety of views being published, but we expect more, don't we?

How much orthodox stock do you put into this publisher or any publisher? Do you notice the publisher of a book and believe the topic, whatever it is, has been thoroughly vetted? Do you believe WaterBrook is still committed to "creating products that both intensify and satisfy the elemental thirst for a deeper relationship with God," as their marketing people say?

Perspectives on Chattanooga Communities

Since all of our regular readers live outside Chattanooga, I haven't pointed out some articles I've written over the past few months for a Chattanooga news site. Now, you have the opportunity to ignore them directly.

I have approached several Chattanooga pastors to ask them for a perspective on our community and their congregations. We have many churches in this area. Each of them reach different and overlapping circles within the whole community, so I wanted to give them an opportunity to say what they think. Thanks to John Wilson of Chattanoogan.com for accepting my interviews.


I haven't talked to any Lutherans yet. No doubt the Lord has withheld his blessing from me because of that. I did talk to a couple musicians I know. Both are excellent craftsmen from very different musical fields.I hope at least one of these will be interesting to you.

Did Adam Exist?

Can we still believe in a historical Adam? That’s the question Dr. Vern S. Poythress, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, answers in this booklet. He talks through scientists’ claims that Adam and Eve could not have existed, starting with the claim that 99% of the DNA of humans and chimpanzees is identical. Is this accurate? What about an authoritative report that refers to both 99% and 96%? Is that a mistake? No, he observes, both figures come from an interpretation of data using a few restrictions. Without getting too deep for thoughtful readers, Dr. Poythress explains how the data is being interpreted to come up with these figures and what is being left unsaid.

Step by step, asking questions on every other page about what this bit of information could mean to the reader, Dr. Poythress gets to his main point: Darwinist evolution is a framework for interpreting scientific data, and there are other frameworks.

Scientific findings are often reported as unarguable facts, as conclusions naturally drawn from the unbiased data at hand. That simply isn’t true. If a scientist or science reporter assumes gradualism is true, interprets his data set accordingly, and then announces he has proven gradualism with his data, then he has begged the question. This kind of circular reasoning is common, and this booklet aims at tripping it up.

“[W]ithin the mainstream of modern culture, Darwinism is not seen as religious, but merely ‘neutral’ and ‘scientific’,” he writes, yet Darwinists claim to have disproven God’s existence, which is a religious and unscientific claim. Such unscientific claims are being made in the name of science all the time these days, and it falls to those who aren’t scared of religion to point this out.

Dr. Poythress doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Bible states Adam and Eve existed, but he doesn’t argue from the text or any research to prove the point. He is content to poke holes in the claims that they could not have existed as well as criticize the idea that Science sees all, knows all, and cannot be questioned.

This thoughtful, accessible booklet is part of a series from Westminster Seminary Press called “Christian Answers to Hard Questions.” I recommend it to anyone who is wrestling with how to reconcile scientific claims with biblical truths. (I received this title for free as an ebook through Netgalley.com.)

How the West Won, by Rodney Stark



Even some Catholic writers parrot the claim that it was not until modern times that the Roman Catholic Church repudiated slavery. Nonsense! As seen in chapter 6, the Church took the lead in outlawing slavery in Europe, and Thomas Aquinas formulated the definitive antislavery position in the thirteenth century. A series of popes upheld Aquinas' position. First, in 1435, Pope Eugene IV threatened excommunication for those who were attempting to enslave the indigenous population of the Canary Islands. Then, in 1537, Pope Paul III issued three major pronouncements against slavery, aimed at preventing enslavement of Indians and Africans in the New World....

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the rise of science is not that the early scientists searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but that they found them. It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again. For, as Albert Einstein once remarked, the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible: "A priori one should expect a chaotic world which cannot be grasped by the mind in any way.... That is the 'miracle' which is constantly being reinforced as our knowledge expands." And that is the "miracle" that testifies to a creation guided by intention and rationality."


Our friend Anthony Sacramone of Strange Herring was kind enough to send me a copy of Rodney Stark's How the West Won (published by his employer, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) during my convalescence. Gradually I found bits of time in which to read it, and I'll review it briefly, though the excerpts above should give you a good idea of the whole thing. If you've read Stark's God's Battalions, you'll know what to expect -- a take-no-prisoners re-evaluation of conventional wisdom, with most of the things you've been told about history rejected.

Stark's premise is fairly simple -- progress comes, not from great empires, but from diversity of culture and maximum human freedom. One particular claim that will shock many is that the Roman Empire did almost nothing for human progress, except for the invention of concrete and the adoption of Christianity. Instead, Stark praises the Middle Ages, when invention and entrepreneurship were once again liberated to strive for new things.

I don't know if Stark is a Catholic, but he writes like a Catholic and doesn't have high praise for the Reformation. In spite of that, I liked this book very much. I suspect you will too, if you're a conservative and a Christian. If you're not, you'll probably want to throw it across the room.

The Man as a Slave in America

"It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him." - Solomon Northup

Pastor Tony Carter gives his reaction to the memoir by Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, released in 1853. He was deeply moved. He writes:

"Those who contend that American slavery was tolerable and preferable for the African-American continue to be an enigma to me. While I might give the secular humanist a slight pass because his mind is not enlightened by the gospel of truth (though he remains accountable to God for the wrong he thinks and does), I can have little to no understanding of the Christian who contends for and maintains such a position. With evidence such as Northup’s account before his eyes, and the supposed grace of God enlightening his heart, one has to wonder if those who claim to have been exposed to both have truly experienced either."
I have not seen the movie based on this book, but if you have, you might find this comparison page of interest. It compares the movie with their own investigation of the truth. For example, they report, "the movie paints William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a hypocrite, contradicting his Christian sermons by overlaying them with his slave Eliza's agonizing screams. In his memoir, Solomon Northup offers the utmost words of kindness for his former master, stating that "there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford."

The North's Long Hatred of the South

Jeff Grim talks about a book which aims to show how decades of hatred between northern and southern states drove us to a civil war. "Fleming makes a convincing argument that the fringe elements (fanatics in his words) in both regions pushed the country toward a civil war. He also argues that the animosity began decades before the Civil War."

Perhaps slavery was so contentious an issue it could not be civilly discussed in 19th Century America.

David and Goliath: The Advantages of Disadvantages

I’ve always had a good impression of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but after reading David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, I want to find Blink, Outliers, and all the others. They are bound to be just as insightful and transformational as this one.

Gladwell’s two-fold premise is that some perceived disadvantages are actually advantages in the right context and vice versa. He frames the book around the battle between David and Goliath. The army of Israel was terrified of the gigantic warrior Goliath, who could probably spear two men at once. Who could win a sword fight with a man like this? But David, inspired with a confidence from the Lord, changed the battle plan.

I was skeptical of this description at first, as you may be, but Gladwell backs it up beautifully. Goliath was prepared for a hand-to-hand fight. His arrogance probably kept him from considering potential threats like David’s sling, and his eye-sight may have been pretty bad due to the condition, pituitary macroadenoma, that made him a giant (height: “six cubits and a span”). One scholar suggests Goliath’s shield bearer, who stood in front of him when they first met David, was actually a guide, because the warrior’s sight was that bad.

The endnotes in this book hold many cool details like these, but the theme of the story is that Goliath’s considerable advantages on the battlefield became disadvantages with new rules of engagement. The same can be seen in many other situations:

  1. Class Size: Common wisdom says small class sizes are best for learning, but many school teachers have learned that their classes can be too small. They need a critical mass of curiosity and energy to work with.
  2. Top Schools: Getting into the best school you can isn’t necessarily your best choice. You actually want to pick a school in which you can excel. Being in the lower 50% of your Harvard class can kill your spirit, even if you graduate with a degree.
  3. Out-gunned: Ivan Arreguin-Toft says of all the wars over the last 200 years between large countries and small countries, the large counties won only 71.5% of the time. Of the remaining third of these conflicts, the small countries won 63.6% of their conflicts when they refused to fight as expected.

Gladwell tells many fascinating stories about the advantages of difficulties and the limits of advantages. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Malcolm Gladwell in Socrates in the City

I'm reading Gladwell's book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, now with plans to review it on your favorite lit-blog (by which I mean, this one). Here's a great interview with Malcolm Gladwell by Eric Metaxas at an event Metaxas hosts regularly in New York City. I love this. Dick Cavett totally steals the scenes for the seconds he is in them, but the rest of the interview is great too.

Malcolm Gladwell: David and Goliath from Socrates in the City on Vimeo.

'Boswell's Life of Johnson'



In writing my final paper for the library science class I took last semester, I decided I wanted to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson’s statement that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” In a research paper, I have learned (the hard way), you can’t just give a quotation, even if it’s a famous one. You have to actually cite the work. So I downloaded Boswell’s Life of Johnson to find the page number. And since I had it on my Kindle, I figured I might as well read it.

I’m glad I did, but frankly it was a little tough. It’s a very long book – and this is the abridged version. The original is six volumes. Yet it was a unique reading experience. I’ll get to that later.

Dr. Samuel Johnson is best known for two things – he compiled the very first English dictionary, all by himself except for some secretarial help (the French, he liked to remind people, though they had a smaller language, needed a whole college of scholars to do their own), and getting his biography written in memorable fashion by his friend James Boswell.

Johnson was famous for his wit – but it’s not the kind of wit we generally think of today. Today we picture wits in the Oscar Wilde mold. Johnson would have considered Wilde flippant and contemptible. Johnson’s wit was mostly aimed at defining fine points of meaning and moral truth. Most of his great lines aren’t really rib-ticklers, though he had his moments: “A lady once asked him how he came to define Pastern as the KNEE of a horse: instead of making an elaborate defence, as she expected, he at once answered, ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.’”

Tall, fat, ugly, near-sighted and hard of hearing, with annoying behavioral tics, Johnson was nevertheless one of the most beloved men in London, one whose society was much sought after, though he had little power or wealth. He was a feared debater, who sometimes took a side of an argument he didn’t actually hold, just for the mental exercise. And he wasn’t above resorting to cheap shots to win – Oliver Goldsmith observed that “there is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” Yet his friends remembered him as an extremely kind and generous man, though prone to moods and fits of bad temper.

And that’s the value of The Life of Samuel Johnson, for those who care to take it on. James Boswell produced one of the world’s great written portraits – describing the man as he knew him for many years, and quoting him as exactly as humanly possible from notes he schooled himself to write down while his memory was still fresh. We come away with the impression that we’ve gotten to know a remarkable man – incisive, clever, opinionated, frustrated by fortune, plagued by fears, struggling with his faith – as well as many of his friends must have. A remarkable achievement in English (or any other language).

Long, though.

Resting In-Between

In The In-Between: Embracing the Tension Between Now and the Next Big Thing, by Jeff Goins, we have a light-weight book on living in the present. No exegesis of the origin of the word wait (Middle English from Anglo-French). No history of waiting or relevant thoughts recorded by ancient thinkers. Goins gives us his own thoughts teased out of stories from his life. His point: “What we were hoping for, what we dreamed would be a larger-than-life experience, ends up looking a lot like morning breath and spreadsheets.”

With stories about Christmas and Epiphany in Spain, on falling in love and becoming a parent, and on leading worship services for prisoners in Washington, he tells us that the in-between times are dull but good. “The good life comes like most good things,” he says, “unexpectedly—in moments that are fading away faster than we realize.”

Toward the end, Goins says he has always been reluctant to push religion on anyone, but that’s what this book needs. Despite the background of church and faith in almost every story, the book points to personal contentment rather than to Christ. A Buddhist could do this. What we need during the in-between times is not a reminder to bless those around us or that we can learn from the slow places in our lives. We need to remember the work and glory of Christ Jesus, whose spiritual wealth is far greater than anything we can achieve with our hard work.

I can understand this reluctance, if it comes from that contemporary desire to askew religion in favor of our relationship with our Lord Jesus, but when we hide from the truth because we can’t stomach religious terminology, we harm ourselves and our readers. The gospel of Christ trips people. They take offense at it, and so do we. We need to understand that such squeamishness comes from our sinful pride, our desire to manage our own lives without submission to the King of Kings. When we understand that we live under the authority of Christ, our Lord, then we can handle the in-between times with greater patience.

Disclosure: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Two views of Joy

Over at ChristianityToday.com, Gina Dalfonzo addresses a problem with Alistair McGrath’s new biography, C. S. Lewis: A Life. In contrast to Lewis’ own account in A Grief Observed, other biographies, and the movie Shadowlands, McGrath inclines more to the view of most of Lewis’ friends, who found the unvarnished divorcee from New York abrasive, unladylike, and possibly devious.

McGrath objects to what he sees as our culture's "romanticised reading" of Lewis's marriage, spurred by the 1993 movie Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger. McGrath seems intent on debunking that image—even though, according to those who knew them closely, the marriage was romantic before Hollywood ever got hold of it. McGrath finds the circumstances of Lewis's marriage not quite to his taste, but it's not Lewis himself that he blames for them….

Whatever the reason, McGrath's attitude toward her is very negative indeed. He admits that she brought Lewis great happiness, but anyone who had known nothing of her before reading his portrayal would have trouble understanding why. McGrath paints her as an unlikable, determined seducer and money-grubber.

Some time back (I don’t have the magazine handy) the Journal of the C. S. Lewis Society reported a lecture on Joy Davidman, which the speaker began with a sentence on the lines of, “Tonight Joy Davidman will be portrayed, not by Debra Winger, but by Bea Arthur.” I'm assuming she drew material from the McGrath book (which I understand to be generally excellent. Haven’t read it).

I suspect we’re dealing with culture shock here – the effect of a New York Jew on a group of semi-cloistered English scholars raised in the Edwardian Age. It’s too bad they generally found no way to bridge that gap. But I have no doubt, personally, that Joy and Jack loved each other sincerely and worked at their marriage as a true Christian union.

Tip: Frank Wilson at booksinq.

Gay Talese on Writing "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"

Frank SinatraGay Talese didn't want to write about so public a figure as Frank Sinatra when his editors at Esquire assigned it to him, but he took it on with creative persistence and produced a masterful profile. Elon Green talked to him about it for Nieman Storyboard, so we now have the feature story with writerly annotations throughout.

Greens says at one point every story he has ever heard about Sinatra appears to have come from Talese's profile, which is enormously detailed. Here's an appealing bit:

I had seen something of this Sicilian side of Sinatra last summer at Jilly’s saloon in New York, which was the only other time I’d gotten a close view of him prior to this night in this California club.... That night dozens of people, some of them casual friends of Sinatra’s, some mere acquaintances, some neither, appeared outside of Jilly’s saloon. They approached it like a shrine. They had come to pay respect.... Read the rest of this entry . . .

Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton


The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives…. It is amusing to notice that many of the moderns, whether sceptics or mystics, have taken as their sign a certain eastern symbol, which is the very symbol of this ultimate nullity. When they wish to represent eternity, they represent it by a serpent with his tail in his mouth. There is a startling sarcasm in the image of that very unsatisfactory meal….

Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal; it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has as its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox at its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.

One thing for which G. K. Chesterton can always be depended on is surprises. Orthodoxy was not the kind of book I expected it to be. I was looking for something along the lines of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, an excellent book in a different way. But Chesterton’s approach to apologetics was quintessentially Chestertonian.

Instead of making a purely logical argument for the Christian religion (and Protestants will be pleased to know that he touches fairly lightly on distinctively Catholic matters), Chesterton outlines the rational and the emotional process by which he came to faith. It’s a little like Lewis’ Surprised by Joy in that way, but less autobiographical in terms of life events.

The narrative, delivered in this way, becomes more than an argument. Chesterton gives a demonstration of his orthodoxy by describing the Word becoming flesh in his own experience. We are not saved in our spirits alone; our bodies and our personalities must also come along. Only a salvation that offers something for all aspects of our natures will meet our needs, and Chesterton describes how he spent his life looking for the things his soul hungered for, only to discover that all of them were waiting already assembled in one place – the church.

Highly recommended.

How Conservatism Can Rise From the Ashes, by Andrew Price



A friend recommended I read Andrew Price’s How Conservatism Can Rise From the Ashes, by Andrew Price, in hopes of raising my optimism about the political future.

This was kind of him, but the results were not as advertised. It’s a well-written and well thought-out argument, but I found little in it to cheer me.

First of all, Price criticizes conservatives for concentrating on the wrong things, and delivering losing messages. One of the wrong things he wants jettisoned is what he calls “theology,” which I take to mean pro-life and pro-family principles. I’ve said it before – I don’t really care much if the Republicans start winning elections again, if they win by dumping conservative social values. I’d probably still vote for them, because low taxes are better than high for everybody, but I’d nevertheless consider my country lost.

Secondly, this book depressed me because Price outlines a series of radical changes in the Republican platform – an “assets tax,” toughening regulation of corporations and the environment, new retirement and health care programs, radical changes to education funding. He might be right, but I rate the likelihood of any of these changes being enacted pretty low. If this strategy is the only one by which we can win, it seems to me we’re probably doomed.

Finally, I question the logic of one of his contentions – that the public hates conservatives because we’re mean and call people names. If calling names turns the public off, why do they vote for the people who keep calling us Nazis?

How Conservatism Can Rise From the Ashes is a perfectly good, thoughtful book, but it did not raise my spirits. It might work for you, though.

Sheepdogs: Meet Our Nation's Warriors, by Rogish and Grossman



If you have no capacity for violence, then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath, a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? What do you have then? A sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

I review a lot of books on this blog, and among those books a very small number genuinely move me – bring tears to my eyes. It was a bit of a surprise that a children’s book, Sheepdogs: Meet Our Nation’s Warriors, by Stephanie Rogish and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, was one of those.

The passage quoted above doesn’t come from the body of the book, but from Col. Grossman’s famous essay, “On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs,” which is printed in the back. The bulk of the book (which I got free for review, for the record) is aimed at school children. It pursues the sheep/wolf/sheepdog metaphor in an extended manner, to help kids think about force and how to respond to the sheepdogs (police, soldiers, legal concealed weapons carriers, etc.) they may encounter. I didn’t care greatly for the illustrations, to be honest, but the text works very well.

If you’re the kind of parent (or teacher) who believes that guns are inherently evil, and that there is never any excuse for violence, even to save children’s lives, you won’t like this book.

If you’re a parent who wants your children to understand the legitimate and illegitimate uses of force, and who would be proud to see them grow up to be sheepdogs themselves, you will want to have it and share it with them.

You can order it from the US Concealed Carry Association here.

Political Thought: A Student's Guide, by Hunter Baker


Order is not any kind of moral ultimatum. The only reason to desire order is to make something else possible. Order is a means to an end. If what order gives us is not good, then we should not continue to uphold that order. For example, a dictator may give us order, but his order may not be worth preserving as we perceive ourselves to lose more by it than we gain. This takes us in the direction John Locke went with his work. Order is there only to secure something else, and something more than mere protection from violent death. What is that something more? Is it freedom? Is it justice?

Mark Twain once wrote a story called “Political Economy,” which is what they called Political Science in his time (in that more humble age political thinkers didn’t pretend to be scientists). I memorized it at one point and used to recite it to my friends when we got together, in a bargain-basement Hal Holbrook style. It told how the author sat down to write an essay on the subject (“the dearest to my heart of all this world’s philosophy”) but kept getting interrupted by a lightning rod salesman, who eventually prevailed to the extent that Twain bought his entire stock of rods and had them mounted on his roof, so that all the lightning in that region of the heavens was attracted to his house, setting off the greatest pyrotechnic spectacle ever seen.

Our friend Hunter Baker has written a short book called Political Thought: A Student’s Guide. Though not as funny as Twain’s story, it’s one of the more lively books you’ll find on the subject. Instead of doing a historic overview, telling how philosophical ideas developed through the work of various thinkers, he starts with things that most readers have experience with – families. He describes his own and his wife’s families, and how their different habits of interaction and discipline worked in different ways. Then he imagines two very different kinds of families – a tyrannical family and a loving one – and relates them to the ideas of the great political thinkers of history, especially Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke.

If you’re looking for an effective Christian primer on politics for young people, you could hardly do better than this. In fact, even I learned a few things, and it’s well known that I know pretty much everything. The only fault I can find with this book that I’m not quoted in it, a failing common to a surprising number of books on Political Science (or Economy).

Recommended.

Viking Warfare, by I. P. Stephenson



A few years back, an author named Paddy Griffith wrote a book called The Viking Art of War, which has since been cordially disliked by Viking reenactors all over the world. Griffith held an essentially low opinion of Viking tactics and strategies, and (as I recall) of Viking intelligence in general.

Now I. P. Stephenson has written a new book on the subject, Viking Warfare. Paddy Griffith ought to welcome its appearance, since it will provide a new target for the hate. Reenactors will hate this book just as much, but for different reasons.

Stephenson’s first sin (in my view) is to utterly reject the Icelandic sagas as a source of historical information. If he has read Prof. Torgrim Titlestad’s defense of saga reliabiliity, he dismisses it out of hand. The sagas were written centuries after the events, he says, for the purpose of glamorizing the authors’ ancestors. For that reason they cannot be trusted at any point.

But he nevertheless maintains that we have enough information to provide material for a book. Unfortunately, he fails to demonstrate that contention. He analyzes the history of Viking activities, their battle strategies, and their equipment, and all the way through he ends almost every discussion with the equivalent of, “But we don’t really know for sure.” If you enjoy seeing an author admit his ignorance over and over, this is the book for you.

He also makes a number of summary judgments which I, as a reenactor myself, find doubtful. Shield walls were only loose formations, he tells us, not solid lines of overlapped shields. The “swine” formation was a simple column, not a wedge. Leather helmets are purely fictional. Scramasaxes were seldom carried. Hundreds of reenactors around the world, me among them, will disagree on several of these points, not on the basis of academic research, but through experience on the field.

It’s only at the very end, where he examines the Battle of Maldon, that Stephenson breaks out and actually makes an interesting contribution to the historical discussion. He does his best to rehabilitate Byrhtnoth Byhrthelmsson, the English commander at the poetically immortalized battle, whose leadership was condemned by no less a scholar than J. R. R. Tolkien. Stephenson argues – persuasively – that if you consider the battle from the perspective of Byhrtnoth’s primary objective – to prevent the Vikings’ escape – everything he did makes good sense. He just had the bad luck to get killed.

Scholarly types will want to read Viking Warfare just for its unconventional arguments, but I don’t think it has much useful to offer the average reader.

The Vikings: A History, by Robert Ferguson


But, while all of these [various morally relative assessments of the Viking Age] are entirely valid perspectives, the pendulum may have swung too far: as one modern historian puts it, the revisionist view has come close to giving us an image of the Vikings as a group of ‘long-haired tourists who roughed up the locals a bit.’ Among the aims of this book is to restore the violence to the Viking Age, and to try to show why our understanding is incomplete without it.

I’ve already referred to Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History twice on this blog, here and here, having found it an informative and instructive book. If I’d been disappointed or offended, I’d have more to say. As it is, I’ll offer a short review of quite a good general history of the Viking Age.

Why a new history of the Vikings? Because we keep learning stuff. You’ve got to run to keep pace with our knowledge of the early middle ages nowadays. People like me, especially, who take it upon ourselves to lecture on the subject, need to take the initiative to keep our reading up. I thought what I learned about the Oseberg ship, linked above, was worth the price in itself.

Author Ferguson makes the considerable contribution of including something I’ve written about here before, and which was perhaps introduced in English-language history books by my friend Prof. Torgrim Titlestad, in a work that didn’t get the attention it should have – the new (actually old) theory that the Viking raids were initially sparked by Charlemagne’s brutalities against the Saxons. Having shared that useful idea, Ferguson does little more with it, which I think is appropriate. It seems to me that, even if the original spark was religious, the Viking raids continued for plain reasons of profit. There are no images of peace-loving, put-upon Viking victims here, and that suits me just fine.

Ferguson spends what seems to me adequate time, within the limits of a single (if long) volume, following the activities of the Norse through all their major fields of activity around the world, and through the three centuries of that activity. I caught one or two small errors of fact, ones I knew to be fact, but that’s inevitable in a work of this scope.

Highly recommended for all who are interested in the subject, and especially for curious newcomers.

Too Many Problems with 'Zealot'

Gary Manning, Jr., associate professor of New Testament at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, has extensive take down of the currently popular book on Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He notes at the end of his long post that there are too many problems with this book to list or argue with them all, but here's a couple of them:

"Why does Paul make a sacrifice in Jerusalem? It must be that James forced him to recant his heretical views, not (as Luke claims) to complete a Nazirite vow that Paul voluntarily began before arriving in Jerusalem. Why does Luke end the book of Acts with Paul’s imprisonment, not his death? It must be to cover up some damning evidence against Paul! (No mention of the idea that Luke ended Acts then because that’s when he wrote Acts)."

Manning summaries the book as a conspiracy theory. It's message, he writes: "Jesus was really a proclaimer of violent revolution, but the gospels and Paul covered up the evidence. Aslan then has a typical conspiracy-theory approach: any time the gospels present evidence against Aslan’s theory, they were making it up; any time the gospels present evidence in favor of Aslan’s theory, they were telling the truth." (via Justin Taylor)

Hollywood Stories, by Stephen Schochet



I’ve mentioned before that I’m fascinated by old Hollywood. Even modern Hollywood interests me mildly, but the silent era and the Golden Age draw me like a beautiful woman (no doubt the prevalence of beautiful women in the town's lore has a lot to do with that).

So I downloaded Hollywood Stories: a Book about Celebrities, Movie Stars, Gossip, Directors, Famous People, History, and more! by Stephen Schochet. (The hardcover’s pretty pricey, but the Kindle version isn’t bad.) I found a fascinating, highly entertaining collection of anecdotes, loosely organized by theme with little regard to chronology. A special plus was that – contrary to my expectations for Hollywood books – this one is conservative-friendly. Author Schochet, whose main career is doing Hollywood tours, has made a special effort to find conservative, and even Christian-friendly, incidents in the wicked old town’s long history, thus offering a generally fresh angle.

He describes Jim Caviezel suffering through the filming of The Passion of the Christ: “At one point, when he was on the cross he was actually struck by lightning. The people on the ground scattered for cover while Jim Cavaziel (sic) looked up to the sky and asked, ‘What, you didn’t like that take?’”

And he delights in telling of how Shirley Temple once plinked Eleanor Roosevelt in the bottom with a slingshot. He goes on to say:

Extra: Later that year, Shirley met Massachusetts Governor Charles Hurley (1893-1946). The Democrat politician accidentally slammed a car door on Temple’s hand and chased the kids away from his limo. The ten-year old star didn’t like the way Hurley treated others and decided that she would be a Republican.

I don’t know if all these stories are true; probably no one does. But I enjoyed them immensely, and recommend this book highly.

Reading Report: Through Norway With a Knapsack, by W. Mattieu Williams


Photo credit: Russavia, 2008.

It’s part of my necessary duties as a novelist, one who specializes in a country where he does not live and has only visited a few times, to do my best to read travelers’ reports, especially old ones from before the days of the automobile and the high speed ferry. When I found Through Norway With a Knapsack, by W. Mattieu Williams, first published in 1853, and slightly expanded and updated in 1876, I jumped at it, especially since the Kindle version came cheap. And I’m glad I did. Not only does it largely cover parts of the country I’m less familiar with, but the author – though not free of the congenital arrogance of the 19th Century Englishman, turns out to be pretty congenial. He knows how to laugh at himself, and is flexible in the face of unfamiliar conditions. He likes to travel light, like an early Rick Steves, which was not common for men of his background and class.

Instead of analyzing the whole thing, I just share a portion I particularly enjoyed:

After a few hours’ sleep, and a repetition of the meal just described, I started at two in the afternoon and walked on by a good road to Nordgård. On the way I was hailed by a man on the other side of a hedge, to know if I had seen two horses on the mountain. On finding me to be an Englishman he spoke to me in good English, and told me that long ago he emigrated to America and lived there for sixteen years; but the desire to see his ‘Gamle Norge’ again had brought him back, and finding his daughter married, with a farm and family about her, he was persuaded to remain and end his days there. I asked him which he liked best, America or Norway? He preferred America. Why then did he not return? He tried to explain; and, after some help in wording and shaping the expression, told me that he liked America, but did not love it; and that he loved Norway, but did not like it; and as loving was stronger than liking, he resolved to die at home.

Perhaps not recommended for any reader whose ancestors came from Telemark, unless you like hearing about how your people were the filthiest in Norway at the time. Otherwise, pretty good.

Gospel Deeps, by Jared Wilson


In warning his readers against divisions, Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The gospel to those of us who are being saved is the power of God. That describes the beauty of a book like Jared Wilson’s Gospel Deeps. It’s an extended meditation on this glorious word of the cross.

“Does love demand freedom?” he asks in chapter one. That’s the idea we get from many stories and some ministers. “What we are asked to believe is that God doing whatever he wants with whomever he wants is a simplistic, fatalistic view of love, and that God letting us do whatever we want is a more compelling vision of his love.” But God, who is the author and giver of life itself, whose character defines love, peace, joy and other virtues, could not be more loving than he is. God is love, though love is not God, as some would have it. “Maybe the reality is a love more multifaceted than we can understand with finite, fallen minds… that the God of the Bible is as transcendent as he is imminent, that his ways are inscrutable, that his love is glorious and astonishing precisely because it is too wonderful for us” (pp. 27-28).

Jared isn’t a mystic on a frozen Vermont hillside. Read the rest of this entry . . .

Ken Myers Feature in The Weekly Standard

Andrew Ferguson talks with Mars Hill Audio Journal Host Ken Myers for The Weekly Standard:

“I’ve always thought that beautiful art was a great apologetic resource,” Myers says. Beauty is the chief attribute of God, said Jonathan (not Bob) Edwards. “Beauty points to a Creator.” Yet the church, Myers says, “capitulates more and more to the culture of entertainment.”

“It’s a way of keeping market share. But they’re digging their own grave. There’s a short-term benefit, but in the long term the kinds of cultural resources they need to be faithful to the Gospel won’t be there.”
This recalls the MHA Journal (#114) interview with Gerald McDermott who said Jonathan Edwards has been marginalized by Modernists (if I remember correctly) who successfully made the sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" Edwards' signature work. By doing so, they hid their students from the beauty and glory of God which Edwards often discussed.

Quotes from Gospel Deeps

Josh Otte offers "20 exulting quotes from Jared Wilson’s latest book, Gospel Deeps: Reveling in the Excellencies of Jesus. I just couldn’t fit them all into my review, but I also couldn’t resist sharing them with you. Read and worship, friends!" For example:

“My driving conviction in this book is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is big. Like really big. Ginormous, if you will. And deep. Deep and rich. And beautiful. Mulitfaceted. Expansive. Powerful. Overwhelming. Mysterious. But vivid, too, and clear. Illuminating. Transforming. And did I mention big?”

I've been reading this book too. It's wonderful. Don't wait for my review to get it yourself or for someone on your Christmas list.

What Would the Founders Think?

What would our founding fathers think of today, Election Day 2012? Author Ron Chernow talks about it:

Washington did take public opinion into account. In fact, during his first term as president he made a tour of the Northern states and a tour of the Southern states because he wanted to hear what people had to say about the Constitution and the new government. So, he wasn’t oblivious to public opinion, but it wasn’t a situation where you had poll numbers on an almost hourly basis that you’re consulting.
...
People might disagree with him, and they certainly did, but they never felt that they would be betrayed by him. There was an extraordinary sense with all of the early presidents of authenticity, that is, what you saw was what you got. These were not people capable of that kind of guile. That mystic bond I don’t sense with either Obama or Romney.


Author Jon Meacham also answered the question what Jefferson would think about modern elections: "Let’s stipulate that this is an unknowable question. That said, Jefferson loved big political fights, and while he often said he disliked controversy, in many ways political strife was the air he breathed. So he’d enjoy this dash to the finish."

Skipping Around the Bible

Kathy Keller, wife of New York pastor and author Tim Keller, reviews Rachel Held Evans' new book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master", asking some hard questions about the book's intent. Keller writes, "Evans wants to show that everyone who tries to follow biblical norms does so selectively—'cherry picking' some parts and passing over others. She also says she wants to open a fresh, honest dialogue about biblical interpretation, that is, how to do it rightly and well." But Evans apparently cherry-picks on her own, some of it for humor's sake, some of it seriously.

See many positive reviews on Amazon.

Of the Books Written on Lincoln There Shall Be No End

"There are so many Lincoln geeks that buy everything new that comes out," Cathy Langer, the lead book buyer at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, tells Stephanie Cohen of the Wall Street Journal. Cohen goes on to report Langer's claim "that in her years as a buyer, she has rarely turned down a title about the 16th president." One such book is Killing Lincoln, which has sold over two million since its release a year ago September. Cohen states some 16,000 books have been written about President Abraham Lincoln, and there's more to come.

To illustrate the volume of existing Lincoln works, the Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington created a three-story, 34-foot tower sculpture out of Lincoln titles, meant to "symbolize that the last word about this great man will never be written," according to the center.
Perhaps I should start writing a series of short volumes on the ignored presidents, like Polk, Hayes, Tyler, and Garfield. I could call them Thrilling Histories, e.g. The Thrilling History of James K. Polk. Or maybe they should be called the Presidential Insider's Guides. Or maybe the What You Didn't Learn series. (via Frank Wilson)

Link sausage, 10-3-12

Oh bother. That network that shows re-runs of Burn Notice has moved NUMB3RS into that Wednesday night slot. So I'm supposed to watch Judd Hirsch instead of Gabrielle Anwar? I don't think so. Sure, I've seen every episode three or four times, but frankly I prefer that NUMB3R.

From Fox News, we get word that an English dialect has died.

In a remote fishing town on the tip of Scotland's Black Isle, the last native speaker of the Cromarty dialect has died, taking with him another little piece of the English linguistic mosaic.

Scottish academics said Wednesday that Bobby Hogg, who passed away last week at age 92, was the last person fluent in the dialect once common in the seaside town of Cromarty, about 175 miles (280 kilometers) north of Scottish capital Edinburgh.

And finally, Andrew Klavan posts a clever trailer for a book for women, on how to understand men.

Come to think of it, why is this a problem? Isn't the complex supposed to comprehend the simple?

Secularism in America

Here's a strong interview with Professor Hunter Baker of Union University on the topics of his book, The End of Secularism.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, by Ian Morgan Cron



Ian Morgan Cron grew up with a deep, unsatisfied hunger for the love of his father. He tells the story of his struggle to understand and forgive in the memoir, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, A Memoir… Of Sorts. His father was, when Ian was young, an executive with a motion picture company. The family lived in Europe and hobnobbed with movie stars and political figures.

Then his father’s career crashed on the rock of his alcoholism. The family moved home to Greenwich, Connecticut, to a life of marginal poverty (sure, it wasn’t Harlem, but the contrast of their own lives with those of their wealthy neighbors just made it harder for the kids). His mother made a new career in time that gave them some financial stability, but his father’s continuing blackouts and rages left wounds Ian couldn’t deal with.

In his religious life, Ian went from an innocent, youthful love of Jesus to bitterness and atheism, when Jesus failed to give him the one thing he asked for—a sober father. He experimented with drinking, was scared by his own reaction, and settled into drugs for a while before taking up drinking again.

It was only after many years that Ian learned his father’s great secret—he’d been a CIA agent. Many spies are alcoholics and narcissists, he learned. They’re suited to the life.

Only the realization that he was himself turning into his father drove Ian to seek counseling, and finally to reconcile with God.

Ian Cron writes with a light touch and the kind of mordant humor you’re familiar with if you’ve read authors who suffered child abuse (and believe me, you have). His account of his journey back to faith is in many places touching and moving. The personal revelation that reconciles him to Christ at one point is one that some Christians may have trouble with. I’m not sure about it myself, but I generally try not to judge another Christian’s deepest confidence.

Hints in the course of the story suggest to me that Cron’s final faith road brings him closer to Tony Campolo than to James Dobson, but those hints are lightly touched on and need not spoil the story for those of us who trust the Bible more than our hearts.

Recommended, especially for Christians who come from dysfunctional homes. Or those who want to understand them better.

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