Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Manalive (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: Novel, detective fiction.

Overview:

Manalive (1912), like Chesterton’s other early novels, revolves around an antihero. Innocent Smith appears to all the supporting characters to be a lunatic, but some show sympathy for his bombastic and unconventional ways. Early in the book, he becomes embroiled in controversy over his ethically confusing behavior. (Note the obvious irony of his name.) A large part of the book is framed by courtroom dialogue, in which the defense and prosecution produce numerous testimonies and anecdotes about Smith’s strange behavior in relation to his friends, family, and home.

Because a number of crimes are integral to the plot of the book, Manalive could be construed loosely as a detective novel.

Meat:

Manalive is one of Chesterton’s better novels, and expresses his philosophy of life in a way not expressed elsewhere. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, it is episodic and has a strong unified theme, often expressed with poetic description and clever dialogue. The theme of the novel relates to finding contentment where you are; but it is much more appropriate to offer a sample of the author’s words:

“Going right round the world is the shortest way to where you are already.”

Contentment is thus framed as a paradox: we long to be where we are. This also leads to some wonderful insight into marriage in this novel, much of the plot revolving around Innocent Smith’s (un?)faithfulness to his wife. Ultimately, we can see in Smith much of the author’s jovial love of paradox, his concept of love, as well as his sense of local patriotism—a main theme in The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Bones:

I found the courtroom setting to be an uninteresting distraction. Once I understood the purpose of the novel, I realized that the testimonies were all tied together by a common thread; until then, I thought the book was dull and slow. Perhaps the frame was not tightly bound enough, because I kept getting confused about who was speaking, since the courtroom testimonies were given as very long letters or monologues.

Quotes:

“God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything.

Read (free): Gutenberg (html, epub, txt), Archive (pdf), Kindle (mobi), Librivox (audio)

Review: As I Was Saying

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, articles.

Overview:

As I Was Saying (1936) is the last among Chesterton’s many compilations of articles and essays, the first of which (The Defendant) had appeared in 1901. In his later life, he was releasing one book of articles annually in addition to several other works: Generally Speaking (1928), Come to Think of It (1930), All Is Grist (1931), All I Survey (1933), Avowals and Denials (1934), The Well and the Shallows (1935), and, lastly, As I Was Saying (1936).

All of Chesterton’s compilations are a joy to read. Ironically, these later essays are not as easy to come by as his earlier works. Perhaps they were not as popular. The themes include several authors of his time (George Meredith, William Morris), and various political, literary, and religious themes. They have the same infinite pith of his earlier works. He also deals with many themes that will sound quite modern to native Chestertonians (“About Traffic,” “About the Telephone”, “About the Films”).

Meat:

There are five essays in this book that are worthy of anything Chesterton ever wrote: “About Beliefs,” “About Meredith,” “About Relativity,” “About Darwinism,” and “About Sacrifice.”

“About Beliefs” is a short article dealing with the Resurrection of Christ. “About Sacrifice” likewise is sublime in its theme:

The idea of giving up a thing not because it is bad, but because it is good.

“About Relativity” and “About Darwinism” both deal with phases of modern thought that have been lost in time:

Whatever else was evolved, evolution was not evolved. . . . [The idea] came with far too much of a rush; it became, as the phrase goes, all the rage, with some of its exponents rather unmistakably raging.

Bones:

Probably a downside to these later essays for many readers is that they have become increasingly political. It is perhaps natural for a man to become more firm in his beliefs over time.

In As I Was Saying, Chesterton is also frequently concerned about changes taking place in Germany (“About Loving Germans”):

In short, it is thought an insult to call Germans sausages; but it is a compliment to call them sausage-machines.

Being by this time a thorough Catholic and an opponent of a materialistic worldview, Chesterton shows no sympathy for the Nazi movement, and precious little for German culture itself, as I have written elsewhere.

Review: A History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland

Rating: ★★★★

Author:

Henry S. Burrage was an American clergyman who wrote several books about the Civil War, as well as the history of baptism.

Overview:

A History of the Anabaptists in Switzerland (1882) is concise, but researched; informative, but compelling. If you are studying the Reformation as a whole, D’Aubigne is much larger in scope, but this little book by Burrage tops my list of recommendations on Reformation history. He covers in passing:

  • The entry of missionaries into Switzerland (7th c.)
  • Stirrings toward reform (15th c.)
  • Zwingli’s move against indulgences and his sympathizers
  • Luther’s rejection of offered brotherhood
  • Split between Zwingli and the radical reformers (chiefly Grebel and Hubmaier)
  • The move to persecute, execute, or banish those who rejected infant baptism

Theologically, many issues rise to the surface:

  • Infant baptism vs. believers’ baptism
  • State church vs. free church
  • Open communion vs. church discipline
  • Treatment of “heretics”
  • Use of images
  • Abolition of “mass” as an offering
  • Nonresistance theology

The key question to be answered was:

Having separated from the Church of Rome, they naturally asked, what should take its place? (loc. 672)

Here, rather than writing of what I liked about the book, I will set apart some space for historical facts gleaned from this little book.

Key Moments in the History of Baptism:

1. Stirrings Against Corruption

In August 1518, an indulgence seller named Bernard Samson came to Switzerland. Zwingli, quoting Matthew 11:28, called it “the most presumptuous folly” to lay such a burden on Christian people. (loc. 314) Others had preceded him, such as Reuchlin, who instructed Melanchthon, and Wittenbach, who attacked indulgences. (loc. 190-198) Wittenbach believed a new era of Christian learning would dawn.

“In Zurich . . . Zwingli was continually growing in popular favor. . . . Only gradually, however, did Zwingli break with the Church of Rome.” (loc. 390-395)

2. The Reformation Organizes—”Magisterial” & “Radical”

The First Zurich Discussion was held January 29, 1523, in which Zwingli defended himself against rumors of heresy. Only one man defended invocation of the saints, and when the others appealed to sola scriptura, he had little to say. “Zwingli had won an easy and decisive victory.” (loc. 549)

The Second Zurich Discussion was held October 26-28, 1523, after an outbreak against Christian images. Hubmaier, Grebel, and Stumpf appealed against the use of images and the offering of the Mass, but Zwingli took a more moderate course of reform:

“Especially was it an occasion of dissatisfaction with them that the churches in and around Zurich, which had broken away from the grasp of Rome, should thus be made dependent upon the State. ‘It stands ill with the gospel in Zurich,’ wrote Grebel to Vadian, ‘and Zwingli no longer acts a shepherd’s part.’ From this time the reform party was hopelessly divided.”

Stumpf was significant in re-evaluating the meaning of “church.” He said it should be believers only, and he was dismissed by the Zurich Council. (loc. 665)

3. The Magisterial Reformation Works Against the Radical Reformation

Grebel, Reublin, and others were teaching believers’ baptism by March 1524 and in August 1524 a fine was ordered for those who didn’t baptize their children. Hubmaier, after being pressured to resign his pastorate, wrote to the Council:

Divine truth is immortal, and although for a while it may be arrested, scourged, crowned, crucified, and buried, it will, nevertheless, on the third day rise victorious, and rule and triumph forever and ever. (loc. 734)

On January 16, 1525, Grebel wrote, “Christianity will not prosper unless baptism and the Lord’s Supper are brought back to their original purity.” A call was issued to discuss infant baptism on January 17, 1525. On January 18, banishment was ordered for those with unbaptized children. Several leaders, Hetzer and Reublin, left.

Here follows a description of an early Anabaptist conventicle:

After a season of prayer, the Scriptures were read, Grebel and Mantz translating from the original Hebrew and Greek for the benefit of those who were unacquainted with the ancient tongues. The meaning of the sacred Word was then unfolded, under the guidance, as it was believed, of the Holy Spirit. (loc. 895)

Around this time, several preached conversion in the streets of Zurich, using apocalyptic language and shouting “woe to Zurich!”

On March 7, 1526, drowning was ordered for re-baptizers (“Anabaptists”). When Falk and Rieman were arrested in May 1526, “they confessed that they had been baptized, and that, atlhough they knew the penalty was death, they had baptized others, and would do so again.” (loc. 1545)

The above edict was confirmed November 17, 1526, and Mantz was drowned on January 5, 1527.

It was soon found that persecution increased rather than diminished the membership of the Anabaptists Churches. (loc. 1642)

4. Leaders in the Radical Reformation & Their Practices

A key figure in believers’ baptism was Conrad Grebel. Conrad Grebel baptized George Blaurock on January 21, 1525—the first adult baptism of the Reformation. Conrad Grebel also baptized Wolfgang Ullmann in the Rhine—the first adult baptism by immersion of the Protestant Reformation. (He died of the Plague in 1526.)

Grebel also taught non-resistance theology.

“In lonely cottages in the valleys and along the mountain slopes, the people were quietly summoned together. The Bible was read, its divine lessons unfolded, and sinners were urged to flee from the wrath to come. It was a new gospel to thousands . . .” (loc. 987)

Another leading figure Balthasar Hubmaier. Hubmaier was a “Schwertler” (sword-bearing) Anabaptist, as opposed to the total non-resistance theology of others. He chose to write in vernacular German; “the death of the Lord should be preached after any land’s tongue.” Hubmaier was burned at the stake publicly on March 10, 1528, and his wife was also executed. He had endured considerable torture during his imprisonment.

Hubmaier practiced child dedication. (loc. 1023) There is also some mention that children “belong to the Kingdom.”

“For I am wholly of a different view from those who bind the Kingdom of God to the ceremonies and elements of the world.” (Denk, loc. 1712)

Bones:

It almost goes without saying that the writer of this book had a great disdain for the Magisterial Reformation represented by Zwingli, and does not present them in a positive light! In fact, Zwingli defended several Reformation principles—sola scriptura, the Lord’s Supper, etc.—that all Protestants today would consider indispensable.

Read for Free: The Internet Archive (pdf).

Review: Thackeray

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.”

Lewis Melville was an English author known mainly for his biographical works on Victorian authors.

Series:

Tennyson is one of a series of eight brief biographies of writers (“The Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton and other writers in 1902 and 1903. Chesterton co-wrote six of them:

  1. Thomas Carlyle (with J. E. Hodder Williams)
  2. Robert Louis Stevenson (with W. Robertson Nicoll)
  3. Charles Dickens (with F. G. Kitton, J. E. Hodder Williams)
  4. Leo Tolstoy (with Edward Garnett, G. H. Perris)
  5. Tennyson (with Richard Garnett)
  6. Thackeray (with Lewis Melville)

They are a mere 40 pages each, focusing on basic overviews of the works of these six writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six are too short for proper biographies, but they have some redeeming qualities—especially if you are interested in eminent writers, and Chesterton’s view of them. In each book, Chesterton dives right into an essay about the author’s thought-life for many pages before giving you the facts about his birth, schooling, and accomplishments. He does this, I believe, lest we get “the facts right and the truth wrong” (Thackeray, ch. 1).

Overview:

William Makepeace Thackeray was an English novelist of the mid-nineteenth century, portrayed in Chesterton’s time as a cynic, and in our time as a satirist. Both authors in this little book, however, contend that Thackeray is neither. While Melville writes that Thackeray’s fictional characters are often “scoundrels,” Chesterton turns this around by portraying Thackeray as an “idealist.” Chesterton argues that allowing us to sympathize with the “scoundrels” was Thackeray’s genius:

We may, without any affected paradox, but rather with serious respect, sum up Thackeray’s view of life by saying that amid all the heroes and geniuses he saw only one thing worth being—a fool. (ch. 1)

In his account of the many characters of Thackeray’s stories, Melville writes:

His characters are always human. There are no immaculate heroes, no perfect heroines, no utterly unredeemed scoundrels of either sex to be met with in the pages of his books. (ch. 2)

Thackeray evidently did not see himself as a satirist. Rather, he imagined his characters were real people, and he wrote matter-of-factly that he began his novels entirely on this basis. He did not write fiction with any particular climax in mind, and wrote that he did not “control” his characters: “I am in their hands, and they take me where they please.” Again, in his letters he speaks of characters as his “friends,” and writes, “I wonder what will happen to Pendennis.” Far from a bleak lover of tragedy, Chesterton sees in Thackeray the same childlike whimsy that made his own writings so lovable.

Aside from his unique process, another intriguing device used by Thaceray was that of introducing crossover characters in unrelated stories; this device was also adopted, for example, by George MacDonald in some of his novels, and has become very popular in contemporary fiction.

As far as his personal life, Thackeray began as a noble, but spent most of his inheritance in Europe before he really created a livelihood. In an odd parallel to Chesterton’s early career, Thackeray excelled at art and made a study of it, but could not make a living doing so, and eventually made a name for himself as a writer instead. In the 1830s, he was fixed as a contributor for several magazines of the time, such as Fraser’s Magazine, and later as editor of Cornhill. Like other novels of the time (including Dickens), most of Thackeray’s fictional stories were published as serials and only later compiled into books. They progressed toward realism over time, the most famous being Pendennis (1850), Vanity Fair (1853), and The Newcomes (1855).

Meat:

Though his treatment of this author seems—as usual—paradoxical, Chesterton does a good job of defending Thackeray as an idealist. This culminates in these wonderful commemorative verses by Anthony Trollope:

He was a cynic; you might read it writ
In that broad brow, crowned with its silver hair;
In those blue eyes, with childlike candour lit,
In that sweet smile his lips were wont to wear;

A cynic? Yes—if ’tis the cynic’s part
To track the serpent’s trail, with saddened eye,
To mark how good and ill divide the heart,
How lives in chequered shade and sunshine lie.

Subverting the static portrayal of good and evil characters is something that has become quite a vogue in post-modern fiction and cinema; it is no longer fashionable, sometimes, to even know who the hero and the villain are. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn famously wrote:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

For Thackeray’s part, I would hope that his audience would at least have agreed on what evil is as a starting point. From there, we can work out the meaning and destiny of each character.

Bones:

Most definitely, the most humorless part of this book is the record of the houses that Thackeray lived in. Surely, an American reader gets no joy from this, and even an English tourist, I believe, would only look over it with the mildest interest unless he happened to be within a mile of one of them.

Review: Job (People’s Bible, Book 12)

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Joseph Parker was a famed Congregationalist preacher of late nineteenth-century London. His People’s Bible is a monumental series of over 1000 sermons from the perspective of biblical (or narrative) theology.

Overview:

Joseph Parker’s preaching style is especially suited to Old Testament wisdom, and had already published a volume on Job (Job’s Comforters: Scientific Sympathy, 1874) more than a decade before his magnum opus, The People’s Bible, was begun.

As usual, almost every sermon in this volume includes generalizations about the book as a whole, relating it to New Testament truth. However, unlike many books written about Job (e.g., Morgan’s The Answers of Jesus to Job), he doesn’t skip over the dialogues of Job’s friends. Parker goes chapter by chapter, following the dialogue in narrative chunks, but usually not verse by verse.

Meat:

Job’s friends are a topic that Parker pays special attention to, as he did in his previous book on Job. In the course of his sermons, he points out two key errors that can be made about Job’s comforters:

  1. We may cite them as Scripture, without differentiating them from Job himself, or paying due notice to the narrative.
  2. We may pay them no notice because of the divine verdict rendered against their words (in Job 42:7).

Parker steers away from both, treating Job’s friends (and Elihu) as serious debaters and theologians, with mostly correct—but incomplete—view of God’s providence.

History is not a succession of accidents, but the outworking of a sublime philosophy, the end of which is the coronation of righteousness, the enthronement of purity and nobleness. Such comforters are sent to us as from the very presence of God.

Paul Anleitner’s Deep Talks podcast on Job treats Job’s friends in much the same way; they are correct in observing that, in general, the righteous prosper and the wicked perish (Prov. 11:10, 29:2, etc.); this, however, is simply not the whole picture.

The general doctrine is founded in truth; its fallacy lies is in its application to Job’s peculiar case.

I should add, Chesterton’s wonderful 1902 article on Robert Louis Stevenson rather turns this topic on its head.

Bones:

The shortcomings of this book are not different from the shortcomings of The People’s Bible as a whole; namely, Parker is a “big picture” preacher and doesn’t often answer detail-oriented questions about the text. This book should not be read at a study desk. Rather, his sermons need to be approached in armchair with a large cup of tea.

Quotes:

“Good behaviour founded upon a philosophy of fear is only vice in a fit of dejection.”

“No man could see himself and live.”

“May we not have argued about providences when we ought to have prayed respecting them?”

“If we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is able to lay a wounded hand upon God, and a wounded hand upon man, and to bring God and man together in righteous and eternal reconciliation.”

“How if it should turn out at last that our very punishment has been meted to us in mercy? What if at the end it should be found that adversity was a veiled evangel sent from heaven to bring us home?”

On meaningless suffering:

“We must often suffer, and not know the reason why: we must often rise from our knees to fight a battle, when we intended to enjoy a long repose: things must slip out of our hands unaccountably, and loss must befall our estate after we have well tended all that belongs to it, after we have securely locked every gate, and done the utmost that lies within the range of human sagacity and strength to protect our property. These are the trials that we must accept. If everything were plain and straightforward, everything would be proportionately easy and proportionately worthless.”

On immortality:

“God, who has made so much out of nothing, means to make more out of so much: the very creation means the redemption and salvation and coronation of the thing that was created in the divine image and likeness. Creation does not end in itself: it is a pledge, a token, a sign—yea, a sure symbol, equal in moral value to an oath, that God’s meaning is progress unto the measure of perfection. This is how we discover the grand doctrine of the immortality of the soul, even in the Old Testament—even in the Book of Genesis and in the Book of Job. What was it that lay so heavily upon Adam and upon Job? It was the limitation of their existence; it was the possible thought that they could see finalities, that they could touch the mean boundary of their heart’s throb and vital palpitation. When men can take up the whole theatre of being and opportunity and destiny, and say, This is the shape of it, and this is the weight, this is the measure, this is the beginning, and this is the end, then do they weary of life, and they come to despise it with bitterness; but when they cannot do these things, but, contrariwise, when they begin to see that there is a Beyond, something farther on, voices other than human, mystic appearances and revelations, then they say, This life as we see it is not all; it is an alphabet which has to be shaped into a literature, and a literature which has to end in music. The conscious immortality of the soul, as that soul was fashioned in the purpose of God, has kept the race from despair.”

Review: A Miscellany of Men

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: Magic: A Fantastic Comedy.

Genre: Essays, articles.

Overview:

A Miscellany of Men (1912) is one of Chesterton’s most humorous and interesting books of short articles. Like The Defendant (1901), the essays here share a loose frame, but vary widely in subject matter. The frame for A Miscellany of Men is that of a collection of types or profiles of various people, but all of the “men” (and women) being portrayed are anonymous: “The Free Man,” “The Real Journalist,” “The Fool,” etc.

Themes covered are Chesterton’s typical fare: political paradoxes, religious freedom, and, of course, embarrassing tales of his own lethargy and absentmindedness. His self-deprecating humor peaks in “The Real Journalist” and “The Gardener and the Guinea.” Only a few articles deal with current events, and he usually only does so when there is an element of humor or paradox involved. With that in mind, pegging this book as “journalistic” articles would fall short of their enduring quality.

Near the end of the book, “The Divine Detective” is an essay that is key to understanding why Chesterton revelled in detective stories, as well as a profound statement of missional theology. I highly recommend it.

Liberty is a theme that is repeated throughout this book more so than in his other books of essays. Several whole articles are devoted to this topic:

  • “The Mad Official”—about unjust laws;
  • “The Free Man”—about political liberty;
  • “The Sectarian of Society”—about religious tolerance;
  • “The Voter and the Two Voices”—about agenda-setting in politics;
  • “The Chartered Libertine”—about liberty and law.

But, for Chesterton, the other side of the coin is always equality. He deals with classism and inequality in essays such as:

  • “The Miser and His Friends”;
  • “The Man on Top”; and
  • “The Fool.”

The key to much of Chesterton’s thought is how he seeks to balance these two axiomatic principles of freedom and equality.

Meat:

This was a very good book of essays, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in how Chesterton thinks. It contains some of the clearer statements of Chesterton’s political thoughts, in the above-mentioned essays. In particular, I was intrigued by “The Voter and the Two Voices”:

It is not the quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which they choose.

Agenda-setting was formalized in political science in the 1960s, so this was not a problem that scholars were often writing about in Chesterton’s day.

Chesterton’s political opinions are, like his other opinions, told in a rather upside-down fashion. That is, he stands on his head, and proceeds to point out that that is the only way our theories are turned right-side-up. When he writes about women’s suffrage in the books opening essay, he does not argue for one or the other solution; he is always turning them both down and searching for clues to the deeper issues in our system.

Bones:

I enjoyed the “miscellany” in A Miscellany of Men, but I do wish that Chesterton had spent more time connecting his arguments together in longer chains of thought, as he did in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy. If there is one reason that he is not grappled with more often as a serious thinker, it is this: his epiphanies do not roll in linearly, one at a time, but they come in jumbles all at once—so that he has had precious little time to filter for us the light of the Muses as it shone so brilliantly on him for those four decades of prolific output.

If I may make a single criticism, Chesterton seems to have more criticisms for the greedy and the power-hungry than he has solutions. One gets the feeling sometimes that he was backed into a corner. But then, he was a journalist, and I suppose that a cheery exposition of his ideal society would not have sold papers! He had to couch his philosophy in the reality around him, which was not always free and not always equal.

Read for Free: You can read this book for free on LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (multiple formats), the Internet Archive (pdf), and in the Kindle Store (mobi).

Similar: The Defendant, Tremendous Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, All Things Considered

Review: The Home of the Echoes

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of more than 50 books. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See the article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my guide to his published works.)

Overview:

The Home of the Echoes is another great book of Boreham sermons, from the period when he was at his prime. My favorites were “The Magic Mirror,” on looking away from self to Christ (see quote below), and “Breaking-Up,” on the end of a school term and separating from treasured friends.

Quotes:

SECOND-HAND THINGS:

“A gregarious religious is essentially a precarious religion. . . . She simply went with the rest; she followed the crowd; her faith was a second-hand faith. . . .
The young prophet had to choose between his own first-hand vision and the elder prophet’s second-hand one.” (loc. 137-141)

“I was hastening on to eternal destruction when the great tremendous God met me like a lion in the way.” (John Haime, Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, qtd. in loc. 156)

THE KINGFISHER:

“What are mountains for but to be climbed? What are oceans for but to be sailed? What are rivers for but to be crossed?” (loc. 204)

“[John Milton’s] only gleam of comfort lay in the fact that he had written, during his last year of eyesight, a pamphlet on the Civil War! ‘He could not foresee,’ his biographer remarks, ‘that in less than ten years his pamphlet would be [obsolete] and only be mentioned because it had been written by the author of Paradise Lost.” (loc. 193)

DOCTOR DIGNITY:

“He had too much respect for his dignity to stand on it.”

THE MAGIC MIRROR:

“[Richard] Baxter is a past-master in the art of self-examination. . . . Writing toward the close of his life, he makes a significant and instructive confession. ‘I was once,’ he says, ‘wont to meditate most on my own heart, and to dwell all at home, and look little higher; I was always poring either on my sins or wants, or examining my sincerity; but now, though I am greatly convinced of the need of heart-acquaintance and employment, yet I see more need of a higher work; and that I should look oftener upon Christ, and God, and heaven, than upon my own heart. At home I can find many distempers to trouble me, and some evidences of my peace, but it is above that I must find matter of delight and joy and love and peace itself. Therefore, I would have one thought at home upon myself and sins, and many thoughts above upon the high and amiable and beautifying things.’” (loc. 1609-1613)


This review was written in November 2015. I wrote this review using the Kindle version of the book.

Review: The Arrows of Desire

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of more than 50 books. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See the article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my guide to his published works.)

Overview:

This is a sought-after book of essays, and came highly recommended.

After his so-called retirement, many of Boreham’s shorter articles were collected into full volumes. This includes Boulevards of Paradise, The Arrows of Desire, Dreams at Sunset, The Tide Comes In, and The Last Milestone; all of these books consist of somewhat shorter articles than Boreham’s earlier volumes of essays.

Meat:

There are several great adventure and missions stories in this volume. About twenty of the articles were biographical. Sometimes Boreham would repeat biographical anecdotes from famous people; but some of the stories in this book were unique material that clearly required extensive reading and research.

It has been about ten years since I read this book, but I distinctly remember the following essays:

“Flying Fingers” (about Isaac Pitman)

“The Whale’s Tooth” (about missions in Polynesia)

“The Conquest of the Braves” (about John Eliot)

“On the Road to Yemen” (about Ion Keith-Falconer)

All of these are seldom-referenced stories, and in my voluminous reading in Christian biography and missions, I have hardly come across a reference to any of the essays as told above. These are the treasures of Boreham’s great depth and breadth of reading.

Bones:

In Boreham’s short articles, which were often culled from newspaper articles, not all subject matter was spiritual, so a few of the stories are lacking in any spiritual application. That is always a disappointment when you have limited time and are using Boreham’s books as devotional reading. Fortunately, though, the occasional interesting-but-not-so-spiritual essay is the exception and not the rule.

Review: Afghanistan, My Tears

Rating: ★★★★½

Author: David and Julie Leatherberry spent many years as Christian workers in Afghanistan. They have written two books about their experiences: Afghanistan, My Tears and Abdul and Mr. Friday.

Overview:

Afghanistan, like much of Central Asia, is a land of great linguistic and ethnic diversity. While Dari (or Afghan Persian) is the official language, most of the people Pashtuns (i.e., Pashto-speaking). The Leatherberrys felt God was calling them specifically to focus on working with Pashtuns, who number around 50 million worldwide.

In a world of flash and bang, this book is a simple account of a couple who trusted God and followed him for a people that desperately needed the gospel.

This book is a quick read. What I appreciated about it was that it does not create unrealistic expectations of life overseas. Many books make Christian work sound romantic. It is rare to find a book that presents the long view of leadership—cultures simply do not change overnight.

For a thousand years in Your sight
Are like yesterday when it is past,
And like a watch in the night. (Psalm 90:4)

Review: George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller

Rating: ★★★

Author: Michael Phillips has accomplished an exemplary work in reprinting numerous works of George MacDonald in contemporary language. In addition, Phillips has written many novels of his own with the goal of imitating MacDonald in his style and theology.

Overview:

For much of his life, George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a poor and poorly known pastor. His claim to fame was his long and varied literary career, which spanned five decades and included fantasy, realistic fiction (some set in England, others in Scotland, complete with dialect), poetry, literary criticism, and sermons. MacDonald’s five books of written sermons (Unspoken Sermons, The Hope of the Gospel, and The Miracles of Our Lord) are the quickest path to understanding his theology, which can be quite dense.

MacDonald’s theology was influenced positively by speculative theologians from the Continent, and negatively by his own childhood in Scotland. He recoiled from the strict Calvinism of his youth into a relational theology that made God’s absolute goodness the most important thing about him.

Meat:

The Prologue is awesome. And there were certain chapters I enjoyed. All in all though, I felt that the meat was lost in a sea of details about family life and lengthy quotes.

MacDonald was great in suffering, and, while it shows in his writing, this book does a good job of illuminating some aspects of it. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, he suffered from a number of ailments.

MacDonald also suffered because of his theology. His deacons in Sussex, not taking kindly to his free-spirited way of explaining his own thoughts, docked his pay in the hopes that he would resign. They knew that MacDonald had a growing family—eventually raising eleven children with his wife Louisa. But MacDonald didn’t quit. In fact, this move drove him to commit to more novel writing as a way of finding a second stream of income; and this eventually expanded his influence. Although he wasn’t ever as well regarded as London contemporaries like Spurgeon and Parker, he was invited to a few prominent pulpits, and was befriended by famous writers such as Ruskin, Longfellow, and Walt Whitman.

The way of the world is to praise dead saints and persecute living ones. (Nathaniel Howe)

Bones:

There are several interesting anecdotes, but in general this biography felt overloaded. I am curious to find out soon if Greville MacDonald’s George MacDonald and His Wife is better. If you couldn’t tell, I am a big fan of George MacDonald, as well as what Michael Phillips has done in bringing him to a new generation. However, I found this particular biography to be more useful for reference rather than enjoyable reading.

Phillips is clearly enamored with certain aspects of MacDonald’s theology. He spent nearly eight pages quoting MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons as an explanation of how he thinks about the afterlife. I had already read many of those sermons, and a half-dozen of his novels, so these lengthy quotes didn’t really add to the story for me. I was more interested in MacDonald’s influences and personal life.

Phillips does point out that the best way to get to know MacDonald is through reading his books, and for me I felt that saying still stood true after reading most of this biography. If you want an introduction to George MacDonald, this biography would be a decent one. If you are a reader looking to delve into George MacDonald’s thought-life or theology, his books, especially his sermons, can stand for themselves.