- J.R.R. Tolkien
A 1959 essay on creativity by Issac Asimov, that has not been published, has been released by a friend at MIT. In it, Asimov talks about the origin of the theory of evolution, which he says was devised by two men independently, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.He goes on to say a team hoping to develop great new ideas needs to become comfortable with each other and inspire each other to look forward. (via Prufrock)
Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)
I love history because I love romance (by which I mean, not novels by Barbara Cartland, but romantic adventure – swashbuckling and gunplay in long-lost times and distant places). I picked up The Brothers Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf, by William C. Davis, to get some of the facts behind the legend of Jean Laffite and his brother Pierre. I knew what I was getting into, and was already aware of their sordid side, so I read it with interest.
Most of us know the Laffites as “the pirates who helped Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.” And they did that, though they weren’t quite as noble as the movies make it seem. They were operating a smuggling operation out of Barataria Island, taking advantage of political instability and the difficulties the US government had enforcing its laws in the newly extended territories of the Louisiana Purchase. When the British fleet sailed in, they seem to have tried to play both sides against the middle (a recurring theme in their story), but the Americans got their hands on them first, so they helped them.
Like most criminals, they never actually got very rich, although they tried to live like it. They seem to have been rather courtly with their (white) prisoners, but at bottom their reality was pretty ignoble. They violated America’s ban on importing slaves through a clever manipulation of the law, first importing the miserable captives illegally, then turning them in as contraband and collecting the reward (Jim Bowie partnered with them in this scam). They were also “filibusters,” a term which originally referred to adventurers, mostly Americans, who set up bogus “revolutionary republics” in Spanish America and then issued letters of marque giving their acts of piracy a cloak of legality. But the Laffites added a characteristic twist of their own – they informed on their fellow filibusters to the Spanish, for pay.
There’s little heroism to find in this story, but what it does offer is a fascinating look into a formative but little-known era of American history. The book is very long, but half of it is footnotes.
According to Michael J. Kruger's review of Professor Peter Enns' new book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, the Bible doesn't tell us anywhere near what we might think it does. Kruger says he always notes the cover endorsements on a new book, and some gave him pause.
But perhaps most illuminating was the inside flap, where the publisher describes the book’s purpose: “In The Bible Tells Me So, Enns wants to do for the Bible what Rob Bell did for hell in Love Wins.”In the end, Kruger says Enns' book wants it both ways. Discover God in the pages of Scripture while understanding most of what's written there is imaginary and contradictory. Repent and believe in Christ on the cross, but the Bible's morality is untenable and inapplicable to you.
Not until after I read the book in its entirety did I realize how accurate this comparison actually is. Of course, Bell’s book (also published by HarperOne) challenged a core historical tenet of the Christian faith, namely the belief that hell is real and people actually will go there. Christianity has just been wrong, Bell argues, and we finally need to be set free from the fear and oppression such a belief causes. Bell positions himself as the liberator of countless Christians who have suffered far too long under such a barbaric belief system.
Likewise, Enns is pushing back against another core historical tenet of the Christian faith: our belief about Scripture—what it is and what it does. The Bible isn’t doing what we think it’s doing, he argues. It doesn’t provide basically reliable historical accounts (instead, it’s often filled with myth and rewritten stories). It doesn’t provide consistent theological instruction (about, say, the character of God). And it doesn’t provide clear teaching about how to live (ethics, morality, Christian living). Although Christians have generally always believed these things about Scripture, Enns contends that scholars now know they simply aren’t true. And when Christians try to hold onto such beliefs, it only leads to fear, stress, anxiety, and infighting. Like Bell, Enns is positioned as a liberator able to set believers free from a Bible that just doesn’t work the way they want it to.
Ori Pomerantz is a personal friend of mine, and of this blog. So my endorsement of his new e-book, Lying With Memes: Quick, Concise, and Wrong, might be a little suspect (I got a free review copy, by the way, so you can factor that in). But I thought it was a valuable and entertaining little book.
Memes, those short messages pasted on art, like digital posters or vertical bumper stickers, are part of my life, and probably of yours too, if you're reading this blog. If you use a service like Facebook, you've probably laughed or done an arm pump on seeing some, and promptly shared them. Sometimes you learn later that they're false or misleading, and feel embarrassed. You've probably also been angered by some memes, and they may have even sparked arguments and lost you friends.
Ori's short book is an explanation of how memes are constructed (with how-to instructions), and also a plea for more rational, decent memes. He provides a simple short course in logic (something much needed in our time) and admits that the information he gives may be used or misused. "I hope you will use this knowledge for good," he writes, "to identify when people try to cheat you, rather than for evil, to cheat people yourself."
A quick read and not expensive. Recommended.
Aaron Armstrong reviews Stephen Furtick's Crash the Chatterbox: Hearing God's Voice Above All Others, saying it has plenty of good advice but fails to connect it to the gospel. "Instead, we get this advice: 'The gospel says that those who do not forget the past are condemned to repeat it,'" Armstrong reports.
Craig Silverman, the author of many words on media accuracy, said people generally believe books are more reliable than magazines or newspapers. "A lot of readers have the perception that when something arrives as a book, it’s gone through a more rigorous fact-checking process than a magazine or a newspaper or a website, and that’s simply not that case," he said.
Why don't publishing houses spend time and money making sure they aren't publishing the next fabricated memoir? Kate Newman suggests they don't pay enough in repercussions when an author slips them a phony victim story.
“Maybe there should be a warning, like on a pack of cigarettes,” said another author. “‘This book has not been fact-checked at all.’ Because when I realized that basically everything I had read until that point had not been verified, I felt a little bit lied to.”
Of course, I should warn you that I didn't verify any facts stated in Newman's article. No, I did verify one, but that's it. Who knows if they rest is true?
C.S. Lewis grew up among some well-known atheists and may have believed the same things argued today by speakers labeled "New Atheists." Peter S. Williams has written a book on the subject, and this podcast introduces a series of discussions on that book, C S Lewis vs the New Atheists, with an overview. You can get a brief review and chapter list here.
The movie project about America's worst serial killer is moving forward with the announcement that Andrew Klavan will write the script. He says the challenge will be writing a movie that people will want to see, because the base story is almost too repulsive. He tells NRO what's most important about the Gosnell story:
I’m a crime writer. It’s a great crime story. But you know, I notice I’ve gone through this whole interview without saying the words “abortion” or “abortionist.” But that’s a part of it too, a central part. I’m in a sort of — I won’t say “unique” but certainly strange position on this. I’m a natural-born libertarian. With every fiber of my being, I want people to live the lives they want to live, whether it suits me or not. You want to be gay? Have a good time. You want to condemn gays? Knock yourself out. You want to dress up as Beyonce and get a tattoo of Louisiana on your forehead? I’m the guy who’ll buy you a drink and say, “Nice tat, Yonce.” I know a lot of women who’ve had abortions — people I like and love. I know a lot of people who are pro-abortion, likewise. But moral logic has convinced me that this is wrong — more than wrong – as wrong as a thing can be. It’s not about your feelings versus mine. It’s not about social conservatism. It’s not about libertarianism. And it’s not about feminism either or “women’s health care.” What nonsense that is. It’s an actual question of good versus evil. And listen, in the end, that’s what all great stories are about.(via ISI)
Barnabas Piper's new book, The Pastor's Kid, is out today. In his interview with Matt Smethurst, Piper talks about his own feelings and what he learned from other pastors' kids.
Your book is based on what you learned from hundreds of conversations with pastors’ kids over the years. What surprised you most as you interacted with other pastors’ kids?The tendency for judging pastors' kids was a dual expectation of perfection and rebellion. People thought these children should be models of the Christian life while also believing they would rebel and reject the church. It's an impossible standard.
Two things surprised me. The first was the consistency of the stories and experiences regardless of context. Even the phrasing of answers and the quotes they shared of what people in their churches had said to them were almost verbatim. While I expected similarities, it was almost like a bunch of people had copied the same answer on a test or something. It gave me real clarity about what needed to be addressed as well as assurance that my own experiences weren’t the outlier.
The second thing that surprised me was how many PKs are now in vocational ministry. The stereotype is of PKs who turn their back on the church, but I connected with dozens who, despite their struggles, love and serve the church.
Rodney Stark, distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University, talks about his new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. He said he spoke at a college once and was surprised to get a question from two high-GPA students about when and where was the Roman Empire. "I thought it was some sort of tease, so I told them the Roman Empire ruled Southern California in the 1920s." They believed him.
One of the most blatant [myths that has gained currency today] is blaming the West for all the problems involving Muslims, specifically terrorist attacks. Reflecting what is being said in the classrooms, academic conferences devote many sessions to “Islamophobia” (hatred of Muslims) but none to terrorism—except for the explanation that it is provoked by the many wicked things the West has done to Islam, now and in the distant past....
Another pernicious myth is that Europe slept in ignorance through many centuries following the fall of Rome—an era known as the Dark Ages. But it never happened. Many professors, even if they know it, are reluctant to admit that the major encyclopedias now acknowledge that the notion of the Dark Ages was invented by Voltaire and his friends to vilify the Church and makes themselves seem important. It always should have been obvious that the centuries denounced as the Dark Ages were an era of remarkable invention and progress, at the end of which Europe had advanced far beyond the rest of the world.
A new, engaging resource for poets has come out this year. A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch is the reference work you would expect from the name and a readable commonplace-type book to boot. The interconnections between words and examples given for each term do not come from a dead literature professor collecting dust on tenure, but a poet who sounds as if he would be routinely in the running for favorite teacher.
The Washington Post says Hirsch "explains each term in clear, direct prose, often moving from a general definition to a layered explanation of how each term has evolved over time. Take, for example, the opening entry, abecedarian, which begins, 'An alphabetical acrostic in which each line or stanza begins with a successive letter of the alphabet.' Many readers have seen this ancient form but may not know that it was often employed for sacred texts. Hirsch explains this connection and highlights a psalm in the Bible as well as poems by St. Augustine and Chaucer within just a few lines."
Hirsch is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, led to the banning of DDT, a pesticide against malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This week, Google celebrated her 107th birthday with this doodle.
Bethany Mandel writes: "Using faulty science, Carson’s book argued that DDT could be deadly for birds and, thus, should be banned. Incredibly and tragically, her recommendations were taken at face value and soon the cheap and effective chemical was discontinued, not only in the United States but also abroad. Environmentalists were able to pressure USAID, foreign governments, and companies into using less effective means for their anti-malaria efforts. And so the world saw a rise in malaria deaths.
Gallingly, environmentalists even claimed that the effectiveness of DDT was leading to a world population explosion. Translation: preventable disease wasn’t killing enough poor children in developing countries."
She goes on to tell of a horrible experience she had with a dying child in Cambodia, where one million people are infected with malaria each year.
John Wallace knows Latter-day Saints. He held temple recommendation and Elders Quorum presidencies for years. He examined the Bible for what he believed and read the Book of Mormon cover-to-cover repeatedly. But a seed of doubt was planted in him during his high school years that eventually grew too large for him to stay a Mormon. He knew he could never be perfect on his own. He could not prove his worthiness to return to live with Heavenly Father. If he had to be made perfect, it would have to be by someone else.
In this book, Starting at the Finish Line: The Gospel of Grace for Mormons, John spends almost all of his time exploring what Christ Jesus did for us on the cross. He shows what the Bible teaches about our sin, God’s unapproachable holiness, Christ’s eternal deity and righteousness, and how his death on the cross cancels the power of sin in our lives without any work from us.
Is Christ Jesus completely righteous? Yes, but he was made sin on our behalf and punished for our sakes. Does He give us His righteous completely? Yes. We cannot earn it. We cannot improve on it. When the Lord Jesus Christ said from the cross, “It is finished,” he paid for everything for us. His perfection became ours in the eyes of God.
John says, “Mormons believe the Bible to be the Word of God ‘as far as it is translated correctly…’ I aim to show my readers that the Bible has been translated correctly and that it points to the cross of Christ Jesus.”
Moreover, the Bible is not compatible with LDS doctrine. Speaking to Mormon readers, John remembers that Latter-day Saints believe that God will look down on us and if He sees that we are trying to obey Him in everything, He will give us eternal life. Moroni 10:32 says almost exactly that, but the Bible says salvation is by grace through faith, not by works so that no one can boast of earning anything.
With painful honesty, John describes his personal walk of faith toward God’s all-sufficient grace. He lovingly explains what the Bible teaches and how it conflicts with LDS teaching by quoting LDS prophets, elders, and sacred writings. His focus, however, is not to criticize the Mormon church. It is to explain how God’s grace is so much better than the “miracle of forgiveness” taught at LDS temples. It’s something to celebrate.
John writes: “If nothing else, I want my LDS reader to come away with these three things:
- The Bible is the Word of God. It is trustworthy and reliable, able to teach you and guide you through his life and into eternal life.
- Christ on the cross, suffering and dying to pay the penalty for your sins, is the gospel. There is no other gospel, and there is no other name (or combination of names) under heaven by which you can be saved.
- Any attempt on your part to add to Christ’s sacrifice with your own efforts nullifies God’s grace and severs you from Christ as Savior. He is the Way—and He’s not asking for help.”
The greatest relief pitcher of all time, Mariano Rivera, shares his extraordinary story in The Closer. It's a pleasant, personal tale about a Panamanian son of a fisherman who found he could pitch pretty well. He signed on with the NY Yankees for $2,000 and still didn't quite understand that he would have to leave for Tampa, Florida.
Q. You’ve given us the remarkable story of your life in baseball with this book, The Closer. Would you mind telling us what you were thinking in those first days of spring training with the Gulf Coast Yankees in 1990?
A. I was surrounded by guys who were stronger than me and threw harder than me, and I was outperforming them. I was thinking, “How on earth am I doing this?” I was getting results that were far beyond my physical abilities. It had to be the Lord’s work.
I have to thank my first catcher and good friend, Claudino Hernandez, for seeing my potential. When I was on the training field with Tim Rumer, Russ Springer, Brian Faw, and others, I wasn’t as fast or as strong as they were, but I could do one thing better than just about anybody else. It was the thing Claudino saw I could do at the try-outs. I could put the ball exactly where I wanted it.
Q. You’ve said several times that you try to keep it simple. Is that how you made it through your career, just keeping it simple?
A. You could say that. Life is hard and humbling. I do all I can to keep it simple and to pray to the Lord for clarity and wisdom, so that His will and His perfect goodness will guide me and keep me safe. The Bible will tell you everything about how I try to live. For me, it is not just the word of God, but a life road map that is packed with wisdom that you cannot beat. It has this kind of simple wisdom: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
You know how many times I’ve gone out to the mound thinking, “This guy has no shot, because I am Mariano Rivera?” Never. The guy with the bat in his hand is a professional. He is trying just as hard to get a hit as I am trying to get him out. I respect that, and I know everything I have is from the Lord.
When I was sent back to the Columbus Clippers after pitching a few games for the Yankees, I had two weeks of rest and then started pitching faster than ever before. My catcher, Jorge Posada, asked me what I was eating, because I jumped from throwing 88 to 96 mph that game. I know of only one answer. It was a gift from the Lord. The cutter I throw, my fastball with a wicked tail on it, wasn’t something I studied and practiced for years. The Lord gave it to me, and it changed my whole career.
Everything is in his hands. I do not take it for granted. It was the way I wanted to pitch, and it is the way I want to live. Put everything we have into living this moment the best way we can live it. Some players obsess over rumors, but for me, they are only distractions. In my worldview as a pitcher, distractions are the enemy. Again, simple is best. Read the rest of this entry . . .
Historian Thomas Kidd talks to historian Philip Jenkins about his new book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Why is it essential to see this war as a religious conflict?
At the highest levels of the respective regimes, both Germany and Russia were deeply motivated by national visions that were messianic and millenarian, and framed in thoroughly Christian terms. Each nation saw itself as playing a predestined role that was divinely inspired, and those self-concepts contributed mightily to the outbreak of war. Religious visions also helped explain why people remained at war through the hellish conditions. We also have to understand the highly supernatural world in which all participants found themselves, and not just at the level of elite propaganda. The language of crusade and holy war must be taken very seriously – on all sides. When they entered the war in 1917, Americans, interestingly, were among the most passionate in presenting the war in crusading terms.They go on to talk about religious imagery and the idea that WWI did not disenchant the world of faith. Rather it re-enchanted it with new forms of old myths.
Also, the sense of having failed in a holy war enterprise goes far to explaining the secularized millenarianism that prevailed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, in the totalitarian movements. As in 1914, Germany and Russia were the storm centers.
This is where we are in the world today. We self-publish our own books. We can solicit our own funds for movies. We can circumvent the nightly news, if it still exists.
Here's a trio, who have made award-winning documentaries in the past, wanting to blow the lid off the media silence on the man they call the most prolific serial killer in America.
There are at least two angles on the media silence on this case. The biggest one is that Gosnell is an abortionist operating within the scope allowed by those who have argued they want abortions in our country to be safe and rare. This man's clinic was nowhere near safe, so the political agenda doesn't support exposing him at the risk of undermining the most scared battleground for the political left.
The second angle is not as politically defined as the first. It's what Ann McElhinney describes in the video below. The women who were murdered were poor, unseemly, and minority--the kind that gets killed everyday in some cities, so what's the news? You might think those who cry loudly about the rights of woman and minorities would cry out about this too, but perhaps their classism gets in the way. Maybe it just doesn't trump the first angle. Abortionists are priests in the Church of Ne're Do Ill. The blood on their hands is only red fruit punch.
If you have the funds to contribute to this, I encourage you to consider it.
Dr. Vern Poythress has written a book on chance and the sovereignty of God. In fact, that's the title. He says he was thinking about one of his previous books, Redeeming Science, when he developed the concept of chance for this book. People have appealed to chance almost as an intelligence behind questions of our origin, but to say it happened by chance when the odds are inconceivably high against it is like saying it was just magic. It's nonsense. The real problem, Dr. Poythress explains, is that many scientists have insisted that their naturalistic philosophy is the only way to interpret the data:
Evolutionary naturalism is the view that all forms of life came about through merely material processes, with no guiding purpose at any point. But the narrow study of material causes can never legitimately make a pronouncement about God’s involvement or God’s purposes in the processes. And scientific study ought not say that there can be no exceptions, that is, events in which God acts in surprising ways.Many of them say they will entertain any theory that explains the data well, but we have seen plenty of examples where this has not been true at all. Even the suggestion that a god of some kind may explain the patterns seen in the data is enough to raise the ire of Darwin's watchdogs. That's what the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is about.
Many pronouncements made these days in the name of science use the successes of science and the prestige of science as a platform from which to advocate the principle that there are no purposes and that God is absent. But such pronouncements represent a form of philosophy; the advocates of materialistic philosophy are importing their own assumptions into their interpretation of the scientific data.
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?
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.
- Our Beautiful Community Needs Churches That Work Together
- A Long Partnership Between First Alliance And Hilger Higher Learning
- Summit Counseling Center Offers Help
- Building Hope, Leadership In Inner City Youth
- Michael Kirby: Trusting People to Understand the Truth
- Ray Williams: Helping As Needed in Red Bank
- Safe House At Red Bank UMC Is Making A Difference In The Community
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.
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.)
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.
"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."
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 . . .
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.
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).
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.
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 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 . . .
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.