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Books ingested in 2013

See also

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them” ― Mark Twain.

So here is my yearly review of the books I finished reading. Skim it to find a book that interests you. Skip it if you prefer. Whatever you like. It’s probably eligible for the Guinness Book due to its length, but, unfortunately, my OCD would not allow me to NOT write this. My narcissism insists I share it with the world.

1. “Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley” by Peter Kreeft.[1]

In this book Kreeft, philosopher and Christian apologist, presents to us a conversation between these three men, each of whom died on November 22nd 1963. Kennedy is used to represent Western Humanism, Huxley, author of “Brave New World”, represents Eastern Pantheism, and Lewis represents Christianity. Kreeft uses some of each man’s original writings, statements, or ideas during the dialogue. Subjects he deals with include faith/trust in authority, textual criticism, whether or not people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat, contradictions between religions, the anthropomorphism of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the miraculous, and belief in hell. He also points out some interesting false/fallacious arguments that people use in order not to believe such as “the genetic fallacy”, “the time-line or clock fallacy”, chronological snobbery, “vincible ignorance”, and the tendency of people to refuse to believe legitimate proofs simply because they dislike the conclusion. Good stuff!

“Would you rather believe a lie that made you happy or the truth even if it made you unhappy? ….[If we are dishonest] we turn from known or suspected truth because it threatens us, or turn to a known or suspected lie because it attracts us” (70-71). “Some theologians call it vincible ignorance. A less technical term is dishonesty…. deliberately looking away from… the truth when it threatens you” (113).

2. James Madison” by Garry Wills (part of The American Presidents Series).[2]

Known as the Father of The Constitution, but not considered a great President, this biography tells us “he had no real executive experience before he became president” (3). Madison was a man whose political bloodlines flowed from Thomas Jefferson (a sometimes brilliant man; though a morally bankrupt one who lived a life of contradiction). Thus Madison was also a man of contradiction who’s political machinations often found him arguing at one time for, and then at another time against, the same issue, whether it be the Senate’s right to confirm foreign treaties or the issue of a National Bank; his position usually depended on whether or not his own party was in power. Because of these flaws, George Washington eventually washed his hands of Madison (his once trusted advisor). As President, Madison generally made poor choices when naming people to his cabinet and to other positions. Interestingly enough, though a failure as President in many ways, he was reelected.

As is often the case, it’s hard to decide what the biggest issue or event was during his presidency. I will choose the oddly named “War of 1812” (1812-1815). “Madison, like Jefferson, had an ideological block about war of any kind,” writes the author. “As Madison put it in his ‘Political Observations’ of 1795, ‘War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes, and armies, and debt, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few’” (63). And thus Madison who had vehemently opposed a standing army, the building of war ships, and who helped dismantle the nation’s military preparedness, found himself asking Congress for a declaration of war against England in 1812. His bad leadership and lack of foresight lead to many disastrous results, including the infamous burning of the White House by the British in 1814.

A final poignant picture of the character of Madison is again exposed when historians discovered that as in later years he attempted to “spin” and rework his legacy of partisanship and blatant contradiction by altering his own literary correspondence (162). A bad leader and a politician through and through. Some things never change.

3. “Searching for God Knows What” by Donald Miller.[3]

The author of the acclaimed “Blue Like Jazz” presents a very good theory in this book: “Man is wired so he gets his glory (his security, his understanding of value, his feeling of purpose, his feeling of rightness with his Maker, his security for eternity) from God, and this relationship is so strong, and God’s love is so pure, that Adam and Eve felt no insecurity at all, so much so that they walked around naked and didn’t even realize they were naked,” Miller writes (70).

But when Adam and Eve turned away from God, they separated themselves and all of us from the One who defines us, the One who is the source of all we truly need, be it love and affirmation or value and purpose. Mankind has been messed up ever since: We are insecure, jealous, envious, unfulfilled. We live in competition. We measure ourselves against others. We value some and devalue others. We use people. We vie for position, try to impress one another, desire to be and feel important, desire to feel and be right, and, in doing so, build social hierarchies and circles, in which we (try to) find redemption and acceptance from juries of our peers as we, at the same time, enjoy excluding others. We are constantly searching for some group or some person outside of ourselves to love and affirm us, to tell us we’re beautiful and accepted. We are in search of someone outside of us to tell us who we are. Miller reminds us that separation from God is, well, death, and we are living it every day in a plethora of ways. (And in the end we all die, and, if this separation is not remedied before then we will be separated from God forever, which means we will be separated from all love, comfort, goodness, peace, and happiness FOREVER.)

But what if someone came from another place, from outer space or a place where they had not fallen into this predicament? What if someone came down here who was still completely connected to God, who did not sin, and who saw our way of life as being completely backward from the way it should be?

“Think about it for a second. If Jesus was coming from a place where all emotional needs were met by God, His social economy would be as shocking and different…. His values would be different and His personality would be different…. Jesus would act and think completely differently than we would. He would act and think like someone who had their needs met by God, like somebody who had no regard for what we thought was important or not important. He would find things humanity finds valuable and worthless absurd… Jesus would seem to see things backwards” (119).

Absolutely!

And if through Jesus Christ we can be restored and reconnect with God, having all that is missing restored, what kind of people might we then be?

Aaaah, you just gotta read the book. Highly recommended.

4. “The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories” by Leo Tolstoy.[4]

I’d never read anything by Tolstoy before and didn’t want to start with “War and Peace.” I wanted to start small. And, wow, in these short stories I found Tolstoy to be an intense writer, especially when it comes to internal struggles and interpersonal conflicts. In “Family Happiness” we see how a young girl experiences the first flutterings of infatuation and love for an older man; however, marriage to her beloved ends up being less than she expected. In “The Death of Ivan Ilych” we find the protagonist (if he can be called that) to be a person who’d spent his life chasing position and status, a man who’s marriage was only made happy through his position and possessions, but when he finds he is dying the curtain is removed, his life’s pursuits, his unhappy marriage, and his dislike of pretty much everyone around him are exposed. He begins to see everyone and everything for what it truly is, a “chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14), and a “Searching for God Knows What”. (Ha!) “The Kreutzer Sonata” is one of the most intense short stories I’ve ever read. A discussion amongst strangers on a train leads to a bleak and compelling tale of immorality, domestic hatred, and murder. The story interjects some of Tolstoy’s quasi-Christian thought on life and sexuality. Still, for a story written in the 1880s it still can be found relevant today in some ways:

“Yet if a one-hundredth part of the efforts devoted to the cure of syphilis were devoted to the eradication of debauchery, there would long ago not have been a trace of syphilis left. But as it is, efforts are made not to eradicate debauchery but to encourage it and make debauchery safe” (166).

Sound familiar? Resonates today, doesn’t it? “They emancipate women in universities and in law courts, but continue to regard her as an object of enjoyment” (187). In the last story, “Master and Man”, a master intent only on gain sets out on a winter trek in order to (hopefully) beat his competition to the sale of some prospective land. He takes with him his most loyal servant. The two become lost, exposed outdoors in a heavy blizzard, death is coming, and each man must take stock of his own life.

5. “The Four Loves” by C.S. Lewis.[5]

Here are the four:

1- Affection: Love for the familiar, our family, our animals, friends at work, in our military unit, or in our classroom, etc.

2- Friendship: Lewis calls this “the least natural… instinctive… biological” of our loves (58); yet it is one of the most pleasant things in life because with friends we generally share some kind of common interests or agreements. “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’” (65). He points out that there is no duty in Friendship, as there is to nation, family, spouse, or child.

3- Eros: Defined by Lewis as the state of being “in love”, not to be confused with the sexual act which he terms “Venus” (which he also discusses).

4- Charity: The most God-like of all loves, loving people even though they are unlovable, forgiveness, etc.

Lewis discusses each category of love, giving examples of the benefits of said loves as well as the demonic side of them, which is when they become gods, which makes them destructive in varied ways. He also makes arguments against those who would prefer to be alone, those who say they prefer their pets to human companionship, against those who avoid relationships in order to protect themselves from being hurt by others, even against those who wish only for heaven so they can see their departed loved ones. In the closing chapter he writes (here in my own words) that there are some “loves” that spring from us naturally (sexual attraction, infatuation, etc.) but which are just not beneficial to us or others. Using the analogy of a garden, those natural but harmful loves which spring up, should be seen as weeds and be kept from growing if we wish to have productive and fruitful gardens.

“Every human love, at its height, has a tendency to claim for itself a divine authority. Its voice tends to sound as if it were the will of God Himself. It tells us not to count the cost, it demands of us total commitment, it attempts to over-ride all other claims and insinuates that any action which is sincerely done ‘for love’s sake’ is thereby lawful and even meritorious. That erotic love and love of one’s country may thus attempt to ‘become gods’ is generally recognized. But [others may make the same claim],” he writes.

“We may give our human loves the unconditional allegiance which we owe only to God. Then they become gods: Then they become demons. They will destroy us, and also destroy themselves” (7 & 8).

This quote makes me think of the argument that some put forth for everything from Christians marrying non-believers, adulterous relationships, and homosexual “marriage”: “You can’t help who you fall in love with.” Thus Lewis points out that “love” can set itself up as a god (a false one), and it certainly does so when it causes us to turn away from the true God and violate His commands. “The real question is, which (when the alternative comes) do you serve, or choose, or put first? To which claim does your will, in the last resort, yield?” (122-123). Will it be love for God or something else?

6. “The Book of Revelation” graphic version illustrated Chris Koelle.[6]

I was interested to see how the artist would render certain things in Revelation, such as the four living creatures who surround the throne of God and of the Lamb (see Revelation 4). Of course, in John’s vision he often says things such as “they looked like” or “it resembled” or “it had the appearance of” in other words, John couldn’t really tell us exactly what he was seeing, he was just trying to use the best imagery he could. So artistic renderings are only twice removed interpretations of what John couldn’t quite describe. I did, however, have some problems with the translation of the text by Fr. Mark Arey and Fr. Philemon Sevastiades. One example: In speaking of the fall of Babylon the Great, their text reads, “The juicy pleasures you craved have vanished forever. All your luxuries and entertainments have disappeared, never to be found again” (Revelation 18:14, according to them). The word “entertainments” there stuck out like a sore thumb, so I looked it up in other versions and then did a search of what the word in the original Greek meant. It is a word usually translated “splendor” (NIV, NLT) or “splendid” (NASB, NKJV); it is a word that clearly seems to be about elegance, etc. So their change is not even a paraphrase but instead, it seems is an attempt to modernize the verse unnecessarily, even wrongly (see Revelation 22:18-19).

7. “Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton” by Kevin Belmonte.[7]

Here we have a bare bones biography, not too personal, outlining the milestones of Chesterton’s life, including his major literary works and their impact then and now. I remember reading Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man” and being amazed at his observance of the first man who made the first cave painting. How evolutionists and anthropologists study the painting and formulate some idea of how primitive the cave painter was but, Chesterton would point out, they missed the whole point, because the first man to ever paint the image of a caribou on a cave wall was a genius beyond compare. He invented art; he looked at one three dimensional things and said, “In one dimension I think I can make something that represents that.” Genius! And an amazing observation by Chesterton. So even though he wrote in the earliest decades of the 20th century, his writing still stands today as an apologetic for truth, joy, and Christianity against a backdrop of relativism, pessimism, and secularism.

Chesterton writings were also a major factor in the conversion of C.S. Lewis and he, along with Lewis, had an underlying theme in their writings that the beautiful and joyful things in life were holding back, hinting at something far greater and just beyond our grasp (which would be God, the Garden, perfection, and eternity):

“One of the deepest and strangest of all human moods is the mood which will suddenly strike us perhaps in the garden at night, or deep in sloping meadows, the feeling that every flower and leaf has just uttered something stupendously direct and important, and that we have by a prodigy of imbecility not heard or understood it” (52).

8. “Staying Close: Stopping the Natural Drift Toward Isolation in Marriage” by Dennis and Barbara Rainey.[8]

It is good for a husband and wife to read a marriage book every couple of years. One of the Raineys’ former books “Rekindling the Romance” is possibly the best marriage book my wife and I ever read.

They write, “[M]arriages frozen in the isolation of selfishness didn’t start out that way. People get married with ‘stars in their eyes.’ They don’t see reality when they’re dating or during the engagement. They wear blinders with special lenses that filter out all the unpleasantness. Some are so desperate to love and be loved that they deny reality” (62). “One problem in many marriages today is that partners have so many and varied purposes for getting married. The result is that husband and wife sign on for a lifetime voyage, but set sail for different harbors. It’s no wonder that eventually they end up in different ports, their ships in two pieces—isolated and alone”(109-110).

“Today marriages are insecure and crumbling because the woman hooked the man with her looks and he got her with his physique, charm, or ability to earn money. But what happens when the beauty fades? What happens when the husband falls ill, loses his job, or grows old?” (126).

When comparing one’s marriage to romantic novels, movies, or other things, spouses often become disillusioned: “Instead of finding happiness and fulfillment in the real world with a real husband, real children, and a real God, they bail out and chase after illusions conjured out of their fantasies. The problem is, if we catch our fantasy it too becomes tarnished with reality” (81).

Most importantly, Dennis Rainey asks three questions: “Are you and your spouse a part of the family of God? Are you both allowing Christ to control your entire lives? Are both of you allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and empower your lives? Read carefully, because what I’m about to say is the most important statement I make in this book: Unless you can answer yes to all three questions, you will lack the power to build your home with the oneness God intends” (133).

9. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare a novel by G.K. Chesterton.[9]

Reading the biography of Chesterton spiked my interest to read some of his fiction, this book being possibly his most famous work of fiction.

Chapter one opened well with its descriptiveness; it really grabbed my attention: “The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit into them. Nor when he met the people was he disappointed in this respect" (1). "That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face – that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat – that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others” (2).

In the novel we are lead into a strange world of intrigue where, apparently, nothing is as it seems. We discover a council of anarchists, seven of them, each code named after a day of the week. The biggest mystery of all is the leader of the anarchist council named “Sunday” a frightening mountain of a man: “As he walked across the inner room towards the balcony, the large face of Sunday grew larger and larger; and Syme was quite gripped with fear that when he was quite close the face would be too big to be possible, and that he would scream aloud” (57). “When I saw him from behind I was certain he was an animal, and then when I saw him in front I knew he was a god” (190). Whatever and whomever Sunday is, he strikes both fear and awe into the heart of each council member.

We also get to see Chesterton’s knack for pointing out the paradoxes and the absurdities of life. For instance, we read of the anarchist council lamenting the loss of their comrade, a man of such virtue that he regarded cruelty to animals barbarism, and a man they also praised for successfully carrying out a deadly bombing in Brighton. Of certain philosophic movements he writes,

“When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide” (46-47).

10. Saul to Paul: From Persecutor to Christ Follower copyright 2012 by Voice of the Martyrs.

In this mini-book from the Voice of the Martyrs, the organization that tracks and publicizes the plight of persecuted Christians around the world, we read seven stories of people who, like Saul of Tarsus once breathed “out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples” (Acts 9:1) but were then converted and became Christ followers themselves. Through these accounts we visit India, Malaysia, Romania, Columbia, Nigeria, and Algeria. We read of Hindus, Muslims, Communists, and Marxist rebels committed to violence, persecution, and self-destruction. Of course, as with Paul, when a persecutor turns to God in Christ, he or she often becomes the persecuted. As God said of Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). Thankfully, V.O.M. supports such converts and missionaries in these dark places, them and their families in their times of suffering. For more information go to: http://www.persecution.com/

11. “The Soul Winner” by Charles Haddon Spurgeon,[10] the 19th Century “Prince of Preachers”.

In this book of lessons and sermons for those who desire to preach, or “win” souls for Christ, Spurgeon drives his points home. Urging soul winners to rely, pray, and trust in God every step of the way, he challenges them to live lives of holiness, seriousness, empathy, and love. He challenges preachers to be urgent in their message, to teach the entirety of Scripture, not to ignore certain parts or preach differently when unbelievers are present, not to be concerned about attendance numbers or multiplying the amount of baptisms. “[P]reach Jesus Christ to them, and if that does not suit their doctrinal views then preach Jesus Christ the next Sunday… and do the same the next… and the next, and the next, and never preach anything else. Those who do not like Jesus Christ must have Him preached to them till they do like Him; for they are the very people who need Him the most” (107).

Spurgeon also says some things that would make many modern churches question him (when they should probably be questioning themselves), for instance: Should we desire to build our numbers by adding unbelievers to our assemblies? “To introduce unconverted persons to the church, is to weaken and degrade it (17). He has a lot of say about false or incomplete teaching, wishy-washy preachers, watered down and entertainment-based preaching: “It very often happens that the converts that are born in excitement die when the excitement is over” (20). He also tells his audience that to win souls their lives must be exemplary or they might as well not preach the Gospel or witness at all: “Fish will not be fishers…” writes Spurgeon, “and what is more to the point, the worldly Christian will not convert the world” (278).

Spurgeon then goes into great detail as to what true converts look like: “True belief and true repentance are twins,” he says. “If the man does not live differently from what he did before, both at home and abroad, his repentance needs to be repented of, and his conversion is a fiction” (35 & 36).

“How can a man be a disciple of Christ when he openly lives in disobedience to Him?” (38).

“If the professed convert distinctly and deliberately declares that he knows his Lord’s will but does not mean to attend to it, you are not to pamper his presumption, but it is your duty to assure him that he is not saved” (38).

In the end, “You preach, brethren, with this object, that men may quit their sins, and fly to Christ for pardon, that by His blessed Spirit they may be renovated, and become as much in love with everything holy as they are now in love with everything that is sinful” (164).

12. “On Free Choice of the Will” by Augustine, translated by Anna S. Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff.[11]

Augustine, writer of the “Confessions”, one of my all-time favorite books. Is it possible to walk someone through one of his books in just a few short paragraphs? My best quick explanation of his thesis in this book is that people are unhappy and self-destructive because they desire, choose, love, and embrace things that are not permanent, things that can and will be lost: “Thus when we say that [people] are unhappy because of their will, we do not mean that they wish to be unhappy, but that they are in a state of will [from their decisions and the things they cling to] where unhappiness must result even if they do not want it” (Book One, chapter XIV, section 102).

“Insofar as all [people] seek the happy life, they do not err. Insofar as each man fails to follow the road of life that leads to happiness, although he may confess and profess that he is unwilling to arrive anywhere except at happiness, he is in error. His error is that he follows something that does not lead where he wishes to arrive. The greater his error on the road of life, the less his wisdom, and the farther he is from the truth in which the highest good is discerned and grasped” (Book Two, chapter IX, sections 101-102).

If we turn and trust in the risen Jesus Christ, who lives forever, we find those things that can never be lost: Love, forgiveness, life everlasting, and God Himself. As Augustine wrote in “Confessions”: “Where are you going over all those rough paths? Where are you going? ....He Himself is being left out of the account. What are you aiming at, then, by going on and on walking along these difficult and tiring ways? There is no rest to be found where you are looking for it. Seek what you seek, but it is not there where you are seeking. You seek a happy life in the country of death. It is not there. For how can life be happy, where there is no life” (“Confessions”, Book IV, Chapter 12). Life is found in Christ alone (John 1:4, John 8:12, John 14:6) and it is Him to whom we must run.

13. “The Great Philosophers: From Socrates to Foucault” by Stangroom and Garvey.[12]

Here we have two millennium of “wise” men discussing things like how we know what we know, how do we even know we exist, etc. What a world of nothingness and nonsense if we die and become nothing, if the whole of the human race eventually dies followed by the sun and earth eventually dying and everything turning into space dust. I must admit that sometimes, when reading this book, I thought about those who do not believe in God and the undercurrent of meaninglessness and futility life must have for them. If Christ is not risen from the dead, and, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). “Amen” anyone?

But even from the unbelieving philosophers I see streams of white light and nuggets of truth: Machiavelli and Hobbes’ portrait of the sad, fallen state of mankind. Socrates’ idea that we do wrong because we find it beneficial (or “good”) to us. Plato’s idea that an unchanging standard would be needed for definitions, comparisons, and judgments. Kant’s idea of moral law being universal or at least that which should be universal. Aristotle’s idea that we all begin with assumptions (i.e. “faith”) as we build our world of knowledge and understanding. Rousseau’s assessment that as mankind “progresses” in knowledge and creativity, it also regresses morally. (Preach, brother!)

Then we have Bacon’s assessment that our senses are (and by extension the “scientific method” is) imperfect and fallible: “Discovering instances which support an hypothesis, even a very large number of instances, does not guarantee its truth” (35). Popper’s exposure of one of the flaws of the scientific method which “consists [only] in the falsification of theories, not the inductive verification of them” (142).

“The empirical basis of objective science has thus nothing ‘absolute’ about it. Science does not rest upon solid bedrock. The bold structure of its theories rises, as it were above a swamp. It is like a building erected on piles. The piles are driven down from above into the swamp, but not down into any natural or ‘given’ base’” (143).

Schopenhauer’s idea that we can have knowledge of things without the use of the five senses, since we have the knowledge of ourselves from within our very selves. Sartre’s confusing ideas of “being for-itself” and “being in-itself” reminded me of the “I Am” (Exodus 3:14/John 8:58), the God of the Bible.

The book also introduces readers to John Stuart Mill, Marx, Nietzsche,[13] Dewey, etc., (“They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst”—Psalm 69:21.) as well as some of the great minds of “Christendom”—Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Leibniz. (“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom… but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD”—Jeremiah 9:23-24.)

As Pascal said,

“I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true” (47).

14: James Monroe” by Gary Hart[14] (part of The American Presidents Series).[15]

The 5th President of the United States governed as the U.S. was emerging as a world power and as a leader among nations. Although Monroe came from the same political bloodlines of Jefferson and Madison, he was wise enough to know that the possibility of war was always present; thus national strength and security were of utmost importance to Monroe. “The centrality of national security to Monroe’s presidency continued throughout his eight years in office and was not deterred by fiscal crisis or waning congressional interest” (79). Believe it or not, Monroe also believed in the idea of preemption. (Everyone should know their history in order to know “There is nothing new under the sun”–Ecclesiastes 1:9). Then again, Monroe was a former soldier of the Revolution; there had not been a man with military experience as President since George Washington.

Monroe was reelected during an era of good feelings, but an economic depression followed, bringing with it deficits and budget cuts. He had continuous problems with a renegade general named Andrew Jackson. He added Florida and four other states to the nation. The Missouri Compromise was passed during his presidency. But, perhaps most importantly, during Monroe’s presidency, many South American colonies began to declare independence from Spain and Portugal. In doing so they hoped for and sought the support of their independent neighbor to the north, The United States. As this was happening, European powers continued mixing it up, creating apprehension as to how it would affect the American continent.

Monroe’s response to all things European was declared in his annual national report to congress of December 2nd, 1823 and came to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine”. The idea, which appears to be a product of the minds of both Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, was that no other world powers or nations should any longer interfere with goings on in the American hemisphere (both North and South America) “Monroe and Adams shared the credit for the principles of noncolonization of and noninterference in the New World by European powers” (102). Monroe basically asserted, Hart writes, “that we [the U.S.] would view an interference on the part of European powers, and especially an attack on the [South American] Colonies, by them, as an attack on ourselves. This formulation—an attack on them is an attack on us—would find its counterpart 139 years later (almost to the day) during the Cuban missile crisis in John Kennedy’s public warning that any attack originating from Cuba on any nation in the hemisphere would be considered an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States” (114). “[T]he principles established the entire Western Hemisphere as independent of European dominance. Given the history of the times, Monroe’s foreign policy principles were breathtaking in their sweep and comprehensiveness,” writes Hart. “Monroe chose to decisively separate the entire Western Hemisphere from Europe, thus ending more than three centuries of colonization” (125).

15. “The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd” by John Piper.[16]

A good book with short biographies of three Christians who suffered greatly in their lives for different reasons:

John Bunyan, writer of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, endured religious persecution and twelve years of imprisonment for refusing to stop preaching. (“If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow!”)[17]

William Cowper, writer of the hymn “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”, suffered from paralyzing depression, despair, and attempts at suicide. His mother died when he was six and his father sent him away to a school where he was abused and possibly sexually molested. “William Cowper’s life seems to be one long accumulation of pain” writes Piper (90).

David Brainerd, 18th century missionary to native Americans, suffered not only with a kind of depression but also with “consumption” (probably tuberculosis). From his diary: “In the greatest distress that I ever endured having an uncommon kind of hiccough; which either strangled me or threw me into a straining vomit” (133). He died in agony at the age of 29. In his final days he worried that he might dishonor God by his inability to patiently endure his suffering. “The night before he died he said to those around him that ‘it was another thing to die than people imagined’” (134).

Yet, through it all, each man’s hope was in Christ alone for their acceptance before God, the salvation of their souls, and life eternal. Each man came to believe that all things, including suffering, are ordained by God for a purpose, most especially in the lives of His children. (See Genesis 50:20, Psalm 119:71, Romans 8:28, etc.). Cowper wrote,

“There is mystery in my destruction, and in time it will be explained” (99).

Piper tells us that sufferings in the life of Christians allow us to see ourselves for what we truly are. Suffering turns us away from pride. They turn us away from this dying world. They turn us to the eternal God. “I was made to see that if I ever would suffer rightly” wrote Bunyan, “I must first pass a sentence of death upon everything that can be properly called a thing of this life, even to reckon myself, my wife, my children, my health, my enjoyment, and all, as dead to me and myself as dead to them. The second was, to live upon [the] God [who] is invisible” (40). Sounds exactly like what Augustine was telling us in “On Free Choice of the Will”! As Brainerd wrote: “Such fatigues and hardship as these serve to wean me more from the earth” (139).

Trial, hardship, and suffering, in the lives of Christ followers, produce reliance on God, humility, and, yes, fruit. And the fruit of each man’s life, Bunyan’s writings, Cowper’s hymns, and Brainerd’s missionary fervor,[18] have proven to be of great benefit, comfort, and inspiration to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions over the centuries.

16. “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.[19]

Years ago I was captivated by Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” a fictional account exploring the lives of several people who died when a rope bridge collapsed in Peru. Was it all part of God’s plan or was there no meaning in it? Here we have Wilder’s famous play based in the fictional small town in New England during the opening decades of the 20th century. Small town life, love, marriage, and death are explored. It’s moving but lacking hope as Wilder was not a Christian. Still, as do the unbelieving philosophers, Wilder can’t help but hint of the reality of what we know, inherently—that there is something more:

“Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars… everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it” (87-88).

Later, one of the characters, wishing to relive a day in their life realizes, “That’s all human beings are! Just blind people” (109) and cries out in sad pain, “Let’s look at one another” (107). As C.S. Lewis once said, “There are no ‘ordinary people.’ You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”[20]

17. “Pagan Christianity?” subtitled “Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices” by Frank Viola and George Barna.

In this book, the authors give us a history lesson in order to show the Greco-Roman (pagan) roots behind much of what modern churches do and practice. Is this true? If true, is it good or bad? Well, you’ll just have to wait for a detailed review to follow…

18. “The Illustrated Man” a book of short stories by Ray Bradbury.[21]

Bradbury’s writings are like Twilight Zone stories though always futuristic and/or space-based. Good ones include “The Man”, “The Long Rain”, and “The Visitor”, but my very favorite story in this collection is “Kaleidoscope” which immediately grabbed me with it’s opening sentences:

“The first great concussion cut the rocket up the side with a giant can opener. The men were thrown into space like a dozen wriggling silverfish. They were scattered into a dark sea; and the ship, in a million pieces, went on, a meteor swarm seeking a lost sun” (28).

From that point on we get to experience the different reactions and intercom conversations of the doomed astronauts, floating in space, each one knowing he is going to die. I could not help thinking about this story when my wife and I saw the movie “Gravity” a month or so later.

In “the Man” we find a rocket ship landing on a distant planet, but the inhabitants don’t seem to find this once in a lifetime occurrence very interesting. Why not? Someone has appeared on their planet for whom they have been waiting for a long, long time; someone of whom it was prophesied he would come. There is talk of miracles in the air. The Captain of the rocket ship, a nasty, skeptical man, demands to know who it is that has stolen his moment of glory. “He didn’t have a name. He didn’t need a name. It’d be different on every planet, sir,” Martin reports. “You don’t mean - you can’t mean - That man you’re talking about couldn’t be…”[22] Could it? Probably not.

19. “Seeds of Change” subtitled “The spiritual quest of Kerry Livgren, writer, guitarist, keyboard player with Kansas” by Kerry Livgren and Kenneth Boa.[23]

Kerry Livgren, probably most famous for his songs “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On My Wayward Son”, shares his life story in this book. I was always a fan of the Kansas albums “Leftoverture” and “Point of Know Return”, albums in which the lyrics truly spoke of some sort of spiritual quest. The prodigal son story in “Carry On My Wayward Son” is fairly overt, but even the titles of his others songs pointed to a spiritual quest: “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, “Questions of My Childhood”, “Paradox”, “Hopelessly Human”, etc. This book explores Livgren’s musical career, but even more so, his spiritual quest, his yearning to know and understand the deepest foundational truths of existence:

“I had a fierce desire to learn, to find answers, to put things together in my thinking,” he writes. “Mathematics, history, biology and so forth were interesting, sometimes fascinating, but they never seemed to get to the core of what life was all about. I had a longing for knowledge that was not compartmentalized, something that would tie all these disciplines together. I wanted answers about human existence, and about my own existence in particular” (24).

Like many others he often found his ultimate transcendent moments of joy and ecstasy in music and nature’s beauty. But these did not complete the picture for him, each was at best “a surrogate god, a meager stand in for something I could not name” (116). (See my final paragraph in my review of “Defiant Joy”, above.) As a voracious reader he would ingest just about any books that hinted they might hold the keys to what he was missing. (In a chapter entitled “The Quest Leads to the East” he shares a vast array of quotes from dozens of books he read by yogis and gurus and spiritists.) His journey led him through mysticism, syncretism, and different streams of Hinduism. “So many of the books I read during those years attempted to blend the person of Christ into conformity with their contradictory systems. The inevitable result was a series of contradictory Christ’s, none of whom resembled the Christ of the Bible” (48). Eventually he came to the interesting realization that “Everyone wanted Jesus on his bandwagon, but not the Jesus of the Bible” (133). Another thing that particularly disturbed him was that people were listening to his music, reading his lyrics, and treating him as if he was their spiritual guru: “This began to weigh heavily upon my shoulders. People were looking to me for answers, and I didn’t know what the answers were” (116).

However, in the summer of 1979, Livgren developed “an irrational fear of flying” which “lasted for less than a year and ended as quickly as it began” (128). Thus he resorted to traveling on a tour bus with the singer from the opening band, a guy named Jeff Pollard who happened to be a Bible-believing Christian. At that time Livgren believed he’d found the final revelation, a syncretistic book entitled “The Urantia Book” (coming in at 2097 pages!). Jeff was not an overbearing Christian, but as Livgren shared ideas with Jeff from The Urantia Book, Jeff countered with the Bible. “[As] we sat there and compared doctrines, I began to get unsettled” (129). “No one wants to admit that he has been taken for a ride. The internal turmoil inside me was bewildering, and as the day wore on I grew more and more upset” (130). The following day Jeff gave Livgren a clear presentation of the Gospel and the scales began to fall from his eyes. Yet a voice inside him was saying,

“My God, you can’t become a Christian! What would everybody think?” (133).

Yet Livgren was determined to get to the truth of things: “I came to the conclusion that if it was really true, I would have to face up to it and become a Christian regardless of the circumstances” (136) and this is exactly what he did in a hotel room in Indianapolis on July 24th, 1979. He gave his life to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer and Lord, for the forgiveness of his sins, in order to serve Him for the rest of his life. “This time I knew my quest had reached an end—the years of searching were over” 137).

But what would happen next? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

20. “The Essential Bible Companion” subtitled “Key Insights for Reading God’s Word” by John H. Walton, Mark L. Strauss, and Ted Cooper Jr.

A book which dedicates about two pages of synopsis to each of the 66 books of the Bible. Like a Time-Life book it is filled with pictures, maps, timelines, important facts about each book, etc., but it also gives the general theme of, as well as key people and key verses in, each book. Not a bad book for someone looking to understand some basics about the Bible. But if one were interested in a deeper understanding of each of the books I might suggest the final book I finished in 2014:

21. “How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens” by Michael Williams.[24]

And Jesus said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

This book dedicates about four pages to almost every book of the Bible. It gives a basic overview and theme of each book, followed by sections entitled “The Jesus Lens” (How does God’s revelation in this book point us to the future coming of the Messiah, what He would accomplish on our behalf, His work, His life, His death and resurrection, and how it all applies to the lives of those who confess and trust in Him, and follow Him as Lord and Master?), “Contemporary Implications” (What does it all mean for us today, in our lives here and now?), and, finally, “Hook Questions” (Challenging questions that ask about our lives and what we are doing with all we know about Christ and the world around us).

“The simple truth that all of the Scriptures—Old Testament and New Testament—testify about Jesus seems to be often overlooked,” writes Williams. “Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended. It keeps our reading, understanding, teaching, and preaching properly focused on God’s grand redemptive program that centers on his own Son” (9).

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me,” says Jesus Christ (John 5:39).

_______________________________

All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society, published by Zondervan.

“The Soul Winner” was copyright Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1963.

Visit the author's blog at http://blogs.bible.org/blog/26077

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[1] Quotes from “Between Heaven and Hell”, copyright 2008 by Peter Kreeft, published by InterVarsity Press.

[2] Quotes from “James Madison”, copyright 2002 by Garry Wills, published by Times Books.

[3] Quotes from “Searching for God Knows What”, copyright 2004 and 2010 by Donald Miller, published by Thomas Nelson.

[4] Quotes from “The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories”, published by Signet Classics.

[5] Quotes from C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves”, copyright 1968 by Helen Joy Lewis, copyright renewed 1988 by Arthur Owen Barfield.

[6] Quote from “The Book of Revelation”, copyright 2012 by Every I Publishing, Inc., published by Zondervan.

[7] Quote from “Defiant Joy”, copyright 2011 by Kevin Belmonte, published by Thomas Nelson.

[8] Quotes from “Staying Close: Stopping the Natural Drift Toward Isolation in Marriage”, copyright 1989 by Dennis Rainey, repacked edition 2003, published by Thomas Nelson, Inc.

[9] Quotes from “The Man Who Was Thursday”, G.K. Chesterton, published by Penguin Books.

[10] Quotes are from “The Soul Winner”, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, copyright Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1963, published by Eerdmans.

[11] Quotes from “On Free Choice of the Will”, translated by Anna S. Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff, copyright 1964 Prentice-Hall, Inc.

[12] “The Great Philosophers: From Socrates to Foucault”, copyright 2005 Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2006 Barnes & Noble Books.

[13] Nietzsche’s “God is dead” belief system which, he believed, was the opening of a new horizon of expectation, of freedom, of joy. So how’d that work out for the societies that canonized him? Good luck with that.

[14] Yes, that Gary Hart, former candidate for President of the United States.

[15] Quotes from “James Monroe”, copyright 2005 by Gary Hart, published by Times Books.

[16] Quotes from “The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyon, William Cowper, and David Brainerd”, copyright 2001 by John Piper, published by Crossway Books.

[17] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bunyan

[18] “The Life of David Brainerd” is a book written by Jonathan Edwards. As David Brainerd lived for a time and then died in Edwards’ home, Edwards had Brainerd’s diaries to work from.

[19] Quotes from “Our Town: A Play in Three Acts”, copyright 1938, 1965 by the Wilder Family LLC, First Perennial Classics edition published 1998, reissued 2003.

[20] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, © renewed 1976, published by HarperCollins.

[21] “The Illustrated Man, a book of short stories by Ray Bradbury”, copyrights 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1953, copyright renewed 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1981 by Ray Bradbury, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

[22] http://brilliantdisguises.blogspot.com/2011/02/man-by-ray-bradbury.html

[23] Quotes from “Seeds of Change”, revised and expanded edition, copyright 1983, 1991 by Kenneth Boa and Kerry Livgren, published by Sparrow Press.

[24] Quote from “How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens”, copyright 2012 by Michael Williams, published by Zondervan.

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