Archive for the ‘ Book Reviews ’ Category

Modernity & the Church

Impossible PeopleI’m working my way through a new book by Os Guinness called Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization. It diagnoses the problem of the church as it becomes co-opted by modernity.

Guinness says, quite correctly, I believe, that it’s not the frontal attacks of secularism and atheism that do the real damage; rather, it is the seduction and distortion of the faith through modernity that leads us astray and destroys the Christian witness to civilization.

Guinness says that predictions of the disappearance of religion in our culture are off-target. In fact, religion is flourishing, but the nature of the Christian faith has been subtly altered, thereby making it less genuine.

One major change in perception that has changed the faith is the undermining of the whole concept of submission to authority. We have shifted “from a stance under authority to one of preference. . . . All responses are merely a matter of preference.” This is at odds with basic Christianity. “Unique among the gods believed in throughout history, the Lord is transcendent, so what he says is truth, binding truth, because it addresses us as authority. To dilute this authority is to dismiss the Lord himself,” Guinness notes.

The statement “Jesus is Lord” is the essence of Biblical truth. There is no other name through which anyone can be saved.

Our modern world, though, informs us that there is no ultimate authority; we have unlimited choice in life.

From breakfast cereals to restaurants and cuisines to sexual identities and temptations to possible sexual arrangements of all types to self-help techniques and philosophies of life, we are offered an infinite array of choices, and the focus is always on choice as choosing rather than choice as the content of what is chosen. Simply choose. Experiment. Try it out for yourself.

Os GuinnessGuinness goes on: “Our freedom is the freedom to choose, regardless of whether our choice is right or wrong, wise or stupid. . . . Choosing is all that matters. Truth, goodness, and authority are irrelevant.”

In the world at large, this leads to the rejection of any absolute standard. Guinness explains,

Does it matter . . . whether your sister-in-law is straight or lesbian, or your boss is a heterosexual womanizer, a homosexual, or was once a woman? There are different strokes for different folks. We are all different, so who are we to judge? . . . This is my choice. That is yours. We are all free to choose differently, and our choices only amount to different preferences, so who is to say who is right? . . . And what business do any of us have to judge other people’s preferences?

It’s understandable that the world outside the Christian faith would fall for this, but when it shows up in the church, that’s when the faith is compromised and loses its witness of truth to the world.

As Guinness laments, “Christian advocates of homosexual and lesbian revisionism believe in themselves and in the sexual revolution rather than the gospel. They therefore twist the Scriptures to make reality fit their desires rather than making their desires fit the truths of the Scriptures.”

In our seeker-friendly church world, we often exchange the truth for a lie. Guinness quotes from a Christian marketing consultant who said, apparently without any sense of irony, “It is . . . critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign.”

TruthGuinness expresses his shock over such a statement: “The audience is sovereign? No! Let it be repeated a thousand times, no! When reaching out as the church of Jesus, the message of the gospel and Jesus the Lord of the message is alone sovereign—and never, never, never the audience, however needy, however attractive, however prestigious or well-heeled an audience may be.”

While we are to be sensitive to those seeking the truth, we must have truth to offer them. While we are to be all things to all people, the purpose for that admonition is to bring them to the Truth Himself.

Here is the challenge, as Guinness so clearly lays it out:

All Evangelicals should search their hearts. For a generation now the air has been thick with talk of “changing the world,” but who is changing whom?

There is no question that the world would like to change the church. In area after area only the church stands between the world and its success over issues such as sexuality. Unquestionably the world would like to change the church, but does the church still want to change the world, or is its only concern to change the church in the light of the world?

Something is rotten in the state of Evangelicalism, and all too often it is impossible to tell who is changing whom.

I would add that as I survey the current political state of America and the evangelical rush to support, and even promote, a candidate whose worldview and lifestyle is contrary to the Gospel, that I see this rot infecting evangelicalism to its very core.

Who is changing whom?

I applaud Os Guinness’s clarion call that we be the church once more.

Looking for Some Good Reads?

Planets in PerilI have some book reviews for you today.

I’ve been expanding my reading of books about C. S. Lewis. Some of my earliest reading of Lewis was his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I’ve been aware of David Downing’s analysis of these novels, Planets in Peril: A Critical Study of C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy, for quite some time; I finally got around to reading it.

Every Lewis fan has a favorite in this series. Downing does a fine job of interlacing all three of the books, drawing from each of them in every chapter. He uses the thematic approach: Christian vision; elements of classicism and medievalism; portraits of evil; the concept of the spiritual pilgrimage.

While he obviously is deeply appreciative of what Lewis offers in these books, his analysis is exactly that: a critique that doesn’t lend itself to hero worship. He points to what he believes are the positives and negatives of the writing. Needless to say, the positives outweigh the negatives.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the trilogy over the years. Downing’s book is one of those I will have to re-read as well.

Looking for the KingI also was intrigued by another of Downing’s books, Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel. How, I wondered, was he going to incorporate real people into the novel? He follows the quest by an American doctoral candidate to find whatever evidence he can of the truth behind the King Arthur legend.

The author accomplishes his goal. He keeps the narrative focused on the American scholar while bringing the Inklings in as valuable aids in his quest. I agree with Marjorie Lamp Mead of the Wade Center in her recommendation for the book:

David Downing’s homage to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams succeeds masterfully. This is a beguiling and enjoyable read—laced throughout with romance, wry humor, and questions of eternal consequence.

Toward the GleamAmazon always attempts to point you to other books similar to the one you are buying. When I purchased Looking for the King, I was intrigued by one of the options, Toward the Gleam by T. M. Doran. I had never heard of this author or his works, but after reading the synopsis, I thought I would try it. I’m glad I did.

Doran does the same thing Downing does, including the Inklings in a novel that centers around a mysterious book that an Oxford professor finds and attempts to translate. It purportedly tells of an ancient civilization that no one knows existed. Is it fact or fiction? Why does having this book put the professor’s life in danger?

We are taken into the Bird and Baby pub for conversations with Lewis and Owen Barfield. Other characters that grace the pages are G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill. Doran’s method of introducing them is rather unique, though. He never gives the full name, only a first name. So you have to be someone “in the know” to recognize them.

The biggest twist, however, is the identity of the main character, which is never explicitly expressed, but as you read, you slowly come to the knowledge of who he is. I won’t give it away.

I was so delighted with this novel that I’m going to have to try another Doran book very soon.

One more.

At the recent Lewis conference I attended, I saw another book that I had recently put in my Amazon wish list, so I decided to get it, primarily as what I hoped would be a good read on the plane home. I was not disappointed.

CalledCalled: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again by Ryan Pemberton is not the travelogue the title might indicate. Rather, it is a very personal story of struggle in finding God’s will in one’s life. It’s the true story of a young American man who studied at Oxford, hoping to find God’s specific calling on his life.

Along the way, Pemberton not only became president of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society, but actually lived in the Kilns for a year while completing his degree. Although not a novel, it has all the qualities of one as you wonder where the next twist in his life will take him and whether he will ever know for sure to what God is calling him.

Pemberton is a fine writer; he allows you into his life and thinking during his Oxford days—all the doubts, fears, and satisfactions. By the end of the book, you, too, have experienced all those same doubts, fears, and, ultimately, satisfactions.

I recommend Called and now wonder what Pemberton will do if he chooses to write a second book. How will he make it the equal of his first? I wish him well.

So, those are my four recommendations this week. You can be sure when my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, comes out in a few weeks, I’ll have another one to recommend.

America Discovers C. S . Lewis

C. S. Lewis 10My year-long sabbatical in 2014-2015 will soon pay off. The manuscript for my book on C. S. Lewis is now in the hands of the publisher and I’ve secured the Lewis Company’s permission to quote from Lewis sources. I’d like to give you an overview of what to expect in this book.

The revised title is America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact.

Chapter one looks at the relationship between Lewis and America. What was his attitude toward Americans and their country? Did it change over time? What did he like about the land he never got around to visiting and what did he critique about it? What conclusions can we reach about his views on Mother England’s former colony?

Chad WalshThe second chapter introduces Chad Walsh, an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the first American to write a book-length treatment of Lewis’s thought. In fact, Walsh was the first person, American or not, to do so. We discover that he not only met Lewis but became good friends with him.

Walsh not only introduced Americans to Lewis through his Apostle to the Skeptics volume, but he also was instrumental in connecting Lewis to one special person in particular—his future wife.

JoyJoy Davidman Gresham Lewis enters the story in chapter three. An American Jewish woman who rejected religion entirely, she committed herself to the communist vision for the future in her younger days, only to become disillusioned with that false worldview over time. C. S. Lewis filled the vacuum, showing her the way to the true faith. That relationship, which began in letters, blossomed eventually into marriage with Lewis, transforming his bachelor existence in his later years. The joy of that journey together was tested by the pain of cancer and her death, but their marriage is a testament to the essence of a love inspired by God.

Walter Hooper 1963How can one know Lewis personally for only a few months yet feel as if one has known him for many years? Walter Hooper experienced that as a young American who arrived in Oxford to meet with Lewis for only one afternoon but ended up being a close friend and companion who went on to edit Lewis’s works and ensure he would not be forgotten by future generations. His story is the subject of chapter four.

I”m also grateful to Hooper for communicating directly with me about his personal experiences with Lewis. He continues to be a link to the man who has inspired so many.

Clyde KilbyLewis became friends as well with a number of other academics on the other side of the Atlantic. Some he met in person, others only by letter. He helped fashion their Biblical worldviews, and they returned the favor by publicizing his works in America. Chapter five develops those relationships.

Clyde Kilby of Wheaton College is a prime example. It was through Kilby’s extensive efforts that the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton now exists, not only with the largest collection of Lewis primary materials in America but also as the repository for other well-known British authors, either personal friends of Lewis’s or those who influenced him greatly: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield, and George MacDonald.

Severe MercyA young American who studied at Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken, attributed his conversion to Lewis, first through letters, then as a personal friend. His wife, Davy, also became a Christian by reading Lewis. After Vanauken returned to America to take up a professorship, Davy died a few years later. Lewis’s letters to him through that trying time solidified his faith.

Vanauken’s experience later appeared in a book that is treasured by many believers, A Severe Mercy. I’ve always come away from reading this autobiography deeply moved.

There is a second generation that knew not Lewis, but that owes him a great intellectual and spiritual debt. That generation is also examined in chapter five, along with representatives from American evangelicals who have depended a great deal on Lewis for their respective ministries.

Charles ColsonCharles Colson, caught in the Watergate net as a high-ranking member of the Nixon administration, read Mere Christianity and committed his life to the Lord, resulting in the worldwide ministry of Prison Fellowship. I recall reading Colson’s autobiography, Born Again, shortly after it first appeared in the late 1970s. It was an encouragement to my faith at a crucial time in my life. Lewis’s role in Colson’s journey to faith is recounted in this chapter.

Chapter six delves into the letters Lewis wrote to a number of regular American correspondents over the years. Most of these correspondents are not well known, but Lewis’s patient commitment to helping them understand better the essentials for living a victorious Christian life is central to his responses. He met those correspondents wherever they were along the Christian path and sought to lead them further. This sixth chapter also includes some of his most poignant letters to American children, most of whom contacted him after reading The Chronicles of Narnia books.

CSL FoundationChapter seven details three organizations in America that were established as a result of their appreciation for Lewis’s works: the New York C. S. Lewis Society; the C. S. Lewis Institute; and the C. S. Lewis Foundation. Their ongoing ministries testify to the impact that Lewis’s legacy continues to have on Americans. The Foundation even bought Lewis’s Oxford home, the Kilns, and has made it a study center for visiting Americans.

I’ve begun a connection with the Foundation, presenting a paper last fall at a retreat and preparing one for next month’s conference. It’s a connection I hope to strengthen over the years. I’m also slated to speak at a meeting of the New York C. S. Lewis Society in October; I’m looking forward to that.

Surveys of Americans to deduce how Lewis has influenced their lives form the substance of chapter eight. Two of those surveys, conducted in 1986 and 1996, simply asked for testimonies. The final survey, taken in 2014, expands the questions answered by the respondents and provides an even greater insight into how contemporary Americans view their C. S. Lewis experience. I conducted that final survey myself with the help of the Wade Center.

The ninth, and concluding, chapter offers some analyses by Lewis experts on the extent of his impact on America and reasons for his popularity. After reviewing what the experts say, I close with my own personal evaluation of their insights.

That’s the overview. Publication date will be late summer-early autumn. I’m excited about being able to offer this to those who are interested in understanding the immense impact Lewis has had on Americans.

Book Cover 1My book, The Witness and the President: Whittaker Chambers, Ronald Reagan, and the Future of Freedom, has been out now since early November. I’ve had the opportunity to speak about it before a number of groups locally.

It documents the impact Chambers had on Reagan as the latter read Chambers’s masterful autobiography, Witness. Chambers helped Reagan understand why people would be attracted to communism, and spurred him on to take on communism, which ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The “future of freedom” part of the title refers to an analysis of which of these two key individuals in American history was more accurate in his prediction about how freedom will fare as we move forward in Western civilization.

Chambers was pessimistic, convinced that modern man would shut his ears to the message of civilization’s decline and the need to turn back to God. Reagan, however, saw freedom as the wave of the future, pushed by the desire God placed in everyone to shake off tyranny’s shackles.

I’m pleased to announce that the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, California, has decided to make my book one of its offerings to visitors. The Center is a division of Young America’s Foundation (YAF), which is an organization devoted to teaching high school and college students the principles of American liberty (on a basis of Christian beliefs).

The Center informs me that the book definitely will be useful in its programs. I’m also hopeful that I will be invited at some point to be included as a speaker in those programs.

Reagan Ranch Center

YAF also owns Reagan’s ranch, situated close to Santa Barbara, high up in the nearby mountains. During my sabbatical, I was honored to have been given a personal tour of the ranch. Cross one off my bucket list.

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What a blessing to have the book that was a labor of love for me for so many years now being sold by the organization that has such a close connection to the Reagan legacy.

If you haven’t yet obtained your copy of The Witness and the President, simply click here and be enlightened on the link between Chambers and Reagan.

The book is also being considered for sale in the bookstore of the Reagan Presidential Library. Your prayers for that are solicited as well.

Introduction to Chambers-Reagan

Book Cover 1For those of you who have been thinking about buying my new book on Ronald Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, yet haven’t quite made the commitment, let me provide you with an excerpt from my introduction:

Any author should ask himself certain questions before attempting to write a book. Some immediately come to mind when considering the topic of this book:
• Are there not enough books on Ronald Reagan? Why add another one to the ever-increasing supply?
• Why focus on Whittaker Chambers, a man virtually unknown to the majority of potential readers? How can anyone so marginal to most people’s knowledge be a subject of interest for them?
• A literary agent added another: because Reagan and Chambers never met or wrote to one another, how can there be enough here for a full book? Would it not be better to write an article and be done with it?
There are answers for all these questions.

First, the market will determine if there are enough books on Reagan. At the moment, that market exists. It also may be a market that extends into the future indefinitely. Have historians stopped writing about the American Revolution or the Civil War? Has the final word been spoken about either topic?

20141025_095359Historians have only begun examining the voluminous information concerning Reagan’s life, his beliefs, and the results of his presidency. Most of the material at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, still has not been opened to researchers. The supply of new Reagan books will not be ending anytime soon.

Second, just because someone is virtually unknown is not an excuse for not making him better known. Are books not supposed to increase one’s knowledge? Further, if that relatively unknown individual can be linked to a subject of more general interest, the public is benefited by understanding that linkage.

Chambers with Newspaper of Hiss VerdictChambers deserves more exposure. For many social and political conservatives in America, he is not unknown; he is considered to be a near-legendary figure who helped birth modern American conservatism. George H. Nash, arguably the foremost authority on the history of modern American conservatism, states with respect to Chambers and his accusations against Alger Hiss, “As much as any other event, the Hiss case forged the anti-communist element in resurgent conservatism.”

That leaves the third issue—Reagan and Chambers never met or corresponded, so how can a book be justified? Chambers provided major inspiration for many conservatives in his flight from the Communist Party and in his attempt to reveal its inner workings in America. His autobiography, Witness, seemed to resonate with a broad swath of conservatives, even budding ones such as Reagan.

Reagan’s appearance before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1947 to testify to the communist influence in Hollywood preceded by one year Chambers’s confrontation with Alger Hiss before the same committee. Witness gave Reagan the insight into communism that molded his thinking on the subject as he embarked upon his political career.

Reagan had portions of Witness committed to memory, so impressed was he by the power of Chambers’s writing. Portions of Witness kept showing up in Reagan’s speeches as president, and he posthumously awarded Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for his contribution to American liberty.

Chambers and Reagan are bookends: Chambers inaugurated the battle against communism and Reagan, with help from allies such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, helped bring the Soviet chapter of that movement to a close. Chambers, though despising the word “conservative,” nevertheless helped initiate that movement; Reagan, it can be argued, was the fulfillment of that burgeoning movement, even though the movement continues beyond his administration.

That’s my rationale for the book. I’ll be providing more excerpts in future posts. Hope you find it intriguing enough to get a copy for yourself. Here’s the Amazon link.

C. S. Lewis’s Joy

Joy LewisJoy Davidman Lewis, American wife of C. S. Lewis for the last few years of her short life, has been a subject of both great interest and great controversy for those who love Lewis and his writings. Born a New York Jew, Joy early decided she was an atheist and then completed that portion of her journey as a committed communist. She was fairly well known as a poet in her own right, particularly in the circles in which she ran.

Only after a troubling marriage and the birth of two boys did she begin to question her communism and atheism, and Lewis’s works were instrumental in her Christian conversion. Her marriage fell apart and she moved to Britain primarily to pursue a relationship with her favorite author.

During my year-long sabbatical, as I researched for my book on Lewis’s influence on Americans (still in search of a publisher, for those interested), I read a lot by and about Joy—the short biography written by Lyle Dorsett, the newly released volume of her letters, and her only book written as a result of her conversion, Smoke on the Mountain.

Why was she so controversial? Many of Lewis’s friends were put off by her brashness and apparent arrogance. She also had a tendency to be rather judgmental of others, and her pursuit of Lewis came across as unseemly.

JoyWhen I was attending the Lewis retreat last fall, I sat in on a breakout session with Abigail Santamaria, author of a new book titled Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. It was a most illuminating session as she talked about the struggles of her research and the conclusions she reached about the subject of that research.

Santamaria wanted to find a true heroine, someone she could admire. Instead, she was disappointed by the woman she found who didn’t live up to her expectations. That didn’t mean there weren’t positives about Joy, but Santamaria admitted to some disillusionment as her research progressed.

Her book provides the most complete picture of Joy Lewis ever put into print—the good, the bad, and, yes, sometimes the ugly. I will acknowledge that as I was reading Joy’s letters last year, I also found myself at times wondering if a real conversion had actually taken place, as she was sometimes rather harsh on others. Yet C. S. Lewis knew her better than I, and I doubt he could have been “captivated” by anyone less than Christian.

C. S. Lewis & Joy LewisDuring the question-and-answer session after Santamaria’s presentation, I asked her why Lewis would have been drawn to someone like Joy. She answered without hesitation—he liked someone with whom he could spar intellectually, who would challenge him and test his own arguments and thinking. Lewis scholars acknowledge that Joy was practically his co-author for his novel Till We Have Faces, and that without her influence on his life, another book, The Four Loves, would not have attained the depth it has.

Abigail SantamariaSantamaria also read a portion of her introduction to those of us in attendance. She told of how she had been given a wealth of heretofore unknown primary materials in Joy’s handwriting that she had to pore through. One night she couldn’t sleep. She writes, “The heat had stopped working, and I shivered under my blankets, tossing and turning for hours.”

She gave up trying to sleep and started to look at some of the materials.

And then, huddled under my blankets, I came across a prediction Joy made: “I have wrenched sonnets out of great pain . . . / For unknown followers to find . . . / Some woman who is cold / In bed may use my words to keep her warm / Some future night, and so recall my name.”

Santamaria then writes, “I was no longer freezing, but I shivered.” A providential find? An assurance that God wanted her to complete this work? She concludes,

I had not set out to unearth the particular realities I discovered behind the Shadowlands tale; they were imparted to me, first in the memories of those I interviewed, and finally in Joy’s own words. She left them to be found: she was giving me her blessing.

Santamaria’s book is one of those that is hard to put down if you have an avid interest in Lewis and his life. She writes well, tells a good story, and offers a narrative that flows. It’s clearly the most comprehensive treatment of the life of Joy Davidman Lewis that exists. Interest in Lewis has not ebbed after all these years; Abigail Santamaria’s Joy is a substantive addition to Lewis scholarship.

Women & C. S. Lewis

Clyde Kilby, the man largely responsible for the largest C. S. Lewis repository in America—the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College—wrote an article in December 1953 detailing his personal meeting with Lewis at Oxford.

Before he got to Lewis’s rooms, he wrote, someone led him astray about the nature of the man he was going to meet. Kilby’s wife was accompanying him, and he asked at the college gate “whether there was anything to the report that Mr. Lewis disliked women.” Whoever he spoke with made it seem that there was some truth in the report, so his wife went shopping instead, and he met Lewis by himself.

Rumors of Lewis being antagonistic toward, disdainful of, and/or frightened by women have been bandied about for years. How those rumors got started, why there is no truth behind them, and how Lewis actually did view women and the way he treated them is the subject of a fairly new book that I can heartily recommend.

Women & LewisWhen I attended the C. S. Lewis Foundation fall retreat, Women and C. S. Lewis was a gift for each attendee. It is comprised of short essays by a variety of people, both men and women, well known within the current Lewis academic world.

Edited ably by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key, this volume deals systematically with all pertinent questions about Lewis’s relationships with women.

The first section covers the women who crossed paths with him personally, beginning with his mother who died of cancer when he was just nine years old. Then there is a treatment of the somewhat fuzzy relationship with Mrs. Moore, whom he called his mother for the rest of her life. Joy Davidman naturally is included since she had the greatest impact on his final decade as his wife. His interactions with writer Dorothy Sayers and poet Ruth Pitter are also examined.

Section two then delves into how Lewis depicts women in his novels: Lucy and others in the Narnia series; the Green Lady of Perelandra and Jane Studdock in That Hideous Strength; the highly acclaimed (in heaven, at least) Sarah Smith of The Great Divorce; the positive portrayals in The Pilgrim’s Regress; and of course his fascinating approach to Till We Have Faces, where he writes the entire novel from a woman’s perspective.

A shorter section looks at his poetry and how women are treated (favorably) and section four highlights how Lewis has influenced our current generation’s discussion about the role of women in society and church. Finally, there are essays on how Lewis’s views on women impacted some who speak out publicly today on the issue.

One cannot read this book without dismissing the old canard that Lewis had a problem with women. The arrival of this volume is both timely and welcome. Get it. You will enjoy it.