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Review: Some Reflections on Prescience

Rating: ★★

Full title: Some Reflections on Prescience: in which the Nature of the Divinity is Enquired Into

Author: John Jackson (1686-1763) was an English clergyman, as well as a prolific writer with an independent way of thinking. Many of his works were first published anonymously or under pen names. In joining in controversial topics, he followed the lead of the philosopher and clergyman Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). Both men were sometimes regarded as heterodox for their writings about the Trinity.

Overview:

Some Reflections on Prescience (1731) defends the view, previously expressed by Samuel Fancourt, that some future events are truly contingent, and therefore unknowable, even to God. Whereas the other contemporaneous works on this topic—by Samuel Fancourt, John Norman, and David Millar—usually appeal to Scriptural revelation as an authority, Jackson appeals only to reason.

Jackson begins:

By Prescience is generally understood God’s foreknowing not only every action of ever Man, but likewise every, the most minute thing, that happens in the Universe. Now this Definition of God’s Prescience seems to me to be absurd, and no-wise capable of Demonstration, as I shall endeavour to shew in the following Sheets. . . .

Unless every action that passes in the Universe be foreknowable in its own nature from all Eternity, It is not necessary that God shoudl foreknow it; that is, in other Words, that God may be infinitely perfect without foreknowing it. . . . Now the particular Actions, that pass in the Universe are not foreknowable from all Eternity in their own natures, because the Actors of them, and things acted upon, are not eternal themselves. (p. 1-3)

If I recall correctly, Samuel Clarke shared this view with John Jackson. There were, then, a decent minority of writers and thinkers who spoke of unbounded omniscience as incompatible with human liberty. Ironically, these writers would agree on this point with Calvinists who deny human liberty to maintain God’s essential omniscience.

Jackson’s argument may be summarized as follows:

  1. God’s omniscience requires that he know all that is true and foreknowable.
  2. Free moral agents are not eternal.
  3. Since free moral agents are not eternal, their decisions are likewise undetermined in their causes, while they are yet non-existent.
  4. Therefore, even an omniscient God does not know all of the future decisions of free moral agents.

The argument is fine, so far as it goes; but it is probably meaningless to those scholars who presuppose that there is a state “outside time” or an “eternal now” from which God may see all events past and future as one.

Surprisingly, Jackson spends almost the entire book debunking the possibility that a human soul is eternal. (“Eternal” as used here extends to both past and future, whereas “everlasting” extends only into the future.) It is certainly an interesting choice from today’s perspective—I do not often hear anyone contend that human souls existed before their first breath (Gen. 2:7). Souls have a beginning point; if time is linear and basic to reality, no one can foreknow what a free soul will decide.

The logic he uses seems sound enough. But beyond the introduction, the book is very abstract, and belabors a point that is hardly ever discussed today—the alleged “eternalness” of the human soul. This book won’t be very interesting to anyone except those few souls who are keenly interested in the debates around open theism.

Review: The Life of Bernard Gilpin (1629)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: George Carleton (1559-1628), was a pupil of Bernard Gilpin at Houghton-le-Spring. He became Bishop of Llandaff from 1618 to 1619 and Bishop of Chichester from 1619 to 1628.

Full title: The life of Bernard Gilpin a man most holy and renowned among the northerne English. Faithfully written by the Right Reverend Father in God George Carleton Lord Bishop of Chichester, and published for the sake of his common auditors, by whom it was long since earnestly desired. The book was first published in Latin in 1628, under the title Vita Bernardi Gilpini, viri sanctissimi, famaque apud Anglos aquolinares [sic: aquilonares] celeberrimi.

Overview:

The Life of Bernard Gilpin (1629) is a brief but interesting account of a bold and compassionate English minister of the early Reformation days, written by one who knew him well. Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583) was well regarded by the English poor, whom he greatly assisted in both evangelism and advocacy work. He became known to many as “the apostle of the north” because he ministered across a large and rural area.

This book includes several of Gilpin’s personal letters, and has pointed stories about how he helped the poor of northern England.

Gilpin had a very independent mind, leading him sometimes to side with Catholics (as, at first, in the Marian persecutions of 1557), other times with Protestants (on the denial of purgatory and indulgences), and other times Gilpin abstains from stating a fast opinion (in the case of transubstantiation, which he believed to lack a clear answer from Scripture and reason). He gives lucid and accessible summaries of several of these Reformation issues in the course of this biography.

The most famous story about Bernard Gilpin is probably how his life was saved by the death of Queen Mary. In 1558, Gilpin was arrested, with a royal warrant secured by the bishop of London. In some versions of the story, Gilpin broke his leg and was thus late to meet his executioner (see page 100 of William Gilpin’s biography, and ch. 7 of All for the Best). In any case, when he was arrested and on the way to be executed, the queen died; the royal warrant against him was dropped as a result, and he preached for 25 more years!

This little book does give a few fine details about Gilpin’s life through his letters and anecdotes. A better sense of how he was “renowned by the northerne English” may be found in the historical novel All for the Best, or Bernard Gilpin’s Motto (c. 1890) by Emily Sarah Holt, which was a very interesting read with some difficult English vernacular. For a longer biography, you can also get a copy of The Life of Bernard Gilpin (1753) by his descendant, William Gilpin.

Read for free: You can read this title on the University of Michigan’s digital collection, here.

Review: Freedom Seekers (Series)

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternate Series Title: In the old editions, this series was called The Riverboat Adventures. Now they are called the Freedom Seekers books.

Author: Lois Walfrid Johnson is an American author with Scandinavian roots. She is mainly known as the author of three series of young adult novels: Freedom Seekers (formerly The Riverboat Adventures), Adventures in the Northwoods, and Viking Quest. She has also written four devotional books, some aimed at young people. In all, she has written 38 books.

Genre: Young adult fiction, American fiction, historical fiction.

Titles:

Freedom Seekers is comprised of six titles:

  1. Escape into the Night
  2. Race for Freedom
  3. Midnight Rescue
  4. The Swindler’s Treasure
  5. Mysterious Signal
  6. The Fiddler’s Secret

Overview:

The Freedom Seekers series (1995-1998) follows the many journeys of Libby (Elizabeth) Norstad as she becomes involved in the Underground Railroad while living aboard a Mississippi steamboat. The books are set in 1857 and include thorough geographic and historical details, impeccably researched by the author, but presented for children. It would be difficult to find an author of Christian historical novels more thorough, accessible, or tactful than Lois Walfrid Johnson.

Each of the books has its own physical journey to follow, but there is also Libby’s spiritual journey, plainly and gently told by the author. Through the course of the books, Libby deals with a variety of emotions, including fear, shame, guilt, and sadness, and she deals with them both appropriately and inappropriately. She learns simple lessons about Christian living in each novel. Though all this occurs while she is learning the ways of the Underground Railroad, Libby’s character development is the crux of the series.

Libby struggles throughout the books with the ethical dilemmas that come with helping freed slaves in the 1850s. She and her friends risk their safety many times so that their friend Jordan and other freed slaves can avoid being returned to their owners.

The intense action in certain chapters (snakes, criminals, cliffs, and risk of drowning are occasional dangers) may be too much for very sensitive readers, but Lois Johnson does not overplay these risks.

Review: God, Freedom, and Evil

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Alvin C. Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher.

Genre: Analytic philosophy.

Overview:

God, Freedom, and Evil (1974) focuses on two important theological problems:

  1. The problem of evil, which Plantinga classifies as “natural atheology” (p. 5-64);
  2. The ontological argument for God’s existence, which Plantinga classifies as “natural theology” (p. 85-112).

In passing, Plantinga discusses verificationism (p. 65-66), and arguments about the incompatibility of divine omniscience and human freedom (p. 66-73). He also covers the cosmological argument for God’s existence, popularized by Aquinas (p. 77-80); and the teleological argument for God’s existence, (p. 81-84).

This book often summarizes from Plantinga’s earlier and longer work in God and Other Minds (1967); it appears that this book was written with a more popular audience.

Plantinga’s “Free Will Defense”

Plantinga’s Free Will Defense is the most important part of this book. Some philosophers believe that this defense has effectively rebutted the problem of evil in philosophy.

The problem of evil (as stated by Hume and others) regards moral evil as incompatible with the existence of an utterly benevolent and omnipotent God. Plantinga points out that these propositions—God’s existence, God’s omnipotence, God’s benevolence and the existence of moral evil—are not explicitly contradictory. Some explanation is required to see that there even is a “problem” of evil, and certain presuppositions may be questioned. Plantinga uses the rules of logic to show that free will provides a plausible explanation for moral evil, even in a world created by an omnibenevolent God.

The gist of his argument is that it is possible that God, though omnipotent, cannot create a world in which all free actors always and necessarily choose to do good. For some Protestants, this may be a firm stance (i.e. a theodicy), but Plantinga points out that he does not need to prove this position. He only needs to prove that it is logically possible, and thus he uses the term ‘defense’ rather than ‘theodicy’.

Plantinga’s defense is thorough and grows in complexity. The lynchpin in his argument is what he calls “transworld depravity”: the idea that, if certain conditions are always met, a free moral agent may choose to do wrong in every possible world. “What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn’t within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong.” (p. 48)

It should not be surprising that our own guilt frees us from laying an accusation against God. A way of restating the argument in simplistic terms is this: the problem of evil relies on the unproven premise that, if we were God, we could do better than God did (that is, by creating a world with either less moral evil, or no moral evil).

A Note on Omniscience and Freedom

Plantinga argues (against an article by Nelson Pike) that divine omniscience and human freedom are compatible. This is, of course, the classical Arminian position. Pike used an example similar to the following:

  1. Suppose that at a certain time (let’s say, Tuesday), God believed that Charlie Brown would kick Lucy’s football on Wednesday.
  2. Charlie Brown has true freedom to either kick or not kick the football.
  3. Charlie Brown’s choice on Wednesday cannot cause God to change his belief on Tuesday.
  4. Therefore, if Charlie Brown chooses not to kick the football on Wednesday, then God was incorrect on Tuesday—God forbid!

In a nutshell, Plantinga uses the idea of “possible worlds” to argue that God has infallible foreknowledge in every possible state of affairs. I noticed a disconnect here. Plantinga apparently denies the premise #3 above because he and Pike are viewing time differently.

Pike seems to be assuming a linear view of time, in which a past mistake cannot be corrected.

Plantinga seems to be assuming a non-linear view of time, in which the future is somehow visible to God, perhaps from some stance “outside of time”.

Oscar Cullmann’s book Christ and Time (1964) famously asserts that the Jews of Christ’s day had a linear view of time in which any kind of supertemporal abstraction was inconceivable. If Cullmann is correct, then the view asserted by Plantinga is not the traditional or biblical view, and we are left to amend either our view of God’s essential omniscience (i.e., by denying absolute foreknowledge) or our view of human freedom (i.e., by admitting Calvinistic determinism).

Review: The Glory of the Manger

Rating: ★★★★½

Author: Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Click here for more on Samuel M. Zwemer’s writings, or read his biography.

Overview:

While Samuel Zwemer was an extremely prolific writer throughout his career, only a few of his works have as much devotional value as The Glory of the Manger. It was the second published in a triad of devotional books, which are quite similar despite the time gaps:

  1. The Glory of the Cross (1927)
  2. The Glory of the Manger (1940)
  3. The Glory of the Empty Tomb (1947)

Zwemer was a voracious reader and an indefatigable worker, and it shows through even in his devotional works; that is to say, even his “devotional” works are very academic in tone. In several chapters, he takes to task the naysayers and philosophical materialists of his day who sought to deny the virgin birth of Christ. After these doctrinal defenses and logical forays, so common in Zwemer’s writings, he does move on to more applicable content!

Meat:

Although defenses of Christian creeds often feel like watching someone hold their breath until they turn blue, Zwemer presents here quite a bit of evidence for the historicity of Jesus and the reliability of the New Testament. The appendix to Chapter III, on the “Witness of Pagan Writers to the Historicity of Jesus Christ,” is extremely interesting.

When he’s not presenting evidence for our faith, Zwemer gets to a masterful handling of Scripture.

The poetry and hymns presented at the beginning of each chapter—as it was in The Glory of the Cross—include a number of hymns that will be both fresh and fascinating to modern readers, chosen as they were from his wide reading across centuries of Christian tradition. Some may skip these few verses as if they were filler, but if you take a moment to read them, you will find that they are filled with treasure new and old, such as this four-hundred-year-old verse, taken almost at random, from Giles Fletcher:

“See how small room my Infant Lord doth take,
Whom all the world is not enough to hold.
Who of His years, or of His age hath told
Never such Age so young, never a Child so old!”

Bones:

It was characteristic of the time period to associate Christmas with doctrinal attacks on the virgin birth, as seen here in Zwemer’s Glory of the Manger, and Lockyer’s 1942 book The Christ of Christmas (material reprinted and expanded in All about God in Christ). Today that war has gone cold, so the polemical tone around this issue seems overblown. Nonetheless, Zwemer gives a wealth of historical and doctrinal resources in even as small a package as this book.

Quotes:

“The Incarnation was the greatest miracle of human history. And it is true. God who fills the universe was born a Babe.” (loc. 65)

Review: The Superstition of Divorce

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Essays, pamphlet.

Overview:

The Superstition of Divorce (1920) explains why Chesterton believes that divorce should not be legally legitimized. The essays were written in 1918 for the New Witness.

The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage. If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason.

It may surprise modern readers to learn that divorce was illegal in much of the world until the twentieth century. The Anglican and Catholic churches greatly discouraged divorce, whereas in Islam, divorce is explicitly legitimized but is wholly within the power of the husband. The New Testament position, of course, legitimizes divorce in cases of unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:1-9).

Meat:

Most of Chesterton’s arguments against divorce are for social and economic reasons, and not for religious or philosophical reasons. He sees traditional families as protecting citizens from the opposite dangers of being enslaved by the State (in a purely socialist scenario) or the factory (in a purely capitalist scenario).

Capitalism believes in collectivism for itself and individualism for its enemies. . . . The factory is destroying the family.

Those unfamiliar with Chesterton’s economic thought should take some time to read our reviews of A Miscellany of Men and William Cobbett.

There are a few religious arguments mentioned in passing. Chesterton is sometimes guilty of assuming knowledge of 1920 readers that cannot be assumed in 2020. For instance, the secularization of marriage was something that occurred after the Protestant Reformation; marriage came to be viewed as a contract, which could be cancelled just as easily as it was made binding. Chesterton points out that marriage should be viewed as a vow, which is not something that may be honorably taken back.

Chesterton points out that people were not asking to be able to end their marriages, but to be able to end their marriages honorably.

Any man in modern London may have a hundred wives if he does not call them wives; or rather, if he does not go through certain more or less mystical ceremonies in order to assert that they are wives.

Chesterton ends with a striking sentence that links marriage to a relational theology of creation:

What is vitally needed everywhere, in art as much as in ethics, in poetry as much as in politics, is choice; a creative power in the will as well as in the mind. Without that self-limitation of somebody, nothing living will ever see the light.

Bones:

A few of Chesterton’s arguments are difficult to follow a century later because the legality of divorce is generally a foregone conclusion the world over. Overall, these are not among his best essays, but I did enjoy it, especially as a LibriVox audiobook.

Quotes:

“Men can always be blind to a thing so long as it is big enough.”

“It is often said by the critics of Christian origins that certain ritual feasts, processions or dances are really of pagan origin. They might as well say that our legs are of pagan origin. Nobody ever disputed that humanity was human before it was Christian; and no Church manufactured the legs with which men walked or danced, either in a pilgrimage or a ballet. What can really be maintained, so as to carry not a little conviction, is this: that where such a Church has existed it has preserved not only the processions but the dances; not only the cathedral but the carnival. One of the chief claims of Christian civilisation is to have preserved things of pagan origin.”

Read for free: The Internet Archive (PDF), LibriVox (audiobook).

Review: The Life of John Newton

Rating: ★★★★

Who:

This biography was written anonymously and published by the American Sunday School Union. It has been reprinted by Attic Books, an imprint of New Leaf.

Overview:

John Newton is best known as the author of the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”—but in his lifetime, he was known as a slave-trader who eventually became a champion for abolitionism. He spent much of his adulthood in the Atlantic slave trade before eventually becoming a priest. His epitaph, which he wrote, summarizes his biography:

John Newton, Clerk,
Once an infidel and libertine,
A servant of slaves in Africa,
Was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
Preserved, restored, pardoned,
And appointed to preach the faith he
Had long labored to destroy.

The Life of John Newton (1831) is a short biography that simplifies his life story from primary sources for a young audience. In spite of its brevity, this book tells a great deal about Newton’s long and dramatic life.

Once an infidel and libertine

John Newton was drafted into the British Navy at the height of their activity, and he eventually went AWOL at one of their ports of call. He was discovered, disgraced, stripped of his rank, and kept below deck like a slave aboard the navy ship. His time below deck was so miserable that he appealed for an alternative—any alternative—and was eventually cast out on the African “Slave Coast.”

A servant of slaves in Africa

Remarkably, Newton, a young white Englishman, became a slave to black African woman. His owner was technically a man, but he usually answered to the mistress. Being nearly starved, Newton was forced to subsist on scraps and raw roots. This dragged on for over a year until he was able to beg his way onto a British ship.

Preserved, restored, pardoned

For most of his twenties and thirties, Newton established himself as a slave-trader, eventually commanding his own ship. Life as a sailor was horribly fraught with danger, and Newton had many brushes with death. On March 10, 1748, the ship on which Newton served was dreadfully damaged during a storm in the night. The sea broke over the deck. The ship filled with water and began to sink; but it was loaded with light cargo. It thus continued in a half-sunk position, with damaged sails, for four weeks, while the crew’s rations were reduced to one fish for twelve men, and the pumps were being worked day and night. Newton was greatly affected by this near-death experience and began to take religion in earnest.

During his next voyage, one of his daily duties was to row to shore for supplies. As he was preparing to put off, the captain came and said that he had “taken it in his head” that Newton should remain on ship. The boat sank that day, and the crew that went in his stead drowned. Other dramatic near-death experiences are also described in the book; later on, in Liverpool, he was late to inspect a ship, and it blew up while he was on the way.

Appointed to preach the faith

In 1758, he applied for ordination to the Archbishop of York, but he was rejected because of certain doctrinal differences. Later, in 1764, he was accepted and took the curacy of Olney, at the age of 39. At Olney, Newton became acquainted with William Cowper, the brilliant poet. His biographer writes that Newton’s house “was an asylum for the perplexed or afflicted.” It is little wonder, then, that Cowper, who had been traumatized as a schoolboy and afflicted with depression, was a friend of Newton. Newton and Cowper wrote Olney Hymns (1779) together, which included many hymns now famous. They had plans to write more, but they were prevented by Cowper’s mental illness.

Newton wrote many works aside from hymns, but none of them are commonly read now. In 1764, the year he arrived at Olney, he published an autobiography (An Authentic Narrative), which went through several editions. After he became a priest, he also published a few volumes of sermons and other works. His Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788) established him as an abolitionist, repudiating the trade to which he had devoted his twenties and thirties. His letters were highly regarded by Charles Spurgeon.

In 1779, Newton took up a rectory in London, “in an opulent neighbourhood, with connexions daily increasing.” He continued to preach into his seventies, though losing both sight and hearing.

Meat:

John Newton is regarded as an early champion of evangelicalism, and indeed he was. But there is one aspect of his life that runs counter to some narratives of his life: his support of slavery after his conversion experience. Evangelical narratives tend to divide life into two phases: life before conversion, in which we are wicked, purposeless, and unhappy; and life after conversion, in which we are motivated, cheerful, and uncompromised. Why then did Newton continue to work as a slave trader after he became a committed follower of Christ?

This question is addressed several times throughout the book. In Newton’s own words, which are worth reading at length:

The reader may perhaps wonder, as I now do myself, that knowing the state of this vile traffic to be as I have here described, and abounding with enormities which I have not mentioned, I did not, at the time, start with horror at my own employment, as an agent in promoting it. Custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes. I did it ignorantly; for I am sure, had I thought of the slave-trade then, as I have thought of it since, no considerations would have induced me to continue in it. Though my religious views were not very clear, my conscience was very tender, and I durst not have displeased God, by acting against the light of my mind.

Indeed, a slave-ship, while upon the coast, is exposed to such innumerable and continual dangers, that I was often then, and still am, astonished that any one, much more so many, should leave the coast in safety. . . . I considered it as the line of life which God in his providence had allotted me, and as a cross which I ought to bear with patience and thankfulness, till he should be pleased to deliver me from it. (p. 79-80)

Though atrocious, everything the slave-traders did was upheld by law. It therefore took great courage of mind to consider that this formidable institution, which had continued from the dawn of man, was something to be opposed. Newton was a slave-trader in the 1740s. At that time, William Wilberforce was not even born. John Wesley did not write his Thoughts upon Slavery until 1774.

In the 1780s, the tide was turning against the slave trade. When Newton, now a prominent London minister, came out publicly against the slave trade with his pamphlet, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade (1788), it had an immense influence on English opinion. Eventually, in 1807, the British slave trade was abolished, and in 1833 the abolition of slavery followed.

Bones:

Some readers are turned off by this biography’s age, but I found it to be simply written and easy to read. It was written for the American Sunday School Union, evidently for a young audience. The quotations from Newton himself, though, are clearly in the higher style characteristic of the eighteenth century, and are a bit of a slog.

Related: Olney Hymns, Thoughts upon Slavery, Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade.

Quotes:

“A minister, wherever he is, should be always in his study. He should look at every man, and at every thing, as capable of affording him some instruction.” (p. 131)

“That one of the most ignorant, the most miserable, and the most abandoned of slaves, should be plucked from his forlorn state of exile on the coast of Africa, and at length be appointed minister of the parish of the first magistrate of the first city in the world—that he should there not only testify of such grace, but stand up as a singular instance and monument of it—is a fact I can contemplate with admiration, but never sufficiently estimate.” (p. 110)

“I have heard Mr. Newton say, when he has heard particular inquiry made about the last expressions of an eminent believer, ‘Tell me not how the man died, but how he lived.'” (p. 125)

“I hope I am upon the whole a scriptural preacher: for I find I am considered as an Arminian among the high Calvinists, and as a Calvinist among the strenuous Arminians.” (p. 134)

Review: How To Help Annexation

Rating: ★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Wartime, propaganda, World War I.

Overview:

This little pamphlet is ephemeral inasmuch as it addressed a moment that has now passed—the gradual de-escalation of World War I, as Germany’s allies agreed to armistices one by one, and the discussion was open as to what the consequences should be for Germany’s territories. This was a key moment in world history, and Chesterton was concerned that imperialist policies should be at all points discouraged.

Chesterton states frankly here that he stands by two principles: first, that he is for democracy, and second, that he is against imperialism.

As in his previous wartime works (The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England), Chesterton was writing as a patriot with an eye for justice in English and European policies. He argues, not without irony, that 1918 could be a repeat of 1871, as German aggression might be cowed only temporarily. In particular, he wanted Alsace-Lorraine to be returned to France.

There is only one way to arrest annexation; only one way in which such a stampede of sophistry and spoliation can be stopped. The opportunity for it is now, and will never return; the test case is lit with a limelight of concentrated publicity that will never hold the attention to such a test case hereafter. Rightly or wrongly, Alsace-Lorraine has become this test case, which the whole world is watching. Let it revert to France, and the whole world will know that the rush of annexations has been reversed; that civilisation has determined to return to its boundaries. Let it remain to Germany or under the shadow of Germany, in whatever form, upon whatever pretext, and the whole world will know that such annexations are always ultimately justified and can be safely imitated. (p. 12)

Chesterton’s opinions on this must not have been as rare as he thought, since Alsace-Lorraine ultimately was returned to Germany. (Germany had annexed it in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War.) On another point, Chesterton was somewhat prophetic—deep-rooted German race theories and perennial imperialism led to the outbreak of World War II, just three years after Chesterton’s death.

Related: The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England, Lord Kitchener.


In case you’re wondering what this review is doing here, this review is part of an effort to review all of Chesterton’s works in 2020 as an effort to get a full-orbed understanding of his life and thought. Our reviews usually cover sermons, theology, creative essays, biographies, and classic Christian living books.

Review: Beyond the Gloesmur

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Kathleen E. Deisher is the author and illustrator of Beyond the Gloesmur, a coming-of-age fantasy novel, as well as two children’s books. She has also been active in campus ministry in Texas and Oklahoma for several decades.

Overview:

Beyond the Gloesmur (2002, new edition 2019) records the first journey of Princess Jondalyn into the lands on the other side of the Gloesmur, a translucent veil separating our world from theirs. Jondalyn is visited in the night by Aeroan, a flying horse who asks her to come with him on a quest at the bidding of his Master. Though reluctant at first, Jondalyn accepts Aeroan’s challenge. When she arrives on the other side, she is guided by Talimar, a “mere stable boy,” who nonetheless is more royal in his attitude than Jondalyn herself.

Some readers will appreciate that the language of this book is more overtly Christian than some other fantasy novels by Christian authors. The characters learn real lessons about humility and patience as they travel the lands beyond the Gloesmur. The parallels with our own experiences are not always left to mere metaphors; rather, the protagonists make real sacrifices and have growing pains very similar to our own.

The style of the book is generally very appropriate for young readers, and the story is easy to follow. Some of the language is more formal than everyday speech, as we expect in a fantasy.

If you are a fan of The Chronicles of Narnia or A Wrinkle in Time, you will surely enjoy Beyond the Gloesmur.

There is some depth to the world beyond the Gloesmur that leaves room for a sequel, which unfortunately has not yet been published. Here’s to hoping that Book Two of The Gloesmur Scrolls is well on its way.

Review: William Cobbett

Rating: ★★★★

Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Genre: Biography.

Overview:

William Cobbett (1925) is one of eight full-length biographies written by Chesterton. This biography is not particularly theological, but it is reviewed here as an important specimen of Chesterton’s thought. None of Chesterton’s biographies are orderly accounts of a person’s life, work, and death; he is mainly concerned with Cobbett’s thought-life and influence on society.

The subject, William Cobbett (1763-1835), was a pamphleteer and Member of Parliament who fought for political reforms on behalf of the English poor and especially farmers. Among Chesterton’s other biographical works, Cobbett is the odd man out, being neither a religious figure, nor a great literary man; but Cobbett’s economic and political philosophy was Chesterton’s bread and butter. (Chesterton was a champion of “distributism,” an idea further described below.) In short, Cobbett despised financial corruption and plutocracy and encouraged an agrarian lifestyle, and was greatly alarmed by the many changes of the Industrial Revolution in England. He sought to encourage parliamentary reform in his writings, but he faced a great deal of opposition, including eventual flogging and imprisonment.

Cobbett was an opponent of various forms of corruption:

  • Abuse of enlisted soldiers (in the pamphlet The Soldier’s Friend, 1792);
  • “Rotten boroughs,” parliamentary boroughs that were essentially bought by the rich, similar to gerrymandering in American politics (finally abolished in 1867);
  • Disenfranchisement of rural farmers (Rural Rides 1822 to 1826).

Of these, Chesterton makes the most of the third, masterfully showing how industrialization was driving farmers out of hamlets and into towns, as evidenced in architecture: in the author’s eyes, churches in English villages are often very old and spacious beyond the needs of the parish; but country seats betrayed much younger architecture, showing that they were the product of a different time. Economic inequality was growing worse, not better.

William Cobbett also vehemently opposed national debt, stock markets, and even paper money (Paper Against Gold, 1817). On hearing of the first, we might think he was a libertarian; after the second, we might think he was a radical; after the third, we know Cobbett for what he is: a man out of time. Cobbett believed convoluted modern financial practices were distractions from true wealth, and would lead to eventual decline.

Meat:

While Chesterton expresses some tenets of distributism in most of his written works, they are clearly expounded in historical context in this biography. The ideas of distributism, while not framed in Christian terms in William Cobbett, are presented here in relation to Chesterton’s Christianity, with the hope that this will help believers to see their political thought in light of Scripture.

Distributism cuts across both socialism and capitalism, providing a “third way.” Socialism is typically criticized (at least, in the U. S.) because it may indirectly discourage productivity, but the Bible encourages believers to be productive members of society:

“Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before.” (1 Thess. 4:11, NLT)

Capitalism is often criticized for tending towards monopoly. The words of Isaiah clearly condemn monopoly:

“Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.” (Isa. 5:8, ESV)

The prophet Isaiah makes much of social justice and equality as an expression of God’s holiness. John Goldingay, in one of his many modern studies on Isaiah, points out that neglect of the poor is a main motivator for God’s judgment in Isaiah 1 to 5. A hundred years earlier, Joseph Parker, in his People’s Bible, commented on Isaiah 5:8:

“Men had little freeholds of their own: it was a life marked by small proprietorships; almost every man had some little patch of vineyard. The disposition, however, was to do away with small proprietories, and for the greater men to grasp all the land . . . The little freeholders of Palestine, were in many cases forced into a position of slavery, and made to toil as slaves on the lands which they once honestly owned and hopefully cultivated.”

These words concerning Israel, written in 1891, are a remarkable parallel to the problem described in Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1826) and in Chesterton’s biography (1925). In debating economic policies as they relate to the poor, believers should not consider capitalism and socialism as the only two options. There is a needed corrective in Chesterton’s encouragement towards a simple life.

Bones:

Chesterton portrays Cobbett as a unique and tortured soul, a genius rational beyond the reckoning of his time. In this Chesterton takes some artistic liberty, probably seeing much of himself in his subject. He is right though, that Cobbett was not well understood. William Cobbett was, like Chesterton, a native of Surrey, and we may forgive the author for idolizing someone with such a profound influence on his own political thought.

Read (free): Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg Australia (html)