Monthly Archives: December 2017


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I have loved these Penguin Great Ideas books since the time when I first laid eyes on them.  Why I Write by Orwell was one of the Christmas gifts my wife gave me.  I finished it on the plane this past Thursday.  What a book!  Only 120 pages, but packed with arresting insights and keen observations.  Orwell is a master of both.

Here are a few samples:

On Neville Chamberlain

“His opponents professed to see in him a dark and wily schemer, plotting to sell England to Hitler, but it is far likelier that he was merely a stupid old man doing his best according to his very dim lights.”

The way we talk and think:

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

And there is so much more in this funny, wise, and brilliant book!




[Frigates are warships and Coursers are swift horses.  Now enjoy the brilliance of Emily!]
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul –
(Emily Dickinson)
HT: Karen Swallow Prior


Yes, many do these sorts of things, but I like book lists, so here you go:

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There are many things to like about this book, no matter which one of the big three traditions (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) you belong to.

Chaput is a lucid writer who has clearly done his homework. His book ranges over many significant thinkers, past and present. His analysis of our cultural moment is sobering, but never gloomy. He well understands the indispensable virtue of Christian hope.

I read Dreher’s The Benedict Option, but find Chaput’s approach much more in keeping with the entire record of Scripture.

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My interview with Alan Jacobs:


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I’ve read several books on Benjamin Franklin, but this is the first on his sister.

Lepore brings all the things we have to expect from her writing, especially the telling detail.

Yes, it’s true. Women in the eighteenth century were discouraged from reading history. What’s the point? History reading is for those who serve in political and educational leadership. Since women couldn’t do those sorts of things in colonial America, what’s the point in them reading history? For a Christian this crass utilitarian notion of learning history is at odds with a faith that is historical in nature.

There are many terrific insights in this wonderfully conceived book.

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My interview with the author:
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My general rule that so far holds up is this: Take the total number of pages of a book and divide by two. If my marginal notes exceed that number, then the book, though I may have some serious disagreements with it, was worth reading.

In this case, Wood’s little book on the American Revolution is 166 pages long. My markings came in at over 150. This was an extremely worthwhile read.

I read a lot of American history, but am always looking for resources to better connect events and people. Wood’s book does not disappoint.

If you are looking for a short book to better understand the American Revolution along with a helpful explanation of the immediate years leading up to the Constitution, it is hard to imagine a better book.

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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.

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I’ve read several good books about President Jackson. None have been duds. All of them taught me fascinating and important things about Jackson.

Jon Meacham combines some of my favorite features for biography: wonderful wordsmithing, lucid prose, an eye for the salient details, and a nose for smelling out the proper drama.

If you are looking for a terrific biography of Jackson, this is the first place I would recommend.

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Taking a clue from Goldilocks some commentaries are too devotional, some too technical, and a smaller some are “just right.” Johnson has written one in that rarer, last category.

Johnson’s commentary has responsible interaction with the text, he does not dodge the tough issues (an occupational hazard for commentators), and the flow is terrific.

If the title of this book strikes you as odd, you will be convinced of its aptness after reading Johnson’s fine work.

Thanks to our pastor, Peter Coelho, who enthusiastically mentioned this book in some of his sermons!
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The biggest compliment I can give an author is that his or her book will be “part of our final library.” Let me explain.

Our library has about 3,000 volumes. We are constantly culling it, but we are also constantly getting new books due to library sales (good and cheap way to get great books) and publishers sending me books for possible review/interview with the author.

As I get older (I am 59) there is the need to keep culling. Fortunately, both our sons are readers so they will gladly inherit a bunch of books. Even so, there are books that should be parted with before I die. I don’t want our sons to have the burden of determining whether some books are worth keeping.

Mark Edmundson’s book, self and soul: a Defense of Ideals (neither self nor soul are capitalized) is beautifully written, insightful, and full of suggestive ideas.

It is clear that Edmundson has great respect for major religious figures, especially the Buddha and Jesus. It is not clear what Edmundson personally believes.

Regardless of whether one is religious or not, there is much to be gained by a close read of this fine book. There are many things I found fascinating, but since most don’t read lengthy Amazon reviews, I will underscore just one. A whole chapter is devoted to showing that Shakespeare’s writings don’t offer us much direction for how to be virtuous. Sure, you could extrapolate some implications based on the loathsome exploits of various characters, but there is little that goes beyond their own self-interest. Edmundson writes that characters in Shakespeare “generally speak because they are trying to get something. They want to enhance their images, improve their lots, speed their designs.” In this same paragraph Edmundson says, “When we quote them, we import their desires into our speech.” As a Christian, I greatly appreciate a writer who is not afraid to underscore the power of words to form and fashion us.

A gem of a 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 especially are in dire need of reckoning with this fine book.

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My interview with the author:

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I will doing a longer review or perhaps interviewing the author later so will keep this brief.  Dew is a wonderful writer, eminent scholar of the Civil War, and offers us a candid report of how he came to grips with the racism of his boyhood.  A tough read, but sorely needed.

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My interview with the author:
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Brian Matthew Jordan’s new book addresses an issue that others have either missed or been mistaken about: the poor treatment of Union soldiers upon coming home.

Since the war was fought in the South, those civilians experienced the horrors up close and personal. Their soldiers came back to a very appreciative homeland.

Since the war was not fought in the North, those civilians largely wanted to move on to more “positive” realities rather then be reminded of what the so-called Civil War had wrought.

Jordan has done yeoman’s work on the research and writing. It is no wonder this book was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize.

There are some difficult and dark issues to wrestle through when it comes to the horrors of war. It is hard to imagine a better starting point than Jordan’s fine book.

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Commentaries on books of the Bible are not created equally. You have to be shrewd in what you consult. The better ones come in all different types from the devotional to the technical.

My favorite ones are those that combine great care with the text of Scripture, are well-written, and offer many connections to our own time and day.  Christopher Wright’s terrific work on Jeremiah is one of those. It is part of “The Bible Speaks Today” series (InterVarsity Press). Here is a taste:

“The reign of King Josiah was a time of great religious fervent and national resurgence. It was all very impressive. But what was God’s point of view? According to Jeremiah God sees a people who are a disappointment to God, who are being disloyal to their covenant relationship with God, who are already feeling the shock of disasters that foreshadow worse to come, and who are living in brazen denial and delusion. It is a frightening mirror to hold up to the people of God in any generation, with stark relevance to our own.”

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There’s nothing on evangelism quite like this book.  Stay tuned for my interview with Randy!