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Review: The Appetite of Tyranny

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.”

Full Title:  The Appetite of Tyranny: Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian

Alternate Titles: The Appetite of Tyranny combines two previous books, both of which were very short: The Barbarism of Berlin (1914), which was a response to the July Crisis, and Letters to an Old Garibaldian (March 1915).

Genre: Non-fiction, journalism, wartime essays.

Overview:

The Appetite of Tyranny is a brief, thoughtful book, but not always measured in its tone. This little book addresses what Chesterton sees as the roots of German aggression that resulted in World War I. Although at the outset it is supposed to be reasoning against German ideology and policy, the book devolves into criticisms of the German people themselves.

The essay was published in 1914—directly in the wake of the July Crisis that led into World War I—so it is understandably polemic in tone. Chesterton sees the crisis as resulting from lack of faithfulness among German leadership on two points: keeping their word (they had promised not to invade Belgium), and maintaining reciprocity. Of course, the war itself would probably not be described so unilaterally in most history books.

Based on Project Gutenberg downloads, this appears to be the least popular of Chesterton’s fifty-odd books (the most popular being Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday).

This book is not really what we would call “classic” Chesterton, so I don’t recommend it for devotional or leisurely reading, unless you are highly interested in World War I. I consider World War I to be an understandably weak period in Chesterton’s writing.

Meat:

Chesterton is never concerned solely with the surface of the issue; he is always hunting for some principle behind the circumstances at play, so that he can better understand the motives and outcomes. For the most part, that is the case in The Appetite of Tyranny (though probably less so in The Crimes of England or Lord Kitchener).

He begins by seeking to demonstrate that “civilization,” in terms of technological advancement, has made the Germans no less “barbarous.” He argues that intellect and technology may only increase their evil:

If their cities soared higher than their flying ships, if their trains travelled faster than their bullets, we should still call them barbarians.

This is the kind of argument used, for instance, in his novel The Trees of Pride. But Chesterton’s argument weakens as he resorts to less logical attacks on the German people.

The most interesting points in this little book, I thought, were those that presaged the development of the Nazi movement. From the beginning of World War I, Chesterton openly mocked German “race theorists” and the superiority complex that he saw as fueling—or, at least, excusing—German aggression. He quotes a Professor Ostwald of Berlin University as saying:

Science combined with organisation makes us terrible to our opponents and ensures a German future for Europe. (p. 48)

Chesterton goes on to recount an argument by a German writer that Leonardo da Vinci was German! These examples are interesting in retrospect as exemplifying the kind of ideology that preceded Nazism. Chesterton was relatively consistent in this area as an outspoken critic of eugenics and related ideologies.

Bones:

As the essay continues, he slips into equating German politics with the German people as a whole, and commits several slurs which are difficult to excuse over a century later. Surely, when they were written, the English would not have thought twice about his generalizations, reeling as Europe was in the shock of the Great War. To my mind, he somewhat repeats the error of the Germans by insulting them as Germans.

I should add, even if he weren’t English, Chesterton’s sympathies would almost necessarily on the French side, the French being predominantly Catholic. He often speaks fondly of his travels in France; I am not sure if he ever visited Germany, and he had little regard for Luther.

This and several of his other books of the time period are mainly responses to the needs of the time, and haven’t aged nearly as well as most of his works. Although it contains a few interesting historical notes and aphorisms here and there (several given below), The Appetite of Tyranny definitely should not be the first (or even third) Chesterton book you pick up.

Related Works: Lord Kitchener, The Crimes of England.

Quotes:

“Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things.”

“The collapse of German philosophy always occurs at the beginning, rather than the end of an argument.”

“The danger of the Pruss is that he is prepared to fight for old errors as if they were new truths.”

“The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.”

“The promise, like the wheel, is unknown in Nature: and is the first mark of man. Referring only to human civilisation, it may be said with seriousness that in the beginning was the Word. The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known.” (in an argument about German faithlessness)

“He cannot get outside the idea that he, because he is he and not you, is free to break the law; and also to appeal to the law.”

 

 

The Armor of God (VII): The Helmet of Salvation

This is the seventh part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:17)

Like the “breastplate of righteousness,” the “helmet of salvation” is first mentioned by Isaiah:

For He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
And a helmet of salvation on His head;
He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing,
And was clad with zeal as a cloak.
(Isa. 59:17)

Some have said that connecting “salvation” to our “heads” implies that salvation is related to our theology or thought processes about God. That is true, in a sense. It is not our right ways of thinking that bring us salvation; it is our salvation that directs our thoughts to God. When we repent and turn to him, he enables us to become his children (John 1:1-14), and this amounts to a total reorientation of our life.

I am not sure whether a reader in Paul’s day or Isaiah’s day would have readily connected their “brain” or “head” with their thoughts. Regardless, I think it’s nearer to the heart of the metaphor to seek to understand the Jewish concept of salvation, and to see it as something that protects the most important part of us.

It is a very American problem to be preoccupied with “where someone is spending eternity” to the exclusion of the consideration of righteousness or even life. An interesting corrective to this has been noticed by better Bible scholars than myself:

  • He “saved” us in Titus 3:5;
  • We are “being saved” in 1 Corinthians 1:18, Acts 2:47, and elsewhere; and,
  • We “will be saved” in Mark 16:16 and Acts 16:31.

“Salvation” as used in the Bible definitely includes a future state; but it also involves a state of wholeness on earth and in this present life. We should think of salvation as God’s protecting influence that begins with forgiveness and culminates in eternal communion.

Review: The Man Who Was Thursday (No Spoilers)

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: Surrealism, crime, suspense.

Overview:

The Man Who Was Thursday is probably Chesterton’s most intriguing work of fiction. It reads exactly like a modern action movie, skipping from place to place, and you are not quite sure, until the end, who is on which side of the conflict.

The story centers around the work of the “philosophical police,” especially one man named Syme. Syme, along with others, has been given the assignment of rooting out anarchism in England, and he begins by getting acquainted with Gregory, a friend of a friend, who appears to dabble in anti-establishment talk around parlors and dinner tables. Syme believes that Gregory may be involved in some deeper plot with an underground anarchist organization; Syme has no idea, though, how deep the rabbit hole will go.

As the plot thickens, it carries with it all the intrigue of The Matrix or an M. Night Shyamalan film, as readers are trying to figure out what is real and what is fantasy. Chesterton despises tidily framed opinions and political correctness, and this book makes some brow-furrowing philosophical statements both through the characters’ voices and through the paradoxes engendered throughout the plot.

Meat:

My favorite part of this book was not any of the aphorisms peppered throughout—which are inevitable in any Chesterton book. My favorite part was the irony that grows larger and larger throughout the book, until it becomes so ludicrous that you see why the book’s subtitle is A Nightmare. The story couldn’t be real just as he describes the story; it is real all around us and is renewed every day.

Chesterton proves to cross genres just as adeptly as Lewis or MacDonald. Nothing is lost in reading his non-fiction, poetry, or novels.

Bones:

My biggest bone with this book is the presentation—as usually printed, it looks like a piece of crime fiction, and it could easily be confused as one of the “Father Brown” stories. This story is very different from those, and, as I mentioned, the subtitle—which is left out on many editions—should suggest as much.

Although on the whole the book is full of suspense, parts of the plot do seem predictable, but the narrative is told in such a clever way that it did not bother me in the least, or detract from the constant wonder of reading the novel.

Quotes:

“Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front . . . “

I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace.”

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub & rtf), The Internet Archive (pdf)



An old review reads:

A WILD, MAD, HILARIOUS AND PROFOUNDLY MOVING TALE

It is very difficult to classify THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. It is possible to say that it is a gripping adventure story of murderous criminals and brilliant policemen; but it was to be expected that the author of the Father Brown stories should tell a detective story like no-one else. On this level, therefore, THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY succeeds superbly; if nothing else, it is a magnificent tour-de-force of suspense-writing.

However, the reader will soon discover that it is much more than that. Carried along on the boisterous rush of the narrative by Chesterton’s wonderful high-spirited style, he will soon see that he is being carried into much deeper waters than he had planned on; and the totally unforeseeable denouement will prove for the modern reader, as it has for thousands of others since 1908 when the book was first published, an inevitable and moving experience, as the investigators finally discover who Sunday is.

Review: The Shadow of an Agony

Rating: ★★★★★


Author: Oswald Chambers was a teacher of the Bible in the United Kingdom, a chaplain to World War I soldiers in Egypt, and author of numerous devotional books, mostly compiled posthumously by his indefatigable wife, Biddy. Chambers’ dense and thought-provoking style has made his book My Utmost for His Highest (again, Biddy’s compilation) the best-selling devotional book of the 20th century.


Overview:

The chief themes of this book are the meaning of regeneration, the origin and meaning of sin, and the Spirit’s discipline. Somewhat similar to Watchman Nee (The Spiritual Man, Spiritual Knowledge), Chambers saw these biblical terms as keys to understanding the whole of human experience. He takes a verse as a heading, but he never attempts any linguistic or theological analysis of the verse; his goal is always to take the broad meaning of the text as it plainly stands and use it to explain what he sees in life.

The movement that Chambers was a part of—dubbed The League of Pentecostal Prayer, though it is not Pentecostal in its modern doctrinal meaning—must have encouraged some novelty of expression and thought. Whether he is teaching his Bible students or addressing soldiers, he takes no care to sound like a preacher. As a single example, rather than speak of “original sin” he speaks of “the curious twist” in life or the “disposition of sin”; he often explains the Bible’s meaning in novel ways without resorting to “Christianese.”


Meat:

Apart from his pithy compilations, Chambers can be surprisingly difficult to read, but Shadow of an Agony is an exception. When I have tried to read Chambers’ older books, I found them to be full of good material, but thematically incoherent. (Thus, the creation of My Utmost for His Highest and other re-arrangements of his thoughts.) This book, though, is much more cohesive than (for instance) Shade of His Hand. He stays closely to his main themes of sin, regeneration, and discipline.


Quotes:

On sin:

“The Bible does not say that God punished the human race for one man’s sin, but that the disposition of sin, i.e., my claim to my right to myself, entered into the human race by one man.” (p. 104)

“There is no such thing as sin outside the Bible; sin is a revelation fact, and it is the one fact that accounts for the curious twist we find in things.” (p. 105)

“Sin is a relationship between two of God’s creations. God did not create sin; but He took the responsibility for it; and that He did so is proved in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” (p. 46)

“A man cannot be forgiven for what he is not to blame, but God holds a man responsible for refusing to receive a new heredity when he sees that Jesus Christ can give it to him.”


On regeneration:

“A Christian is a disciple of Jesus Christ’s by the possession of a new heredity (John 3:3), one who has been brought into personal relationship with Jesus Christ by the indwelling Spirit of God—not one with certain forms of creed or doctrine; these are the effects of his relationship, not the ground of it.” (p. 68)

“If I receive the Spirit of God and become a son of God by right of regeneration, God does not give me my Christian character. I have to make that. He gives me the disposition of His Son. As I obey the Spirit of God and the Word of God, I slowly form the Christian character.”

“In Redemption He has dealt with the disposition of sin.” (p. 105)


On sanctification:

“Our destiny is something fixed by God, but determined by our disposition.” (p. 103)

Character is what we make; disposition is what we are born with.” (p. 102-103)

Character must be attained; it is never given to us.” (p. 94)

“The Spirit of Christ is given to us, but not the mind of Christ. . . .The Spirit of Christ comes into me by regeneration, then I have to begin to form the mind of Christ.” (p. 110)

“Any fool will give up wrongdoing and the devil . . . but it takes a man in love with Jesus Christ to give up the best he has for Him. Jesus Christ does not demand that I give up the wrong, but the right—the best I have for Him, viz., my right to myself. Will I agree to go through my ‘white funeral’ and say I deliberately cut out my claim to my right to myself, deliberately go to the death of my self-will?” (p. 112)


On childlikeness:

“I do not live the Christian life by adherence to principles; I live the Christian life as a child lives its life. You never can calculate what a child will do, neither can you calculate what the Spirit of God will do in you. When you are born from above the Spirit of God in you works in spontaneous moral originality.” (p. 52-53)

Review: The Ballad of the White Horse

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.”

Overview:

The Ballad of the White Horse is an epic poem—here referring to content rather than length—named for one of many ancient English petroglyphs (the “Westbury white horse”); the stone symbol is attributed to the early English King Alfred, whom the poem idealizes. (In the introduction, Chesterton adroitly states that this is not a work of researched historical fiction.) White Horse offers a romantic vision of Christian virtue through the eyes of the English past. While Chesterton’s other poems (Poems, The Wild Knight) are scattered in theme and method, this is his only long poem.

Some quick facts on this little book:

  • It is considered one of the last true “epics” of the English language.
  • Like many Classical poets, Chesterton uses the glories of past victory as a kind of metaphor or prophecy of today’s enemies—which, in his view, in the Britain of 1911, were intellectual and not military.
  • Some think, not without reason, that this poem was among the chief inspirations for The Lord of the Rings, in its imagery, conventions of epic, and recall of obsolete vocabulary.

Meat:

White Horse incorporates a lot of philosophy into its story. The chief value is in Chesterton’s glory in the underdog, in the cross, in the servant:

“And well may God with the serving-folk
Cast in His dreadful lot;
Is not He too a servant,
And is not He forgot?”
(Book IV, loc. 449)

” . . . Verily
Man shall not taste of victory
Till he throws his sword away.”
(Book V, loc. 626)

Bones:

Whatever it may seem to be, this is not a poem for children. Chesterton’s poetry tends towards archaic language that can be a little confusing; and in today’s political climate, the message of this book and could be twisted into brazen nationalism—though I think that would be an abuse of the author’s intent, which so often involves the cross.

Quotes:

“The men of the East may spell the stars,
And times and triumphs mark,
But the men signed of the cross of Christ
Go gaily in the dark.”
(p. 11, loc. 158)

“When God put man in a garden
He girt him with a sword,
And sent him forth a free knight
That might betray his lord.
(p. 43, loc. 389)

“And any little maid that walks
In good thoughts apart,
May break the guard of the Three Kings
And see the dear and dreadful things
I hid within my heart.

“The meanest man in grey fields gone
Behind the set of sun,
Heareth between star and other star,
Through the door of the darkness fallen ajar,
The council, eldest of things that are,
The talk of the Three in One.”
(p. 11, loc. 151)

Read: You can read this book for free on Project Gutenberg, or in the Kindle Store, or listen to the audiobook for free on LibriVox.

Psst—nearly all of Chesterton’s works are available for free online. Click here to see more of what’s out there.

 

 

 

The Armor of God (VI): Fiery Darts

This is the sixth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


Stand therefore . . . above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Eph. 6:14, 16)

There are two offensive weapons mentioned in Ephesians 6, and the difference between them should be striking: The enemy shoots darts or arrows at us, while our only weapon is a sword. One is for long-distance combat; the other is for close combat.

The traditional phrase, “fiery darts,” has also been translated “flaming arrows”; historians record that arrows were dipped in oil, lit on fire, and used in battle as much as 2700 years ago (and referenced in Psalm 7:13, which may be even older). But they were probably not very common, or effective. The technology was greatly improved by the Byzantines, who invented a form of napalm in the seventh century after Christ. Before that time, a “flaming arrow” would be a frightening spectacle, but not always super-effective.

The metaphor tells us something about the devil’s strategy. He lobs his weapons at us from a great distance, hoping that the damage will spread. The Scriptures describes “the tongue” as a spreading fire: it “setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” (James 3:6)

One of the greatest ways that we can cancel the lies of the enemies is by controlling the words that come out of our mouths. Our mouths are not magic, but our words do carry “the power of life and death” (Prov. 18:21), and we can damage our own faith by not keeping a tight grip on our words.

The Armor of God (V): The Shield of Faith

This is the fifth part in an eight-part series on “the armor of God” in Ephesians 6. It starts here.


Stand therefore . . . above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. (Eph. 6:14, 16)

Warren Wiersbe has a fantastic book entitled The Strategy of Satan in which he goes through the key Scriptures related to spiritual warfare and temptation. Starting with with Adam and Eve, he goes through many of the same themes that I discussed in my series on Jesus in the desert. His impactful book keeps faith front and center during the discussion of spiritual warfare—if we want to live in victory, we need faith. So what is it, and how do we get there?

Faith, Wiersbe says, is the key to the entire conflict. But this statement can be misleading if we misunderstand what faith is. One of the ways we misunderstand faith is by thinking of it as mere confidence, like throwing yourself off a bridge into a dark cavern, hoping that the landing will be soft. We pray for someone to receive healing or for the mortally ill to turn a corner, and invariably someone will muddy the waters of a fast-growing faith by using the words, “we didn’t have enough faith.” Young minds hear these words and, comparing them to a few Scriptures, they imagine that they didn’t huff and puff and “faith themselves up” enough. If those were the conditions and operations of faith, then not only would faith be a fool’s hope, but God would be a silent tyrant. God forbid!

Biblical faith is not as mysterious as that. A. W. Tozer addressed this “leap of faith” problem in many of his short articles, but the most memorable is his chapter “The Gaze of the Soul” in the book The Pursuit of God. Tozer wrote there that “faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God.” He brings faith firmly back into the realm of possibility—faith involves confidence in what we already know about God. We cannot know everything about any given topic; but, given that we know Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, we are willing to risk everything we don’t know on the God that we do know.

Getting back to Wiersbe’s book—he points out that Adam and Eve’s failure against the serpent turned on their knowledge of God. Eve had already walked with God. She had already talked with God and heard from God, and she failed in that knowledge first. Then, she failed in conflict with her enemy.

There are a lot of strange ideas out there about spiritual warfare. Many world religions use ritualistic chanting or cleansing to drive away evil spirits, and some Christians think that quoting Scripture in a certain way can do the same thing. Some modern worship songs apply an almost magical power to the name of Jesus, which, while it has some founding in Scripture, is not something that should be worn like a charm when it is not married to a living faith in a present God.

We have all had moments when we simply felt attacked, as even atheists can attest. We locked the door but troubles came swarming through our window. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” We all know those “flaming arrows” of the enemy. And we all have thoughts about who to turn to—a person we can trust, a drink or drug to drown our sorrow, or anything to distract us from the state of our soul. Or we think that extra Scripture reading or church attendance will somehow protect us. None of these things mark a true newborn faith of the child of God. The only response from the child of God is to look heavenward for help with the gaze of a born-again faith and offer the sacrifice of praise, knowing that all who even desire to live godly will suffer persecution in Christ Jesus.