Category Archives: Book Review

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

THE PHARMACIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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https://www.amazon.com/Pharmacist-Auschwitz-Untold-Story-ebook/dp/B01M8KHLF0

I have developed a “Moore’s Law of Reading” that helps me see whether a book was worth my time or not. I first count my marginal notes. I then check out the total number of pages of the book. If my marginal notes add up to at least half the number of pages, the book is either important (say something by Nietzsche whom I mightily disagree with), or a book that I appreciated very much. With The Pharmacist of Auschwitz, both categories are true.

Reading about the concentration camps is tough. For me, I kept avoiding books like Night by Elie Wiesel and Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I finally broke down and read both. I’m glad I did, but these kinds of books make me terribly sad and cry for justice. As a Christian, I find my sanity in the belief that God will one day make all things right. But I “live by faith and not sight” so the struggle for sanity in the interim is a daily battle.

I call Patricia (aka Trisha) Posner “Detective Posner” because she was relentless in accumulating the salient details in telling a little known story. The story revolves around a pharmacist named Victor Capesius. Capesius was involved in all kinds of heinous activities while working at the infamous Auschwitz camp.

Posner does a great job of teasing out the relevant details that make you see how such a “normal” person could be complicit in such barbarity. The ruthlessness of the Nazis is maddening to make sense of. Posner describes some of the ghoulish things the Nazis did, but does not overdo it. It’s not easy to tell a story full of dark realities and not get lost in all the depressing things that transpired. Posner does a good job of walking a tightrope between being true to the story, but not indulging the prurient interests of some.

There are many other things I appreciate about this book, but I will close with one more. Posner does a nice job of contextualizing the story of Capesius in the overall story of the Nazis. In telling the larger story of the Nazis you are reminded of how sinister their approach to life was. The insanity of the Nazis was demonstrated in many ways, like worshiping their dogs, but treating the Jews as less than animals. As a Christian, it reminded me of the perversity the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 1.


I highly recommend this book, with the caveat lector that one be at least high school age.

DISCIPLESHIP

One of the maxims I developed years ago goes like this: As the number of leadership books increases, the number of available leaders decreases.  It’s a cheeky way of saying that principles and techniques don’t usually transfer to the real thing.  The same could be said for discipleship books.

I’ve been involved in discipling men for about forty years now.  I have also been the beneficiary of being discipled.  I’ve certainly read a number of discipleship books…plenty for a lifetime.

So when Zondervan sent me a (unsolicited) copy of The Disciple Maker’s Handbook I came pretty close to setting it aside.  I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did. 

Harrington and Patrick do a terrific job of both offering practical instruction while peppering the book with thoughtful insights on discipleship.  This is an accessible book that novices to ministries of discipleship will find most helpful.  This kind of accessibility many times means something leans towards the superficial, but thankfully it is not the case with this book. 

One of the many strengths of this book are the various exhortations and insights on being intentional when it comes to discipleship ministries.

COTTON MATHER WITHOUT ALL THE BLATHER

Rick Kennedy is a professor of history and a sailing enthusiast.  In the video above, he is interviewed on his terrific, new biography of Cotton Mather.  Below is my brief review of Kennedy’s book:

This short biography by Rick Kennedy is simply superb.  All the major (and some minor) things that we want to know about Mather are included.  The writing is clean and compelling. 

You learn in short compass (145 pages!) that Mather had this incredible combination of gifts: scholar, pastor, visionary, and writer. 

Mather also had a wonderful skepticism towards what we typically call false dichotomies or binary traps.  Mather’s “trust, but verify” approach to legitimate supernatural events is wise and instructive for us today.

Oh yeah, and if you have the stereotype of Mather being responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, you will definitely need to read this biography.

REVOLUTIONIZING MEDICINE

https://www.amazon.com/Fever-1721-Epidemic-Revolutionized-Medicine/dp/147678308X/ref=cm_rdp_product

Coss’s book is like having three good, small scale biographies surrounded by the drama of a deadly disease. We get to know a doctor, Puritan preacher, and Founding Father.

Zabdiel Boylston, Cotton Mather, and Ben Franklin are characters most of us know in the order I listed them: from obscure to well-known. Coss makes it clear and quite compelling why we ought to know Boylston and Mather better. And even though I have read several books about Franklin, there were some fresh insights in this terrific book.

One other person who is not part of the aforementioned triumvirate, but looms large is James Franklin, the older brother of Ben. Coss does a terrific job of showcasing how much Ben benefited from the prickly and mercurial James. At times, I felt the author was a bit generous towards James, especially in downplaying how cruel he could be to Ben, but Coss makes his case very well.