Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Modern Verbicide

Yesterday, I recommended a new book of devotionals based on the writings of C. S. Lewis. Today, I’d like to give you a sample of what you will find inside. One of Lewis’s lesser-known works is Studies in Words, which is primarily academic. However, there are salient points from those pages that apply to everyone. Here’s one entry that deals with the meanings of words, and how we often dilute those meanings. It begins with a quote from Lewis, then commentary, and closes with a verse from the Scripture:

Verbicide, the murder of a word, happens in many ways. Inflation is one of the commonest.

Through language we can be used by God as his means of healing in the world, to bring hope, light, freedom, comfort, encouragement, joy. But we can also dull language’s capacity to be used for God’s purposes by stretching words beyond true meaning. Lewis had cause to critique this misapplication. What strength or truth is there in the description “God is love,” when the same descriptor is lazily parceled out to describe not only relationships but also our affinities for clothes, desserts, and sports? Awesome has long since been worn out from common overuse and underappreciation, so that it no longer approaches an accurate description of God.

In speech and in print, divergent meanings are crowded into one word without thought, resulting not in the communication of ideas or truth but merely in noisy air. Words are “puffed up” until they have no substance and have lost any power to heal or impart grace. With such flabby language, how can we hope to communicate God’s message to the world, a message that is truly awesome and incredible, literally unbelievable apart from his Spirit?

Perhaps this seems an esoteric point, something to be reserved for grammarians and English professors. But God clearly values meaning and precision in language. Think of God’s careful preservation of his Holy Word. Think of Jesus’ pronouncement that not a letter of the law would be eliminated or lost (see Matthew 5:18). Consider also his condemnation of elaborate vows: “Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will’ or ‘No, I won’t'” (Matthew 5:37).

Above all, think of God’s painstaking sacrifice of living and suffering as the Word made flesh in order to communicate the gospel in a way that his human creation could understand. View your words as a gift and a tool, and ask God to help you sharpen them so that you will be better equipped to speak truth to those around you.

I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. Matthew 12:36

The Soul of C. S. Lewis

Over the past few months, I’ve been using one particular book as a devotional. I was intrigued by the concept when I first read about it and hoped it would live up to its promise. It has.

If you are looking for a thought-provoking book to help you focus on Christian spirituality, I recommend you try The Soul of C. S. Lewis: A Meditative Journey through Twenty-Six of His Best-Loved Writings.

All of Lewis’s classics are represented here: each book in the Chronicles of Narnia series; his space trilogy; his autobiography, Surprised by Joy; his “devilish” work, The Screwtape Letters; other fanciful offerings such as The Great Divorce, The Pilgrim’s Regress, and Till We Have Faces; one of his best apologetic essays, The Abolition of Man; what I consider to be one of the most insightful sermons of all time, “The Weight of Glory”; and the poignant A Grief Observed, which reveals how Lewis dealt with the the death of his wife.

The editors also include some lesser-known works that normally might have a more restricted, scholarly audience, yet they draw worthy lessons from these as well, applicable to anyone, scholar or not.

Sections are titled “Pilgrimage,” “Temptation and Triumph,” “Going Deeper,” and “Words of Grace.” Within each section are six chapters, each with an introduction and ten separate meditations from a specific book. Each meditation begins with a quote from the work and ends with an applicable scriptural passage.

The next two days I want to take a break from political commentary and provide instead samples from this worthwhile volume. I hope you find the excerpts edifying.

Palin's America by Heart

I bought Sarah Palin’s new book, American By Heart, just before Christmas, knowing I would have time to read it before my new semester began. George Bush’s book took priority, since it was longer, so I didn’t finish Palin’s book until last weekend—an appropriate time to complete it as it coincided with the shooting in Tucson and all the accusations against Palin. The image presented by the far Left, that she is vitriolic [last week’s favorite word, later followed by “civility”] and uses rhetoric that spurs people on to violence, cannot be sustained in light of what Palin herself writes. I wonder if any of those who hate her have taken the time to read what she actually has written?

Unlike her earlier autobiography, which naturally concentrated on her upbringing, her family, and her experiences as the vice-presidential candidate, this new book provides the opportunity for her to express what she really believes about government, the place of America in the world, and the significance of religious roots for the health of our society. It allows her to construct a framework, or worldview, within which to understand her positions on the issues that confront us all, whether in culture or in politics.

Palin also makes extensive use of quotes from a panoply of conservative thinkers and politicians from Alexis de Tocqueville to Calvin Coolidge to one of her favorites and mine, Ronald Reagan. I was also gratified that she recognized the value of Whittaker Chambers in our history.

Yet she doesn’t confine herself to conservatives, pulling excerpts from speeches by John F. Kennedy and others not of her political stripe—even from Barack Obama himself.

Here’s a quick rundown of the emphases of the book:

Chapter one, “We the People,” stresses the significance of the nation’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. God-given rights, as posited in the Declaration, and fidelity to the limits of government’s power, as delineated in the Constitution, are cornerstones of liberty.

She turns in chapter two to an appreciation of those who serve in the military, contrasting that appreciation with the disdain shown by Hollywood toward the armed forces, where a reflexive anti-Americanism often surfaces. She also quotes freely from John McCain’s account of his time as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Her respect for McCain’s service is genuine.

From the military, Palin segues into an examination of the concept of American exceptionalism. Is American exceptional? In what sense? Here is where she draws on the writings of Tocqueville to highlight what an eighteenth-century Frenchman saw when he visited this country. America is not perfect, she is clear to note, but it is exceptional in many ways. The problem is that some national leaders no longer believe in that exceptionalism.

Family, parenting, and the pro-life message come next. Here’s where Chambers enters the picture as she relates his account of how meditating on the intricate design of his daughter’s ear led him to think of a Creator.

Her chapter on Mama Grizzlies contains her concept of feminism, a feminism that empowers women but doesn’t degrade men or try to erase the distinctions between the sexes. That leads into a discussion of the value of hard work, which she contrasts with the self-esteem culture that seems to dominate our society today.

In the final three chapters, Palin focuses on the importance of religious belief for all of life and the nation. Without being preachy, she nevertheless traces how religious beliefs have been the foundation for our society from the beginning. Never, though, does she imply that government should step in and force religion on anyone. In fact, she quotes former attorney general John Ashcroft saying, “It’s against my religion to impose my religion on others.”

Palin’s conclusion is entitled “Commonsense Constitutional Conservatism,” and if she does decide to run for the presidency, I believe this will be her slogan.

Do I have any criticisms of the book? Well, I don’t share her belief that 12-Step programs are part of a religious revival. In fact, I believe they do a disservice by calling something a disease that is actually a sin. I also think she could have cut back a little on some of the quotes. Of course, that comes from my academic milieu, where you don’t want to overdo the quotations. Yet those are quibbles when compared with the positive message she shares and the agreement I have with the other 99% of the book.

For those who believe Sarah Palin is a danger to America, that she is a purveyor of hatred, I challenge them to read this book. They won’t agree with her but they might see a different person than the stereotype they have adopted. If they really believe in civility, they will take this first step and not fall into a stereotype of their own:

Is that really how they wish to be perceived?

Bush's Decisions

Over Christmas, I took the opportunity to read former President Bush’s new book Decision Points. I did so for two reasons: first, I really wanted to “hear” what he had to say; second, as an American historian, I need to be up to speed on how this former president defends his actions.

Let me begin with what I consider to be its strengths.

The first strength is Bush’s informal writing style. You get the impression this is exactly how he would express himself if you were sitting across the table from him, asking him questions. There is a personableness in the writing that is attractive. You connect with the man.

Second, I appreciate his unapologetic appeal to his Christian faith as his motivation for not only his policies but for all of his life. He does not artificially separate faith from action, personal or governmental.

Third, I highly recommend his chapters dealing with the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. He takes the reader through that awful day in American history as seen through the eyes of the one most responsible for an American response. One understands how difficult it was for him to know what he should do next, yet he explains clearly why he came to his decisions on how to deal with terrorism. The title of the book is appropriate. He does focus on key decisions.

Probably the most significant decision for his presidency was whether to go forward into Iraq. This chapter is a step-by-step analysis of all the twists and turns of the diplomatic thrust to avoid war, and then the rationale for finally giving the go-ahead. Bush is particularly effective in detailing the actions of Saddam and the manner in which he thumbed his nose at international law and his manifold violations of the conditions he had agreed to at the end of the Gulf War.

Bush also clearly explains why he thought WMDs existed within Iraq. He goes to great pains to document the intelligence regarding WMDs, and just as great pains to show that nearly all congressional Democrats at the time agreed with this conclusion. He includes vote tallies on the congressional resolutions that gave him permission to use the military and identifies key Democrats who favored this action—the very ones who later accused him of lying.

So, as a primer on the rationale for how to conduct a War on Terror, this book is invaluable. I highly recommend these chapters. Even some of Bush’s most vociferous critics have had to come to grips with the necessity of his policies.

It’s on the domestic side of his decisions where I have more fundamental disagreements. He does a fine job of explaining the need for tax cuts and often advocates the vitality of the free market. Yet he then goes on to offer an apologetic for why he had to interfere with the market, especially with the big bailout at the end of his presidency. He says he did it to save the market ultimately, but I don’t find his logic persuasive. I believe he allowed some of his advisors to pull him away from fundamental principles.

Neither does Bush have a great appreciation or commitment to federalism. He sees a need and wants to get the federal goverment involved to solve the problem: No Child Left Behind and the prescription drug bill added onto Medicare are two of the most egregious examples. While I’m sure he is fond of the Constitution, I wish he had been more devoted to following it.

So, yes, I do have criticisms of some of his decisions. Yet one can’t read this book without coming away with a sense of the basic decency of the man. That comes across repeatedly.

George Bush is coming to my university this March as part of our National Leadership Forum. I plan to be there to hear him speak, along with his former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. I will do so with sincere gratitude for his prosecution of a war on terror that is essential to the future of this nation. I will also do so out of respect for a Christian brother who tried to do his best in a very trying time.

Idols of Power

I always like to recommend good books. Usually, I focus on newer releases, but once in a while I want to point out a largely forgotten book that deserves more of an audience. One such book is Herbert Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction.

Schlossberg aims at the various idols men create to take the place of God. One of his chapters, “Idols of History,” I use in my Historiography course. Another, “Idols of Power,” fits nicely in a new course I co-teach called Biblical Principles of Government and Policy. I’d like to offer a few samples from that chapter.

The state has become an idol for many of the elite, Schlossberg notes. They believe that only the state can solve all our problems, both material and spiritual. He remarks, “The state, for these devotees, is messianic in all its essentials, and their politics are directed toward religious ends. The state will provide for us whatever prosperity could not, because it has replaced God. In the hands of theologians of political redemption, the state is an idol.”

He gets to the heart of the problem of the nanny state when he says,

The paternal state not only feeds its children, but nurtures, educates, comforts, and disciplines them, providing all they need for their security. This appears to be a mildly insulting way to treat adults, but it is really a great crime because it transforms the state from being a gift of God, given to protect us against violence, into an idol. It supplies us with all blessings, and we look to it for all our needs. Once we sink to that level, as [C.S.] Lewis says, there is no point in telling state officials to mind their own business. “Our whole lives are their business.”

Even though this book was written in the early 1990s, it clearly analyzes current talk about how we cannot “afford” tax cuts. This mentality betrays an entirely different view of the world and property:

In the United States, federal tax policy illustrates the government’s unconscious rush to be the god of its citizens. When a provision in the tax laws permits the taxpayer to keep a portion of his money, the Internal Revenue Service calls this  “tax expenditure,” or an “implicit government grant.” This is not tax money that the state has collected and expended but money it has allowed the citizen to keep by not taking it. In other words any money the citizen is permitted to keep is regarded as if the state had graciously given it to him. Everything we have is from the state, to which we owe gratitude. In fact, we are the property of the state, which therefore has the right to the fruit of our labor.

It’s an upside-down explanation, but one that is still being used by the Obama administration, which comes from that same worldview, assuming that tax money naturally belongs to the government first.

But of course the little people can never understand the higher thoughts of the elite. As Schlossberg astutely recognizes, they view themselves as the only ones capable of grasping truth [as they perceive it]: “Combining social purpose with expertise sets the stage for a gnosticism in which only the special few have the key to the secrets of the universe.”

Yet, all the while they claim some sort of expertise and special knowledge, one must be careful: “Never ask the enlightened ones about their track record, which is a series of disguised disasters; just accept on faith that they have the secret to life.”

We see this in action in our day: the Obama policies are a disaster, yet they refuse to acknowledge it and continue to instruct us to trust them. They are the experts; they have all the answers. Yet they have no idea what they are doing:

Near the end of the chapter, Schlossberg lays it out plainly: “When loyalty to God disappears, there is no longer a barrier to an omnicompetent state. Social democracy makes society increasingly dependent upon the state for continued sustenance, thereby cementing its bondage.”

The chapter’s final paragraph sounds this warning:

Modern statism is the soured remnant of the Enlightenment idea of inevitable progress. This miserable wreckage, which once heralded joyfully the coming of the secular version of the kingdom of God, now hoarsely wheezes that if we worship it we shall receive salvation from extinction. The danger is not to be taken lightly. Woebegone as it is, with a record of fatuous incompetence, dishonesty, irrationality, and bloody repression almost beyond description, statism nevertheless boasts a hoard of fanatical adherents. Ignorant devotees or cunning and cynical hypocrites, they give it power and, equipped with modern technologies, make it a fierce and implacable enemy.

This is an enemy we need to overcome.

Advice from Screwtape

I first read The Screwtape Letters more than 35 years ago. This little book remains one of C. S. Lewis’s most fascinating ventures. He puts himself into the place of a senior devil named Screwtape, who writes advice to a junior devil called Wormwood. It’s a witty piece of writing and its popularity continues today. In fact, if one had to trace the beginning of Lewis’s emergence into the public consciousness, one must begin with Screwtape. Even Time magazine recognized this when it put Lewis on one of its covers.

One of the most memorable of these “letters” for me is the following, from which I will excerpt a significant section:

My Dear Wormwood,

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.

One of our greatest allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our bolder tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.

All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands. …

When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.

At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of “Christians” in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial. His mind is full of togas and sandals and armour and bare legs and the mere fact that the other people in church wear modern clothes is a real—though of course an unconscious—difficulty to him. Never let it come to the surface; never let him ask what he expected them to look like. Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

If you’ve never read The Screwtape Letters, please consider this a hearty recommendation.

God, Government, and Eternity

I do a lot of political commentary in this blog. I also write a lot about the role of civil government. As I do, my goal has always been to point to the Biblical principles that undergird my thinking. After all, the name of this blog is Pondering Principles: Reflections on God, Man, and Life. Therefore, I try to offer my comments within that context.

This makes my ponderings different than the typical political commentator. And I know some of you read these musings without the background of a Biblical framework for thinking and/or no personal relationship with the One who made us all. I welcome your readership. Yet you must keep in mind that my starting place for reflecting on politics and government will be distinctly Christian. I actually believe the Bible is the Word of God, that it contains truth that is applicable not only to a personal knowledge of God, but also to every aspect of His creation.

Government is one of His creations.

I’m currently reading a book by Randy Alcorn with a very simple title: Heaven. Yes, I do believe there is a literal heaven, and I agree with Alcorn’s concept that there will be a renewed earth—the New Earth—after Christ returns, and that those who have linked themselves to Him will rule and reign in an eternal sphere.

As Alcorn discusses the nature of this New Earth, he highlights principles that apply on the Old Earth as well, particularly in the area of governance. Stay with me as I share some of his comments that I found especially insightful:

We’ve been conditioned to associate governing with self-promoting arrogance, corruption, inequality, and inefficiency. But these are perversions, not inherent properties of leadership. Ruling involves responsibility—perhaps that’s why some people don’t look forward to it. Some people live in anticipation of retirement, when responsibilities will be removed. Why would they want to take on an eternal task of governing?

He then wants us to refashion our concept of taking on governing responsibilities:

Imagine responsibility, service, and leadership that’s pure joy. The responsibility that God will entrust to us as a reward can only be good for us, and we’ll find delight in it. To rule on the New Earth will be to enable, equip, and guide, offering wisdom and encouragement to those under our authority. We’ve so often seen leadership twisted that we’ve lost a biblical view of what ruling, or exercising dominion, really means. God, ruler of the universe, is living proof that ruling can and should be good.

And what of this concept of leadership? What kind of leader is God seeking, whether here on earth or in eternity?

Some of the most qualified people to lead in Heaven will be those who don’t want to lead now. Some who are natural leaders here but have not been faithful will not be leaders in Heaven. Remember, it’s not the proud and confident who will inherit the earth and rule it; it’s the meek. And even the meek will be stripped of their wrong motives and the temptation to exploit others. We’ll have no more skepticism and disillusionment about government. Why? Because we’ll be governed by Christlike rulers, and all of us will be under the grand and gracious government of Christ himself.

So what does this mean about politics on the earth on which we currently reside?

Some Christians err by demeaning and ignoring politics, thereby failing to exercise their God-given stewardship. Others put too much confidence in politics, failing to understand God’s insistence the he alone will establish a perfect government on Earth. … Meanwhile, God calls us to cultural reform and development. Christians should be involved in the political process, and we can do much good, but we should never forget that the only government that will succeed in global reform is Christ’s government.

These comments explain my perspective also. God wants us to work diligently to set up as good a government as possible, yet always with the recognition that perfection will not be achieved in this world at this time. We are to make this world as much a reflection of its Creator as we can, while simultaneously acknowledging that there will be limitations on our efforts. Our endeavors now are just the first steps toward what will become reality in eternity.

My interest in politics and government springs from the basic belief that God is interested in them, too. Everything I say or do in this realm should be an attempt to bring a little more of His life and character into political practices and government policy.

That’s what inspires me to keep writing and teaching.