Tuesday, January 4

Ben's Top Ten List

My good friend, Ben House, just couldn't wait to one-up my top ten list from yesterday's blog! He had to get in his picks--and lo and behold, there are no overlaps! Great picks; just different! So here they are, Ben's nods to his best books of 2004:

My wife has a real problem. I don’t know if it’s characteristic of all women or just her. She doesn’t understand the nature of work. By that I mean real work, the kind of work that I do. It’s not that my wife does not work hard herself; she just does not grasp my great labors.

Let me illustrate this. Most evenings, she is in the kitchen for several hours cooking and cleaning. Along with that she is bathing the children and getting clothes and lunches ready for the next day. Meanwhile I am at my workstation; some would call it a couch. I prop up several pillows, adjust the lamp, and read. Usually I have several books to read from along with a magazine or two. I would love to be doing housework or home repairs or rebuilding a carburetor, but I have to read. First, I have to read my homework assignments for the classes I teach: I cannot expect my students to read if I am not reading. Second, I have to read from books related to the subjects I teach. Since I teach history and literature, almost every book ever written is related to our current classroom topics. Then I have to read something as a diversion, a bit of cultural rounding not found in the ongoing required reading. And what about my soul? I have to read something to nourish the soul.

To add to this marital problem, I have over the past year been successful at writing book reviews that have been published or posted on the Internets (plural by executive Presidential decree). Now more than ever I have to read; then I have to write—this too is work. I keep explaining to my wife how important my book reviews and articles are to my literary career. She keeps asking a most unliterary question, “What do they pay?” Once in a fit of anger I responded by saying, “I guess you would prefer if I were a lawyer and made millions of dollars and hated my job.” Her answer to that was likewise not very literary.

In the future, I hope someone does do a review of my reviews. For now I have to settle for what future biographers will call ‘the years of obscurity.’ In this time of obscurity, I have found much delight in ranking and commenting upon my favorite reads over the past year. Now that 2005 is here, I can now announce my favorite books read from 2004.

1. The Genevan Reformation and the Founding of America by David Hall (Lexington Books, 2003). Bible believing people are being given the credit (or blame) for Pres. Bush’s reelection. But Christians have roots in this land preceding the recent election. America’s founding and greatness can be ascribed in large part to our Christian heritage. (Of course, the real credit and glory is God’s alone.) In particular, America was mainly founded and established by John Calvin’s theological heirs. Dr. Hall’s book proves this case overwhelmingly in this book, which is vital to understanding America’s colonial and early national history. Along with Calvin, other continental European Christians, Puritans in England, and Covenanters in Scotland laid the groundwork for what would become the American experiment. Much of the book focuses upon these Christian political thinkers and followers of Calvin. Massachusetts was once chocked full of Puritans and New Jersey was once brimming with Presbyterians. This book has no shallow end, but it is worth the effort to swim through.

2. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein. In the 1964 election, there were only five red states. Only about 40% of the American voters cast ballots for the conservative Republican candidate. The campaign was so divisive that it would have made Michael Moore look like Santa Claus. The astounding victory of the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson seemed to assure a golden age of Big Brother-Great Society Liberalism. The conservative movement looked like the last old dinosaur limping off in search of a blade of grass. But some things flame up quickly and some things smolder for a long time. The spark that made the difference was Ronald Reagan, who made his maiden political address during the 1964 campaign. Any study of current American politics should begin with this book.

3. Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford Press, 2004). Everyone knows the painting—a stern Washington standing at the helm of the boat crossing the ice filled Delaware River. This is a wonderful account not only of the battle of Trenton, but of the whole campaign with an overview of the War for Independence. Fischer is a fine historian who writes with wit and eloquence. He has taken one of American history’s most exciting stories and told it fully and told it well. This book shows how Washington’s leadership, blessed by providential circumstances, turned the course of the war. Before the crossing of the Delaware, the American cause looked hopeless; after the crossing, the British commanders began losing hope of winning the war.

4. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi (Free Press, 2002). Francis Schaeffer once said that most people get their worldviews the same way they get the measles. Not so with Lewis and Freud. Both of these men carefully and laboriously erected worldviews based on upbringing, on World War I, on their examination of religious beliefs, and on their prodigious reading and thinking. Freud abandoned his father’s Jewish beliefs for atheism. Lewis abandoned atheism for Christianity. Read a hundred writers and thinkers and you will still have to narrow the choices down to either the worldview of Lewis or Freud. This may be one of the most defining studies of the 20th century ever written.

5. The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (A New Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Everyman’s Library). One of my yearly reading patterns is to tackle a great big Russian novel each summer. Last year I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; this year Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. My Bulgarian friend, Bojidar Marinov, a true intellectual Christian thinker, says that Americans overlook lots of great Russian writers besides Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I do not have enough summers even to read those two giants. I did not enjoy The Idiot while I was reading it. I was often as confused and lost as any American would be in a vast Russian landscape. But if it’s a classic, I plod on. Only after I finished the book and backed away did I see it. The message is that in this warped and wicked world, a truly good man, trying to save it, is really only an idiot. Dostoevsky reminds us that only in Christ’s atoning work is there any hope.

6. Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. This book appealed to me because of a growing interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and a long time interest in World War I and the Twentieth Century. Tolkien was part of the university-educated class of men who made up the bulk of the British army’s officer corps. These bright young lads, fresh from the fields of soccer and from the halls of Oxford and Cambridge, headed off to war carrying copies of The Iliad. Not many survived the horrors of trench warfare. In the introduction to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien points out that only one of his close friends survived the war. Tolkien himself survived the war itself because, providentially, he became ill and was removed from active duty. More amazingly, he survived the pessimistic hopelessness that engulfed the Lost Generation of the war’s survivors. The battlefields of WWI would be recreated in the descriptions of Mordor, but the merry men of the Shire, not the evil minions of Mordor, would ultimately triumph in Tolkien’s Christian vision.

7. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. Re-reading this book for school last fall, it was a case of love at third sight. Now Cooper has his critics, most notably and enjoyably, Mark Twain. Cooper’s style is wordy, his dialog stilted, the action slow, and the characters somewhat flat. But this man created the American novel; he was the first to write of American Indians; and his narrative of Natty Bumpo and his Indian companion Chingachgook during the French and Indian War is a first rate adventure. This book deals with the tenuous nature of man’s time on earth. The time of the Red Men was ending. The British and the French were fighting for land neither would ultimately possess. The American heirs to the land had to learn how to survive in it and how to keep it. Lots of great themes emerge in the book: Race and ethnic distinctions, the necessity of violence for survival, and balancing the advance of civilization with the preservation of the land.

8. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton. Reading G. K.C. makes me realize that if I were 18 and had read and discovered what I have now read and discovered, I would be smart. Being way past 18, I am one sad but wise fellow. If I could trade my college degree (throwing in a master’s in education for good measure) for a thorough knowledge of Chesterton’s works, I would be far better off. No study of Antiquity or early man can be complete without reading this book. This book so pulverizes many of the false assumptions of Darwinian science and evolutionary sociology that one wonders how the enemy yet stands. This book was a landmark in the long path to C. S. Lewis’s conversion. It is worthy of many readings.

9. Quo Vadis by Henrik Sienkiewicz. This is a long novel set in the time period after the Book of Acts. It humanizes the story of the spread of the Christian faith in Rome, the persecutions under Nero, and the conflict between Christianity and Paganism. Although it is fiction, it nevertheless warms the soul and fleshes out the history of a critical period of the Christian faith. George Grant recommends the recent translation of this Christian epic done by W.S. Kuniczak, published by Hippocrene Books.

10. Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson. Two years ago, Hanson’s book Carnage and Culture was my #1 pick of the year. The greatest fault of this book is its brevity. It covers aspects of three battles: the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, the Battle of Shiloh in the American War Between the States, and a battle from the Peloponnesian War. The ‘ripples’ Hanson deals with are all of the unintended consequences of battle. The consequences go beyond winners and losers and battlefield statistics: Every life connected with the battle is changed forever. Hanson’s military writings are all outstanding. His book Who Killed Homer? (coauthored by John Heath) is an excellent survey of Greek literary achievements and modern academic embarrassments.

Ten great books. (More detailed book reviews by me are available on numbers 1-7). There were many other good books and authors read, taught, enjoyed, dipped into, and gleaned from, all of whom did not make the rank. Authors like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Virgil, Aristotle, Paul Johnson, Augustine, and George Grant will have to rest on their own laurels without my coveted honors.

For me now, it’s back to the couch. I have a new stack of books that I got for Christmas and my December 28 birthday. My wife is laboring away in the kitchen, and I too must get to work.

One Disaster After Another

We are all too quick to forget. The fact is, we live in a world of woe. Sin has ravaged God’s good creation in horrific ways. The stunning destruction of life in the tsunami disaster this past week, only highlights the fact that history is often little more than a mind-boggling, bone-jarring, and soul-wrenching litany of sorrows—making the very real and substantial hope of the Gospel all the more remarkable. Consider:

1556: In the Chinese province of Shensi the most deadly earthquake in history resulted in an astonishing 830,000 deaths.

1976: Tangshan, China suffered an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale. Twenty square miles of the vast city was utterly devastated. Three years later, the New China News Agency released figures following the inaugural Congress of the Chinese Seismological Society which claimed 242,000 dead and 164,000 injured. But, the U.S. Geological Society estimated that the actual death toll was probably nearer 655,000.

1642: Chinese provincial rebels destroyed the Kaifeng seawall; as a result more than 300,000 people drowned in the coastal floodwaters.

1970: Some 200,000 people in eastern Pakistan were swept away to their deaths by a cyclone-driven tidal wave from the Bay of Bengal.

1138: A deadly earthquake in Aleppo, Syria claimed the lives of at least 230,000 people.

856: Multiple historical records indicate that more than 200,000 people were killed in central Persia (modern Iran) in one of the deadliest earthquakes on record.

1920: In Jiangsu Province, China, an earthquake measuring 8.6 in magnitude killed more than 200,000 people.

1927: A magnitude 7.9 earthquake claimed approximately 200,000 victims in and around Xining, China.

1923: The Great Kanto Earthquake, estimated at 7.9 in magnitude, destroyed one third of Tokyo and most of Yokohama, leaving 2.5 million people homeless. The quake resulted in the Great Tokyo Fire. Floods followed as the rivers Fukuro Chiyo and Takimi burst their banks. At least 143,000 people were killed, although unofficial estimates say as many as 300,000 may have died.

1991: A cyclone killed over 131,000 and left as many as 9 million homeless in southeast Bangladesh. But thousands more died from hunger and water-borne diseases in the weeks and months afterward.

1948: An earthquake measuring 7.3 in magnitude killed at least 110,000 people in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

1228: More than 100,000 people drowned in Friesland, when a North Sea storm surge flooded much of Holland’s lowlands.

1908: The city of Messina was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake. The death toll ranged anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 throughout Sicily and southern Italy. A tidal wave followed, causing even more devastation to the town of Reggio across the straits.

1755: An earthquake leveled much of the city of Lisbon and was felt as far away as southern France and North Africa. More than 70,000 were killed.

1970: An earthquake measuring 7.8 magnitude destroyed the northern Peruvian towns of Casma, Huaraz and Chimbote. A quake-induced rock and snow avalanche on Mt. Huascaran buried the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca. There were some 66,794 people killed and more than 400,000 were left homeless.

2003: An earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter Scale left more than 41,000 confirmed dead as the entire ancient city of Bam, Iran collapsed into a heap of rubble.

1985: An earthquake registering 8.1 in magnitude struck central and southwest regions of Mexico, devastating part of the capital city and three coastal states. Somewhere between 12,000 and 25,000 were killed and another 40,000 were injured.

1976: A 7.5 magnitude quake and the resulting mudslides caused horrific destruction just north of Guatemala City, leaving over 23,000 dead, 80,000 people injured, and 1.5 million homeless.

1993: Up to 22,000 people were killed and 36 villages were destroyed after a series of powerful earthquakes rocked western and southern India. The first of the five tremors measured 6.4 in magnitude.

1999: Heavy rains caused catastrophic flooding and mudslides, killing an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 people, in Venezuela’s worst modern-day natural disaster.

The historical evidence is simply that our fallen world is a dangerous world. This is nothing new--despite what the harum-scarum prophecy "experts" may contend. "The whole creation groans for the day of redemption." It always has. And until Christ's triumphant return, it always will.

Monday, January 3

Top Ten List

I decided I would compile a list of the ten best books I read in 2004 a couple of days ago. Even though my reading has been very deliberately ecclectic for the past several years, even I was surprised by what I ended up writing down. Despite the fact that I read a good bit of serious theology, nary a volume from that genre made the list. And I read fiction voraciously, yet only one novel made the list. I love books on art and architecture, but I don't read all that widely in the area--nevertheless, the list seems to be dominated by such books. At any rate, here's my surprising list:

1. On Writing by Eudora Welty (Modern Library) This new collection of old essays is a delight. It is far and away the most inspring book I read this year. It is a very thin volume so I've already read it cover to cover three times. I'm resolved to read this master of Southern fiction more thoroughly this year--there are still a host of her novels and short stories that I have yet to enjoy.

2. Art: A New History by Paul Johnson (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) I read everything Paul Johnson writes if I possibly can. I find his histories indispensible. His essays are delightful. But, it seems to me that this is the book he was born to write. It is monstrously huge, but I when I found out that he had cut nearly 25% of the book out, I lamented that I did not access to those additional 180 pages and 72 illustrations and color plates.

3. Building Codes: The Aesthetics of Calvinism in 17th Century France by Catherine Randall (Penn) This book is stunning. It brilliantly combines several of my deepest passions: Reformation history, architecture, worldview applicability, and prophetic clarity. It also is adorned with fabulous pen and ink renderings of some of the most amazing buildings in the history of the modern world.

4. The Complete Works of Hans Rookmaaker (Piquant) This splendid six-volume set is a gold mine of wisdom and insight. Rookmaaker, who was a friend and aesthetic mentor to Francis Schaeffer, was a prolific art historian and critic who laid the philosophical foundations for a whole new generation of Christian artistic dynamism.

5. To the Lost City by Colin Thubron (Chatto and Windus) Thubron is one of my favorite contemporary novelists and perhaps the best travel writer currently working today. He combines both of his very different disciplines in this remarkable novel of cultural clashes, psychological tensions, and interpersonal interactions. And he undertakes it all with a prose style that is breathtakingly beautiful.

6. The School of Infancy by Jan Comenius (Chapel Hill) This classic work from the father of modern Christian education outlines his vision for Reformational and Classical education. It is a vision that is as relevant, applicable, and essential today as it was three centuries ago.

7. Modern Painters by John Ruskin (Hurst) This three volume set represents Ruskin's finest and most eccentric work of criticism. Here the 19th century's most sage observer of aesthetics ranges widely over the whole field of artistic vision. I felt like I had gotten several semesters of art school under my belt by the time I had turned the final page.

8. Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd (Doubleday) I try to read everything Ackroyd writes too--but he is even harder to keep with than Paul Johnson is. In this volume, he looks at the uniqueness of English literature and the peculiar culture it has developed. His wide knowledge is a marvel in and of itself--but to convey that knowledge so coherently is really beyond fathoming. This is a book to savor over long winter evenings by the fireside with one of those C.S. Lewis-sized cups of tea at the ready.

9. Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile by Joseph Pearce (HarperCollins) The prolific biographer of Chesterton, Belloc, Wilde, Tolkien, and Lewis has delivered another tour de force. Solzhenitsyn is sorely neglected by the literatti and this work shows why. All the more reason to distrust the literatti! All the more reason to read the entire Solzhenitsyn corpus!

10. Colossus: The Price of America's Empire by Niall Ferguson (Penguin) If I could make a required reading list for every elected official in Washington, I would probably create quite a pile of classics. But, at least two of the books I would select are brand new: Niall Ferguson's Empire published two years ago and Colossus published this last year. These are both are literate, wise, witty, sober, and thoroughly sane--but somebody please sneak this newest one into the White House! And hurry!