Category Archives: Book Review

HOW DANTE CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE

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https://www.amazon.com/Dante-Save-Your-Life-Life-Changing/dp/1941393322

Journalist and gadfly, Rod Dreher, loves a good argument. If you read him, as I do, you know he can write and has loads of good things to offer. He pushes boundaries at times, sometimes makes incautious assertions, but you are always forced to think.

This is the second book I’ve read by Dreher. A few months back I read The Benedict Option book. How Dante Can Save Your Life was finished on a flight home late last night. There is much I liked about it.

First, kudos to the publisher for an absolutely stunning design. There’s nothing like real books!

Dreher’s book is full of well-written and insightful observations all while using Dante’s Comedy as his conversation partner.

My only major beef with the book is the Mommie Dearest kind of approach. It’s great to have honesty, but Dreher tells us far too much about the conflicts in his home. At times it felt like a Jerry Springer show in print.

Still, there is much to benefit from in reading How Dante Can Save Your Life.

THE FRACTURED REPUBLIC

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Yuval Levin writes wise, thoughtful, and accessible books. His previous book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left, was terrific. And as I said in its review, it is not just for “political junkies.”

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism can stand on its own, but I would recommend reading The Great Debate as well.

The Fractured Republic is refreshing. Levin is a conservative, but that does not keep him from correcting his conservative kin, especially on fueling an expressive individualism that is just as toxic as those on the Left.  Levin believes that conservatives who appreciate the importance of “mediating institutions” like families, communities, and religious groups, is where promise for a better political climate moving forward resides.

Levin rightly sees both conservatives and liberals falling prey to nostalgia, a longing for a bygone era where things were so much better than the present. Both sides need to disabuse themselves of nostalgia in order to see their way forward in making wise decisions in a culture that is different from the past.

NOT HEADING FOR THE HILLS!

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Scholars are rarely prophets and prophets are rarely scholars.  I was reminded of this in reading the much debated, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher, journalist and outspoken Christian, is decidedly on the prophetic side of the scholar-prophet spectrum. This, however, does not mean that he is incapable of helping us better understand the far-reaching and practical ramifications of something as arcane as nominalism.

We must say right out of the blocks that Dreher’s book is not a jeremiad screed to head for the hills.  Rather, Dreher advocates for “exile in place.”  The preposition is key.  We are to cultivate faithfulness with other like-minded folks not simply to hunker down in our religious enclaves.  We should form these counter-cultural communities to strengthen our capacity to engage, not escape, our world.  This is a clarion call by a gifted writer to let the church be the church.

I have my disagreements with some of Dreher’s analysis and antidotes.  With respect to the former, Dreher is insufficiently aware of what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola Scriptura.  As Keith Mathison memorably puts it, sola Scpritura does not mean solo Scriptura.  Among other things, leaning on the thesis in Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation made for a potted history.  Dreher would have been greatly helped if he had availed himself of the work of either Mathison or D.H. Williams, especially his Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: a Primer of Suspicious Protestants.

As to antidotes, I don’t share Dreher’s sweeping denunciation of public schools.  For the record, our two sons attended Christian schools, had a few years of homeschooling, and went to public high schools.  All three have their strengths and weaknesses.  Sure, public schools can be a mess.  I saw incompetent teachers and weak administrators, but I also saw bogus rules, unprincipled administrators and mean teachers at the Christian school.  My experience, it needs to be noted, was both as a parent and a part-time teacher.

Dreher is rightly concerned about the corrosive effects of “moralistic, therapeutic, Deism.”  I share his concerns.  I also share Dreher’s conviction that “losing political power might just be the thing that saves the church’s soul.”  As many have said, the church seems the most vital (and prophetic) when it works from the margins of power.  Notwithstanding its shortcomings, Dreher’s book is a good reminder of that reality.

NOT JUST FOR POLITICAL JUNKIES!

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The modern notion of “politics” is much narrower than the ancient one.  The modern idea thinks mainly of things like voting, lobbying for favorite causes, and those who govern.

Levin shows us in his terrific book that there is much more to politics.  For example, one’s understanding of human nature and history dramatically affect how one understands political change.  So-called progressives and so-called conservatives are given much to think about in this fine work.

Since I am late to the party in reviewing this book, let me close with one massive implication that came to me in reading this book and it deals with Christian theology.  For those of us Christians who gladly hold to more conservative or orthodox (small o) theology, there is something terribly important we can learn from Edmund Burke.  Burke believed that the best of tradition is true, but to convince more radical types like Paine, it was crucial to also show the beauty of tradition.  If I were to grade us conservative Christians on how well we do in showing the beauty of truth, I would give us a very low grade.  Carefully crafted doctrine is essential, but it needs to shine forth as beautiful.

You can purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Debate-Edmund-Burke-Thomas/dp/0465050972

PROVIDENCE COLLEGE! PHONE HOME!

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Like ET the extra terrestrial, Providence College has demonstrated that they are lost. They have marginalized and now seen a world class scholar and teacher leave. You can read about the story surrounding Anthony Esolen online. I will stick with Professor Esolen’s recent book, Out of the Ashes.

Esolen writes with style, insight, and a jovial spirit. His book has a masterful use of history, literature, and contemporary events. The reader will see in bright colors why to quote Andrew Lytle, “Modern man is momentary man.” But Esolen does not just want to curse the darkness. He provides insight into how things can be improved. He is a realist, but since he’s a Christian, he’s not cynical.

One of the things that comes through loud and clear is that a great education is worth fighting for. Among other things, it allows you to better appreciate the world God has created.

The author is well educated (Princeton summa cum laude; PhD in classics), but he is far from a snob. His own blue-collar upbringing coupled with his love of family is endearing as it is worth reading about.

WOODROW WILSON: AMBITIOUS ASPIRATIONS AND PROBLEMATIC POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

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Though it is a little over 200 pages Barry Hankins has packed quite a bit into this little/big book.

There is much to learn from this fine book, but I will limit myself to three things.

First, Hankins does a fine job of demonstrating the impossibility of having good Christian practice when it is shorn of Christian doctrine.  Wilson was a learned man, but terribly naive when it came to thinking there could be solid ethics without solid theology.

Second, there is fascinating background on Princeton and other educational matters.  Wilson lived during a pivotal point in American education.  The Johns Hopkins University, where Wilson did his PhD, was the first American school to adopt the German model of specialization.  It was a seismic change for the American educational landscape. 

Last, I love to read biographies where you learn some truly surprising things about the subject and the times he/she lived in.  Hankins does a nice job here.  Among other things, you will probably be surprised to find out how fun and light-hearted Wilson could be. 

If you are looking for a biography on Wilson that covers the full man, but isn’t unduly long, this is a terrific choice.

MY FELLOW AMERICANS…READ THIS BOOK!

 

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I am coming to this terrific book about five years after its publication, so no long review here.  I will say it is an extremely well done piece of work, both witty and wise, entertaining and educational.  You will learn a lot about Scripture and yourself by reading it!

American Christians are especially in dire need of reckoning with this fine book.

https://www.amazon.com/Misreading-Scripture-Western-Eyes-Understand/dp/0830837825/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

HALF-BREED AUGUSTINE

https://www.amazon.com/Mestizo-Augustine-Theologian-Between-Cultures/dp/083085150X/ref=cm_rdp_product

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Augustine’s City of God and Confessions have made a significant impact on my life. When people ask me for the most formative books outside the Bible, it is easy to name the top two: Confessions and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I’ve read several books about Augustine. I can say that all of them have been quite good, with a few of exceptional quality. Those by Jean Bethke Elshtain and Garry Wills would top my list. Those two are now joined by Justo Gonzalez.

Gonzalez teases out the implications of Augustine being a person of two cultures: African and Greco-Roman. The Spanish word, mestizaje, means that one is a “mixed breed.” No easy thing being one and it carried far-reaching implications for how Augustine viewed himself and how he conducted his ministry.

Gonzalez covers the typical terrain with the Donatist controversy, etc. but in a way no one else has before.

Highly recommended.

JOHN NEWTON ON POLITICS

I’ve just finished a terrific book on John Newton by Tony Reinke.  Several years back, I read Jonathan Aitken’s wonderful biography of Newton.  Tony’s book (interview with the author this fall) focuses more on themes that emerge from the letters of Newton. 

https://www.amazon.com/John-Newton-Disgrace-Amazing-Grace/dp/1433541815

https://www.amazon.com/Newton-Christian-Life-Live-Christ/dp/1433539713/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

The section on politics has much food for thought.  If you know about Newton’s life, you know he was not anti-political.  His encouragement for his friend, William Wilberforce, to go into the political sphere, is one example.  However, Newton did understand better than most that getting consumed with politics has many traps.  Here are a few quotes from Newton:

“There is a peace passing understanding, of which the politicians cannot deprive us.”

At the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 Newton wrote, “The whole compass of my politics lies in Psalm 76:10”:

Surely the wrath of God shall praise you; the remnant of wrath you will put on like a belt.

“A nation’s safety lies more in the prayers of its people than in the fleets of its navy.”

DESTROYER OF THE gods

Here’s a snippet from my interview with Larry Hurtado of the University of Edinburgh:

Moore: It’s become somewhat of a self-evident truth that early Christianity only appealed to the down and out. Is that accurate to the historical record?

Hurtado: For several decades now that old notion has been discredited among scholars of early Christianity. Studies of the people named and described in earliest Christian texts show that, right from the earliest years, they included craftsmen, merchants, and owners of businesses. Of course, there were also slaves and poor among believers. By at least the second century, there were also believers from upper levels of Roman society. That upward progress socially is likely part of what prompted pagan sophisticates such as Celsus to attack Christianity so vehemently.

The full interview is here:

Larry Hurtado: An Interview