Saturday, September 28, 2013
Friday, December 28, 2012
I am pleased to report that I have met my goal of reading 20 books in 2012. For purposes of contemporary discussion and the edification of posterity, below is a summary of the works I read in 2012, with brief accompanying comment.
In chronological order as read:
Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens - I still haven't read a Dickens title I didn't love, and I was glad to have finally crossed this classic off my To Read list. One of my favorite traits of a Dickens novel is how characters and circumstances are so intricately and dramatically woven together. However, in Oliver Twist there were scenarios that seemed to border on the contrived.
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien - When Rebecca and I caught wind of the release of the Peter Jackson movie to be released in 2012, we scurried to re-read The Hobbit...11 months early.
North of Boston - Robert Frost - To the long-form, prose-like quality of much of the poems in North of Boston took some adjusting. Less conducive to memorization, but still distinctively Frost; this is a collection to which I'll come back.
Republocrat - Carl R. Trueman -Truth be told, I read this long enough ago that I don't remember my impressions. I think I had unfairly high expectations because of how I had heard others refer to Trueman, but I vaguely remember feeling disappointed.
The Hunger Games / Catching Fire / Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins - I do not remember ever before being gripped by the drama and action of a story as I was with each of these three books. Neither do I remember reading a story with as muddled or conflicting a morality as in The Hunger Games. Killings justified by killings, gruesome violence, and an exceedingly selfish heroine reduce what would otherwise be a sound endorsement.
Odes to Common Things - Pablo Neruda - That this is only my second favorite Odes collection by Neruda speaks to the exceptional nature of his Odes to Opposites. The brilliance of Neruda in these Odes to Common Things is how the onion, or the scissors, or the table are used as metaphorical springboards into larger, grander themes while they are still, through the course of the poem, celebrated merely as onion, scissors, or table. There is a richness and a depth to each poem, delivered in the most genuine, simple language, that makes Neruda seem transcendent to have said so much with so few words. I never hesitate when asked to name my favorite poet.
Till We Have Faces - C.S. Lewis - The wonder of the seven books in the Narnia series is that each story is infused with one major theme and several lessons in biblical morality that are readily distilled and discerned by even a child. Aslan's substitutionary atonement, or the consequences of Eustace's greed as a dragon are prime examples. The humbling part about reading Lewis's adult literature, however, is that some of the most central truths/lessons in the stories are difficult to mine even reading through them a second time, as I found in my re-read of Till We Have Faces. Worth the effort, but humbling.
On Being Presbyterian - Sean Michael Lewis - A nice primer on Presbyterianism. Keith Cuomo rightfully points out that there is really only one "Presbyterian" chapter in the whole book (the one on church government). A discerning reader could probably have guessed that the author is from the PCA (not the OPC) without a glance at the back cover.
Dandelion Wine - Ray Bradbury - Upon Bradbury's death this summer, I was surprised to learn how much of his later work revolved around writing for television and movies. Dandelion Wine, coupled with Fahrenheit 451, gave me an impression of Bradbury as one who would have resisted the bright lights, noise, and emptiness of Hollywood. Dandelion Wine is Bradbury's quasi-autobiographical recreation of life as a boy in his small-town hometown, and each page is so saturated with the wonder of youthful discovery and the vitality of a boy's summer day that it's hard for the reader to not be overcome with jealousy and longing. Despite the Hollywood ending to his life, I still count Bradbury as one of my favorite fiction authors.
Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims - Daniel R. Hyde - More confessional and (duh) reformed than On Being Presbyterian, but also not explicitly Presbyterian. Still, an introduction I'd recommend.
Beloved Bride: The Letters of Stonewall Jackson to His Wife - Bill Potter - This had been a gift from Rebecca, my own beloved bride, two Hallmark Days ago, and I read it for the first time this summer. I was surprised to learn not only what a strong Christian the General was, but how devout a Presbyterian and how articulate a Calvinist! Far from empty or superfluous romance, these letters are rife with spiritual instruction and admonishment. I was inspired (and more than a little embarrassed) to see what spiritual leadership this husband showed even from a distance and even on the battlefield. A glimpse into the mind and reflections of a truly great American man.
All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps - Dave Isay - We received this as a gift from Kyle and April Kennedy upon their visit this summer. Whatever genuine desire I had to read the book was amplified by the understanding that such a brief, easy read would serve to "pad the stats." Asking couples how they met/fell in love is already a pastime of mine, so reading a book comprised entirely of autobiographical love stories was thoroughly enjoyable. The stories placed a surprisingly high value on marriage (as opposed to cohabitation) and featured relatively few homosexual relationships--another pleasant surprise, considering that StoryCorps is somewhat affiliated with NPR. With thanks to the Kennedys, this was a fun read.
The Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church - Shortly after completing my 30th year as a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I finally read The Book of Church Order, which (for the congregationalist reader) is comprised of The Form of Government, The Book of Discipline, and The Directory for the Public Worship of God. There is a careful yet confident tone to the entire work that should inspire any OPC congregant toward feelings of protection and praise. Among the slowest, most difficult reads of the year (it reads like a constitution), but well worth it.
Animal Farm - George Orwell - To post the appropriately cynical Facebook status during the latter months of the election season, I found myself reaching for this Orwell title so often that I eventually just decided to re-read Animal Farm to re-establish full context. Postman fittingly describes Orwell's writing as "clear, lucid English." I do not foresee a day in which I do not count George Orwell as one of my favorite authors (even if he was a Socialist).
The God-Breathed Scripture - Edward J. Young - In picking up this brief work of one of my Dad's seminary professors, I had hoped to come away with a conclusive "proof" of the inspiration of Scripture for use in apologetic/evangelistic applications. Instead, I came to understand (correctly, I think) that Dr. Young's work was addressed primarily to those who are believers already. This work is more of a defense of the doctrines of the Inerrancy and Infallibility of Scripture than something intended to persuade a skeptic. Still, a very helpful work I will reference again.
The Sonnets: Poems of Love - William Shakespeare - It's a bit crass and unacademic to reduce one's commentary on works of Poetry to a mere "I liked it"/"I didn't like it" statement. Yet, I can't escape the conclusion that I didn't particularly care for most of the 154 sonnets of the greatest wordsmith of the English language. The subject matter of at least one third of the sonnets might be described as Trifling, another fifth Petty, and an eighth of them Frivolous. The remaining 34.2% were the masterpieces that Jane Austen characters commit to memory and English majors arrange to have recited at their weddings. This was the most work I have ever exerted in the Poetry genre, but I would consider it worth the effort--if for no other reasons than the exercise of discipline and for the head start I have on the next decade's Valentine's Day cards.
Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture - Brian H. Cosby - I have never received (and perhaps will never again receive) an endorsement of a book as unenthusiastic and conflicting as the one I received from George Ludwig Fischer, PhD. Some time after handing me the book and stating the requisite "I thought you'd like to read this" came an "It's not as good as [the book you lent me last year]," which was followed by a befuddling "Please don't take this as a book suggestion." If you're reformed and can get past Cosby's inclusion of "community" and "service" in his list of The Means of Grace, there are good reminders and suggestions contained herein for those engaged in youth ministry (or parenting, for that matter). Just don't ask George Fischer to provide a quote for the dust jacket.
Redemption Accomplished and Applied - John Murray - A most excellent book on the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. Thorough without feeling painstaking; comprehensive but without an exhaustive feel. Murray's writing is clear, concise, and saturated with Scriptural phraseology. I am told that this book is used as a seminary textbook, but there is a beauty to his language and a pastoral nature to his chapter conclusions that defy the academic genre. I certainly saved the best for last when I read Murray as Book #20.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
2011 marks the first year in which I have maintained or exceeded a reading pace of a-book-a-month. Without further fanfare, below is my list of 2011 books (in chronological order as read):
Gilead - Marilynne Robinson - One doesn't read a Marilynne Robinson novel so much as one steeps oneself in a subtly-crafted work of art, one page at a time. These two books read at the pace of summertime twilight on a comfortable back porch, sometimes without feeling like reading at all. Instead, one could refer to an encounter with Gilead as a time of getting to know her characters--and from a seat at their own tables or by walking their garden paths. Deep, full-orbed themes throughout. A pleasure to read.
Home - Marilynne Robinson - The remarkable feature about Home is that its story involves the same few characters from the same two families, is set in the same small town, and takes place at the exact same time as Gilead. Yet somehow, the reader will be drawn sweetly through Home without the slightest hint of repetitiveness or foreknowledge. Brilliant work by an incredibly gifted author.
Reforming Marriage - Douglas Wilson - My brother Joel did well when he identified this as his "Manager of the Year" in his Third Annual Book Awards. I have never before read someone who so [appropriately] identifies the husband's immense responsibility and does so without pulling any punches, so to speak. Reforming Marriage should rouse even the laxest husband into action with a sense of the high calling that is his in marriage.
The Secret History of New Jersey - Tony Gruenewald - I probably wouldn't have cared for this brief poetry collection had I not lived and worked in New Jersey my whole life. The poetry is free-form and not particularly nuanced, but Gruenewald is to be commended for charming in verse the least charming parts of our dear State. Recommended for true New Jerseyans alone.
The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame - It would be impossible for me to overstate the magnificence of this "children's" book. Laying aside the endearing characters, and the simple beauty of the setting and the stories, it is the masterful language of this book that I found breathtaking like no other. It was a common occurrence for me to pause in a chapter in order to be able to re-read a particular sentence over and and over and over, so as to let its richness and complexity saturate my mind. I have never read a wordsmith equal to Kenneth Grahame, nor do I expect to.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair - Pablo Neruda (re-read for perhaps the 12th time?) - If you don't know my thoughts on Neruda by now, we're obviously not Facebook friends.
Love, 10 Poems - Pablo Neruda (re-read) - See above.
Future Men - Douglas Wilson - Becca and I laugh at some of the ultra-specific movie genres that Netflix features, and one of our favorites is "British Romantic Dramas with a Strong Female Lead." Future Men would fall neatly into the "Principles of Parenting Written by Somewhat Controversial Christian Authors With a Strong Male Lead" category if books were movies (let's all rejoice that they're still separate for now). When Wilson describes biblical Manhood, either here in Future Men or in Reforming Marriage (above), it is not a Manhood muzzled by undue domestication or effeminate undermining. The principles in Future Men are founded in solid biblical exposition, unlike the speculative unorthodoxy of Eldredge's Wild at Heart. I want to raise sons Doug Wilson would be proud to know.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith - The foreword of the edition I read this summer contains the caution, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line." Quite true. In much the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't so much construct a plot as dissolve a reader into the very essence of a community and its time, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn wrapped me up in all the people, emotions, and dimensions of 1920's Brooklyn. So many aspects of these poor immigrants' lives create such a wide array of emotional responses: heartache, inspiration, admiration, joy. This immediately found a place on my list of all-time favorite novels.
Just Do Something - Kevin DeYoung - This was one of those rare books in the Theology/Christian Life genre that left me thinking, "I think I knew all that already." Perhaps it comes from growing up under preaching that not only acknowledges the Sovereignty of God, but holds fast to all the logical outworkings of that same doctrine. This book would have served me better in college, but was still worth the read as a 29-year-old husband and father of two.
Children of the Living God - Sinclair B. Ferguson - Far be it from me to speak poorly of a giant of the Church like Sinclair Ferguson, but I was rather indifferent to this, the first work of his I ever read. I love the doctrine of Adoption, and I had only ever heard great things about Rev. Ferguson. My expectations were not realized here.
Fighting the Good Fight - D.G. Hart and John Muether - I'm sure that I had never before rendered the amount of respect or appreciation due academic historians, but the re-read of this OPC history kindled such a pride and admiration for the OPC founders so as to prove the historians' worth. With disgust and shear disbelief I was reacquainted with the contents of the Auburn Affirmation of 1924. With great sorrow and remorse did I relive the mockery of a trial that put Machen and others out of Princeton and the PC (USA). Yet how great it is to be reminded that a sovereign God is ruling his Church, despite such bursts of wickedness that have tarnished her. Praise the Lord for the OPC.
Lest We Forget - Robert K. Churchill - A personal, pastoral account of the terrible events in 1920's/30's American Presbyterianism. Churchill's perspective is seemingly innocent as a child's yet buttressed with the conviction of truth and right doctrine that so characterized the founders of the OPC. A pleasure to re-read.
Winnie the Pooh - A. A. Milne (five reads in four months!) - This is the first chapter book I've read with Liam at bed time, and he has not let me read anything else since September! The illustrations are scant in number and basic in form, but the stories have kept Liam's attention every night. The language is as cute and British as the characters. I am not ashamed to state that I have posted some of my favorite quotes as Facebook stati. A must for the Gahagan and J.V. Pearce family shelves.
Other People's Love Letters - edited by Bill Shapiro - In the uber-fluff column. Although not affiliated with the Postsecret project, this is essentially the love letter version of those collections. Very few worthwhile reads amidst a sea of smut, poor spelling, and melodrama.
The Great Bridge - David McCullough - After starting in August, I only just finished in late December. I never would have imagined something in the history genre would have kept my attention through 562 pages, but I remain unalterably impressed with McCullough's storytelling abilities. I found the descriptions of old Manhattan and Brooklyn particularly fascinating, and delighted to read about streets I know fairly well through work projects. The chapters recounting the sinking of the caissons were unbelievable in the truest sense of the word. A Fantastic Book.
A Boy's Will - Robert Frost - The only regret I have about reading Robert Frost in 2011 is that I had not read him sooner. North of Boston will be an early read of 2012, no doubt.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Every spring, I am more and more saddened to hear reports from the boys of our church when I ask them what sport will take them out onto the newly greened grass. It was once unusual for a boy to respond that he signed up for a spring sport other than baseball, but the opposite is increasingly true--the boys I know rarely play baseball. Below are what I think are some contributing factors:
Baseball involves a lot of rules. Soccer involves few. A boy can play soccer effectively if he understands five basic instructions: "1) Put the ball into that goal; don't let the ball go into your own goal. 2) Only the goalie can use his hands. 3) Throw the ball in if the other team kicks it out of bounds. 4) Stay onside. 5) Don't foul." The explanation of the Infield Fly Rule alone is more complicated. Sure, the basic operating rules of baseball are simple enough, but an alien observer could explain very few of the rules of the game after merely watching others play baseball. Many of the rules are tied to specific or rare circumstances and some would even seem to be contradictory.
Baseball requires critical thinking and planning. Soccer decisions are mostly reactive. Generally speaking, a boy can learn to play soccer better just by giving it a try. It doesn't take expert instruction to realize that he has a better chance of coming into possession of the ball if he remains in open space; he will quickly realize that dribbling the ball too much often results in a turn-over. A boy can even improve his game IQ just by mimicking better players. Conversely, to play defensive baseball in even the most basically effective way, a boy needs to spend a significant amount of time considering what to do with the baseball if and when it is hit to him. To play even the simplest position in baseball, right field, one needs to have considered at least four different circumstances before the fall is fielded every time the ball is fielded. Every time a new batter comes to the plate, the right fielder needs to have considered: How many outs are there? What runners are on base and what is their configuration? Where should I throw the ball if I catch a fly ball? Where should I throw the ball if I field a single or a double? If the ball comes to a soccer player's feet, he usually only needs to decide if he will pass, dribble, or shoot.
Baseball is not fast-paced. Soccer is fluid and continuous. Although a baseball game is highly segmented into shorter, individual pieces--each batter, each half of an inning--to the ignorant or uninterested observer, it can seem to drag on. From afar, there is not much difference between watching players in a baseball field and watching someone do yoga--there are very few moving parts. Despite the numerous complaints about boring World Cup games, the ball is continually moving in a soccer game and players are almost never stationary.
Baseball involves failure on an individual level. Contrasted with youth soccer, in which an average field player will almost never be perceived to have "blown it," failure is built into the game of baseball. On average, Derek Jeter strikes out every six at-bats. Joel Pearce hit safely in exactly one at-bat during the 1995 Hackettstown Little League season and didn't really come close in the other 30-something. Errant throws, botched ground balls, and dropped flies are all more likely to occur than be avoided in any one inning of any Little League game. When a baseball player misses a fly ball or strikes out, the failure is acutely individual. The team doesn't strike out--little Johnny strikes out. Goalie is the only position in soccer where failure perceived to have been individual. No casual observer blames the other ten players when the ball gets by the goalie, but everyone unfairly blames Bill Buckner for blowing an entire World Series in one play.
Baseball requires a significant group in order to play even a casual game. Nearly every other sport can be enjoyed with a reduced number of players. One-on-one basketball is extreme as an exception, but 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 hockey, football, and soccer all very closely resemble the original sport when adjusted to accommodate a low turn-out of players. Even a drastic modification of the playing field and rules still requires in excess of ten baseball players to enjoy baseball competitively. The group needs a field, bases, a bat, enough gloves for the field positions, and a baseball. Soccer can be played with a ball and two trash cans in a street.
I think that reduced attention spans and a general avoidance of failure-rich activities are the most disturbing culprits in the reasons baseball is losing ground. I have not even mentioned the decline in black Major League stars, World Series games starting at 9:00 p.m. EST, or the glut of other extra-curricular activities as tertiary contributing factors.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Christianity and Liberalism - Doctrine
It wasn't until I left home for Geneva College that I ever came across someone who confidently asserted that doctrine was not an important aspect to the Christian life. Before my time in Beaver Falls, PA, I had certainly met others who by their practice showed that doctrine had no place in their life. Yet on the campus of a reformed Christian college I first came to know many who tried to intellectually defend the idea.
"My church doesn't really get caught up in confessions and creeds--we just read and teach the Bible," a friend would humbly boast. "No creed but Christ," and "Deeds, not Creeds" are popular phrases among those of like mind. Is a higher state of Christianity being achieved by claiming to reject doctrine? Can all creeds be reconciled with each other? Is the Sermon on the Mount and the life/example of Jesus all we need in this life?
The second chapter of J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, "Doctrine," deals with some of these seemingly innocuous conjectures. The entire text can be found here. Any boldface in the excerpts below are my emphasis.
“At the outset, we are met with an objection. ‘Teachings,’ it is said, ‘are unimportant; …creeds are merely the changing expression of a unitary Christian experience, and provided only they express that experience they are all equally good. The teachings of liberalism, therefore, might be as far removed as possible from the teachings of historic Christianity, and yet the two might be at bottom the same.’...Such is the way in which expression is often given to the modern hostility to ‘doctrine.’ But is it really doctrine as such that is objected to, and not rather one particular doctrine in the interests of another? Undoubtedly, in many forms of liberalism it is the latter alternative which fits the case. There are doctrines of modern liberalism, just as tenaciously and intolerantly upheld as any doctrines that find a place in the historic creeds. Such for example are the liberal doctrines of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. These doctrines are, as we shall see, contrary to the doctrines of the Christian religion. But doctrines they are all the same, and as such they require intellectual defense. In seeming to object to all theology, the liberal preacher is often merely objecting to one system of theology in the interests of another. And the desired immunity from theological controversy has not yet been attained.”
“If all creeds are equally true, then since they are contradictory to one another, they are all equally false, or at least equally uncertain. We are indulging, therefore, in a mere juggling with words. To say that all creeds are equally true, and that they are based upon experience, is merely to fall back upon that agnosticism which fifty years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the Church. The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp. Very different is the Christian conception of a creed. According to the Christian conception, a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.”
“But if any one fact is clear, on the basis of this evidence, it is that the Christian movement at its inception was not just a way of life in the modern sense, but a way of life founded upon a message. It was based, not upon mere feeling, not upon a mere program of work, but upon an account of facts. In other words it was based upon doctrine.”
“The primitive Church was concerned not merely with what Jesus had said, but also, and primarily, with what Jesus had done. The world was to be redeemed through the proclamation of an event. And with the event went the meaning of the event; and the setting forth of the event with the meaning of the event was doctrine. These two elements are always combined in the Christian message. The narration of the facts is history; the narration of the facts with the meaning of the facts is doctrine. ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried’--that is history. ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me’--that is doctrine. Such was the Christianity of the primitive Church.”
“The new law of the Sermon on the Mount, in itself, can only produce despair. Strange indeed is the complacency with which modern men can say that the Golden Rule and the high ethical principles of Jesus are all that they need. In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be, we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and how shall we attain to that righteousness of the heart which Jesus demands? …The Sermon on the Mount, like all the rest of the New Testament, really leads a man straight to the foot of the Cross.”
“Let us not deceive ourselves. A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls.”
“As a matter of fact, however, in the modern vituperation of ‘doctrine,’ it is not merely the great theologians or the great creeds that are being attacked, but the New Testament and our Lord Himself. In rejecting doctrine, the liberal preacher is rejecting the simple words of Paul, "Who loved me and gave Himself for me," just as much as the homoousion of the Nicene Creed. For the word "doctrine" is really used not in its narrowest, but in its broadest sense. The liberal preacher is really rejecting the whole basis of Christianity, which is a religion founded not on aspirations, but on facts. Here is found the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity--liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man's will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”
“It is often said that the divided condition of Christendom is an evil, and so it is. But the evil consists in the existence of the errors which cause the divisions and not at all in the recognition of those errors when once they exist.”