I am reading, perusing and sometimes devouring the following books in my summer pile (some of them I came across at an old book store in Connecticut, some I actually picked up new, or ordered online, and at least one of these has been lying proleptically beneath other volumes in my library, waiting for its pages to be turned. A few comments on each:
My Grandfather’s Son, A Memoir by Justice Clarence Thomas. It has taken me about a year to get around to this. But I read it through quickly like one would see a movie. Beneath the public life of a man there is always a story. And behind Clarence Thomas there is a good story, an American story that took him from Pinpoint to the Supreme Court of the United States. The story involves our own story as Americans, and the story of faith in Jesus Christ through family strife, poverty, injustice, a grandfather’s eccentricities that would at length mold the man we see, prejudice and pain, love and regret, hope and new life. I commend it highly.
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. For the odd few among us who really care what “Adoro Te Devote” means (“a simple, heartfelt, Eucharistic hymn, the most famous of which would be J.R. Woodford’s (1880, Bishop of Ely) “Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour”, or who seriously would inquire about the Zillerthal Evangelicals were (a body of Protestants, living in Zillerthal, Austria, who left the Roman Catholic Church in 1829 and the following years, were ordered to leave by a decree from the provincial estates of the region, and were resettled at Erdmannsdorft in the Prussian territory), this volume is a treasure. A thank you to Oxford University Press is in order. I am proud of my 1958 edition, though there are, of course, newer ones, newer heresies, more recent innovations, other people who have come on the scene, and so forth. But I am quite content with my edition. It does all that I need it to do.
Romans by John Murray. I like Murray on Romans more than any other. Read Barth on Romans and this. Murray is an interpreter of St. Paul to the Romans. Barth is a preacher of Barth in front of Romans. There is a considerable difference. For excitement you migh want to try one. And for accuracy on the text you will most certainly need to read the other.
Murray on Romans 7 and Romans 11 is worth having the book and reading it from time to time. His conception of what Paul is saying in Romans 11 remains, to me, unassailable. Paul is saying that a large mass of Israel, even as they were hardened and turned away, will be revived and engrafted in to the one true Church. He awaits nothing short of a tremendous revival. I read this and grow excited. For as the Church now encircles the globe, and moves Eastward, I expect that we shall begin to hear of the conversions of souls in the Middle East. And how glorious that will be! When the glorious Gospel of peace quiets the spirits of the children of Ishmael, the world will have to pause. The age-old war will, no doubt, continue, but the preachers of grace will be the very men who today go about so violently. Then they shall be subdued, not by the might of men, but by the power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. And that shall be the final wall to be destroyed. Then, the floodgates of the revival that swept in Europe in the Reformation, and pushed on to the New World as Columbus arrived, and the pilgrims settled this new country in North America and George Whitefield preached the Gospel up and down the colonial coast bringing in masses of people, and as the Methodists and others brought it further west in the United States and throughout Canada, as the Gospel went, through the 19th century missionary movement to the far reaches of the East and into the Pacific islands, and in the Twentieth Century the flood of cleansing revival has baptized South America, and awakened the great peoples of Africa (and I think of men such as my friend Henry Luke Orombi, the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda), has moved upon China and India, will finally break through to the ancient Hebrew peoples and “all Israel shall be saved.” I praise Jesus Christ and look in wonder at what He is doing and want to be part, as I am allowed, to urge this Gospel upon the hearts and minds of others! What more glorious labors could there possibly be?
And all of this from a few lines in Murray’s Romans. He is dry. He is barebones. This is not prose for prose’s sake. This is interpretation for the Church. And it is marvelous in my eyes. I commend him to you.
History of the English Speaking People, “The Birth of Britain” by Sir Winston Churchill. I enjoy reading Sir Winston because no one seemed to see the American century arising quite like him. And it was no assault on his British prejudice, for he saw America as an extension of the British Empire and thus applauded her ascendancy. This first volume in the series, of course, is more about the founding of the British nation and much is said about the place of Rome and the Danes and the Normans. But the way that Sir Winston writes makes one think that he is always going somewhere, and of course he is. He is always concerned with how this English speaking people arose and how they went to the ends of the earth, taking with them their religion (Christianity), their system of government (amalgamated as a supreme democratic rule through the governments of Rome and other invaders), and of course their customs.
If you were to stay with Sir Winston to his conclusion in 1900, then you should read the book that I read last year, The History of the English Speaking People Since 1900 by Andrew Roberts. He opens with this moving scene:
“As the first rays of sunlight broke over the Chatham Island, 360 miles east of New Zealand in the South Pacific, a little before 6:00am on Tuesday, January 1, 1901, the world entered a century that for all its warfare and perils would nonetheless mark the triumph of the English-speaking peoples. Few could have suspected it at the time, but the British Empire would wane to extinction during that period, while the American Republic would wax to such hegemony that it would become the sole global hyper-power. Assault after assault would be made upon the English-speaking peoples’ primacy, each of which would be beaten off successfully, albeit sometimes at huge and tragic cost. Even as the twenty-first century dawned, they would be doughtily defending themselves still.”
But without Churchill’s insights, we would miss the sweeping epic that led us to that moment.
The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944. I have not read a better author on World War Two. An Army at Dawn, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was one of my favorite books two years ago. I devoured it in a few readings. I must say that I taking more time here. But the result is the same. Beyond all others, Rick Atkinson the reporter is helping us to re think the War through his “lower” history of how it felt to the men with boots on the ground.
W.H. Auden, Longer Poems. I love reading Auden as I enjoy reading Donne. Both were men who followed a road to Jesus Christ through a road of self-destructive sins. But their intellect was sharpened by what they saw along the way. I like this book as much for his longer poem called, “For the Time Being” as I do for anything else. This reflection through the Church Year, dedicated to his mother, reveals the faith of Auden, but through a glass darkly, and through moods murky. Auden is not a precise theologian, of course, nor does he convey the sense of God’s grace like Donne does. Indeed, Auden can be as obscure as his personality. But his words provoke a sense of Advent, which has its place, I think. He begins, as one should begin a work on the church year, with Advent:
“Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantelpiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.
Huge crowds mumble – “Alas,
Our angers do not increase,
Love in not what she used to be;’
Portly Caesar yawns – ‘I know;’
He falls asleep on his throne,
They shuffle off through the snow;
Darkness and snow descend.”
Auden closes out the church year with these words, a summary of all of his experiences and reflections:
“He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for
He is the life.
Love Him in the world of Flesh;
And at your marriage all occasions shall dance for joy.”
That line sums up, not only the Christian life, but also the life of a minister of the Gospel. And all of this “For the Time Being.”
A Jonathan Edwards Reader By Jonathan Edwards, John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, Kenneth P. Minkema. This Yale University Press anthology is outstanding. If you are wanting a one-volume reader look no further.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I read this book in one sitting. I thought about it for days on end. The characters are so real, the situation so possible, and the writing of John Steinbeck so powerful and beautiful, that I could not forget it. It is grotesque, in a way, and pitiful. But I think I have known these two men, George and Lenny. And as an oil field worker in South Louisiana, not a ranch hand in the Salinas Valley, I have seen them. Their tragic story reminds me of Louisiana. But having lived in Monterey, California, and hiked through the mountains that protect the rich, dark earth of that valley, I read Steinbeck and think of him as an eccentric, brilliant neighbor. Talk this one out after you read it.
I continue the adventure. And I speak to students of the Word, ministers of God’s Gospel, and pastors-in-training: read widely, but wisely. Read carefully. Read to gain insight into Creation, Fall and Redemption. Read to diagnose and treat the human soul with the balm of God’s grace in Christ. You will sharpen your skill to do so by reading the great novels as well as history and biography. Learn to read poetry, and even fantasy. Consider the greatest theologians, and follow the faithful ones. But in all things, read to the glory of God.
And that which I proscribe, I do pray to do myself, and ask forgiveness for my failing to read what I should read, and for reading what is unnecessary as well as well is unprofitable.
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