Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Robert Browning (GKC)

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.”

Subject: Robert Browning (1812-1899) was an eminent English poet of the Victorian era, known for his ambitious and dramatic lyrics and monologues. He had an evangelical upbringing, and had a home-grown love for learning. His wife of many years, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was an equally revered poet (some say better!), though her career was much shorter due to a chronic illness.

Genre: Biography, criticism.

Overview:

Chesterton’s biography is quite accessible in its length and content, even for someone knowing little about Browning or his poetry. He also addresses his criticism to the novice. For that reason, I gave this book a high rating. Both Brownings were greatly admired by Chesterton, F. W. Boreham, and many other Christian writers and thinkers. Beware: If you sail into this biography, you will definitely find yourself longing to read more of both Brownings, and they were quite prolific poets.

Browning was regarded by critics as a pretentious intellectual, but Chesterton defends him on this point.

His work has the mystery which belongs to the complex; his life the much greater mystery which belongs to the simple. (p. 1)


Browning’s Family and Upbringing

Browning was not allowed to be educated at a Cambridge or Oxford because of his evangelicalism. (They were only open to Anglicans at the time.) He did not receive a first-rate education. But he did imbibe the atmosphere of his father’s expansive library, which held about 6,000 books—not too shabby for a middle-class family.

His father, Robert Browning, Sr., was something of a maverick. He had been sent to Jamaica to work. When a slave revolt happened, he was sent back to England. But, because he expressed sympathy with the slaves, Robert Browning, Sr. was disinherited by his father, and in cutting ties, he chose to leave Anglicanism as well, and became an evangelical. His father even sent him a bill for his entire education.

As Chesterton tells it, Robert Browning’s parents were clearly people of great conviction. His father’s literary taste was rather traditional; Robert was deeply moved by Keats and Shelley. Thus his own poetry falls somewhat towards the Romantics in its style, but more confessional and personal. Chesterton has a stirring passage in which he defends Browning’s so-called intellectualism, calling it not vanity but humility:

The more fixed and solid and sensible the idea appeared to him, the more dark and fantastic it would have appeared to the world. Most of us indeed, if we ever say anything valuable, say it when we are giving expression to that part of us which has become as familiar and invisible as the pattern on our wall paper. It is only when an idea has become a matter of course to the thinker that it becomes startling to the world. (p. 21)

The Great Hour: Browning’s Marriage

The story of Robert Browning’s elopement with Elizabeth Barrett is definitely the turning point of both of their lives and, in my view, almost as stunning an exploit as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The story itself nearly constitutes a screenplay. Here we have two published poets. The lady is six years the man’s senior. She is kept in a sick bed, with heavy curtains keeping out sunlight, and told that if she does not get to a better climate—the doctor says “Italy”—she will hardly last a year. Her selfish father is not only unwilling to take her to Italy, but unwilling to marry her to Robert, who is quite willing to take her to Italy. . . .

Elizabeth had not left the house in many months, and hardly left her dark bedroom. But she came down the stairs, and ordered a carriage to take her to a park. She breathed the fresh air and gazed at the trees for one hour of solitude. Then she returned, fortified, and said yes to Robert’s proposal of elopement.

In the summer of 1846 Elizabeth Barrett was still living under the great family convention which provided her with nothing but an elegant deathbed, forbidden to move, forbidden to see proper daylight, forbidden to receive a friend lest the shock should destroy her suddenly. A year or two later, in Italy, as Mrs. Browning, she was being dragged up hill in a wine hamper, toiling up to the crests of mountains at four o’clock in the morning, riding for five miles on a donkey to what she calls “an inaccessible volcanic ground not far from the stars.” (p. 39)

Robert Browning’s snatching of Elizabeth from her controlling father, whom they never saw again on this earth, was an act highly unusual not only for England, but for Browning himself. As Chesterton would have it, he was a routine-driven and punctual man, leaving the house at the same minute year after year. But there is no doubt that Elizabeth’s family environment was debilitating, perhaps more than any physical ailment, and that Robert’s course of action was utterly in the right.

The story reminds one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conscientious disobedience to the German Reich. Chesterton calls it “virtue not only without the reward, but even without the name of virtue.” (p. 59)

This great moral of Browning, which may be called roughly the doctrine of the great hour, enters, of course, into many poems besides The Ring and the Book, and is indeed the mainspring of a great part of his poetry taken as a whole. (p. 60)

Chesterton writes that such a “great hour,” in which we are called to bury all thought of established convention, and fly in the face of fear for the sake of righteousness, may come to a man only once in his lifetime, and if any man claims it has come twice, we should be immediately skeptical. But there are times when we prove our mettle, not through compliance, but through rebellion.

Browning’s Works

Chesterton hits on many of Browning’s works, especially in Chapters II, VI, VII, and VIII. Chesterton calls Browning

first, the greatest of love poets, and, secondly, the only optimistic philosopher except Whitman. (p. 27)

Chesterton describes Browning’s early poems as primarily confessional, and his later poems as mainly dramatic monologues, which often deal with finding the good in questionable persons. Browning lived to an old age, was productive throughout his lifetime, and wrote in a great variety of forms. Interestingly, even the worst of his characters relate themselves to a higher power, and feel some longing for divine approval and forgiveness. (p. 112)

Browning’s “magnus opus” (Chesterton’s words) occupied five or six years after the death of Elizabeth, and consists of nine perspectives on the same event. The scheme of the poem is based on a case that Browning read in a dingy old book of Italian legal proceedings. Browning imagined a crime

[The Ring and The Book] is the great epic of the enormous importance of small things. (p. 91)

Browning’s Philosophy of Life

In the last chapter, Chesterton summarizes Browning’s philosophy in only two points.

The first point is the hope in the imperfection of man. The analogy given is that an incomplete puzzle implies the existence of the missing piece; so our incomplete longing for eternity justifies confidence in human immortality.

Browning was right in saying that in a cosmos where incompleteness implies completeness, life implies immortality. (p. 99)

Thus a confident assertion of the Fall of Man becomes the very grounds for believing in God’s redemptive act.

Man’s sense of his own imperfection implies a design of perfection. (p. 100)

The second point, Chesterton calls the hope in the “imperfection” of God. Before you burn all your Chesterton and Browning books, I believe that “imperfection” is used only in a hypothetical sense here. The “imperfection” here referred to is the sense in which God is bound in honor to exceed the moral perfections of his creatures. George MacDonald, as well as modern relational theologians, have more ably expressed the same sentiment than Chesterton does here. Thus,

Man’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice implies God’s knowledge of and desire for self-sacrifice. (p. 100)

Overall, the theology expressed in Browning’s life and poetry is compassionate, relational, and intensely personal.

Quotes:

There is an old anecdote, probably apocryphal, which describes how a feminine admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant—God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.” (p. 1)

Every one on the earth should believe that he has something to give to the world which cannot otherwise be given. (p. 112)

To the man who sees the marvellousness of all things, the surface of life is fully as strange and magical as its interior; clearness and plainness of life is fully as mysterious as its mysteries. (p. 61)

Charity was his basic philosophy; but it was, as it were, a fierce charity, a charity that went man-hunting. He was a kind of cosmic detective who walked into the foulest of thieves’ kitchens and accused men publicly of virtue. (p. 28)

A man must love a thing very much if he not only practises it without any hope of fame or money, but even practises it without any hope of doing it well. (p. 46)

This was what happened to Browning; like every one else, he had to discover first the universe, and then humanity, and at last himself. With him, as with all others, the great paradox and the great definition of life was this, that the ambition narrows as the mind expands. (p. 26)

I am not prepared to admit that there is or can be, properly speaking, in the world anything that is too sacred to be known. That spiritual beauty and spiritual truth are in their nature communicable, and that they should be communicated, is a principle which lies at the root of every conceivable religion. Christ was crucified upon a hill, and not in a cavern, and the word Gospel itself involves the same idea as the ordinary name of a daily paper. Whenever, therefore, a poet or any similar type of man can, or conceives that he can, make all men partakers in some splendid secret of his own heart, I can imagine nothing saner and nothing manlier than his course in doing so. (p. 35)

On relativism and seeing all sides:

He held that it is necessary to listen to all sides of a question in order to discover the truth of it. But he held that there was a truth to discover. . . . He held, in other words, the true Browning doctrine, that in a dispute every one was to a certain extent right; not the decadent doctrine that in so mad a place as the world, every one must be by the nature of things wrong. . . . [Here follows the “blind men and the elephant” analogy.] . . . Although the blind men found out very little about the elephant, the elephant was an elephant, and was there all the time. The blind men formed mistaken theories because an elephant is a thing with a very curious shape. And Browning firmly believed that the Universe was a thing with a very curious shape indeed. . . . To the impressionist artist of our time we are not blind men groping after an elephant and naming it a tree or a serpent. We are maniacs, isolated in separate cells, and dreaming of trees and serpents without reason and without result. (p. 98)

Review: Tennyson

Rating: ★★★

Authors:

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.”

Richard Garnett (1835-1906) was an accomplished linguist and writer. He wrote biographies of many famous European writers; he also translated books from at least five languages, and held a position at the British Library.

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 five writers (five of them being novelists, and Tennyson the only poet).

These six books 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:

Alfred, Lord Tennyson became Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 1850, after William Wordsworth’s death, and held it until his own death in 1892—the longest tenure of any British poet laureate.

His writings show a deep interest in science and nature alongside a profound respect for spirituality; even so, his thoughts on religion were unconventional. He considered his magnum opus to be The Idylls of the King (last volume published in 1885), an cycle of poems set in Arthurian narrative; but today, his most famous work is “In Memoriam A.H.H” (1849), a long poem published at the death of Arthur Hallam, whom Tennyson regarded very highly.

“In Memoriam” is a most perfect expression of the average theological temper of England in the nineteenth century. (Garnett)

Many of his other poems are still highly regarded, such as “Locksley Hall,” “Crossing the Bar,” “The Lady of Shalott,” and “The Lotos-Eaters.”

Although Tennyson was meticulous in revising his own poetry, he mostly wrote in blank verse, and was not obsessed with form (as Browning). His works are a fresh start from both the metaphysical poets (seventeenth century) and the Romantic movement that preceded him. Rather, he is great not mainly because of any novel design or content in his poetry, but because he was a story-teller.

Meat:

The book at hand, Tennyson (1903), is one of the less ambitious of the Bookman Biographies. The opening essay (by G. K. Chesterton) is not nearly as thrilling as the others in the series. Chesterton connects Tennyson’s writing on nature to the advent of Darwinism (beginning in 1859) and its relation to religion:

It has been constantly supposed that they were angry with Darwinism because it appeared to do something or other to the Book of Genesis; but this was a pretext or a fancy. They fundamentally rebelled against Darwinism, not because they had a fear that it would affect Scripture, but because they had a fear, not altogether unreasonable or ill-founded, that it would affect morality. . . . The first honour, surely, is to those who did not faint in the face of that confounding cosmic betrayal . . . Of these was Tennyson. (Chesterton)

In the second essay, “Tennyson as an Intellectual Force,” Dr. Garnett paints Tennyson as memorable, not so much because he was a great poet, as because he was an English poet. Both Chesterton and Garnett regard Tennyson as closely identified the times in which he wrote (namely, the late Victorian era):

In the main the great Broad Church philosophy which Tennyson uttered has been adopted by everyone. This will make against his fame. For a man may vanish as Chaos vanished in the face of creation, or he may vanish as God vanished in filling all things with that created life. (Chesterton)

[Tennyson] reveals, not new truth to the age, but the age to itself. . . . In truth, Tennyson’s fame rests upon a securer basis than that of some greater poets, for acquaintance with him will always be indispensable to the history of thought and culture in England. (Garnett)

Bones:

At first, I was inclined to rate this book lowly because it did not make me want to read Tennyson; having read (and loved) Enoch Arden and a few of his other short works, I felt discouraged by Garnett’s emphatic statement that Tennyson was “not quite” worthy of the greats who preceded him.

Tennyson’s writings have all the advantages and all the disadvantages of the golden mean. (Garnett)

However, having looked at the statements of some other critics, I believe that Garnett was astute in saying so. Tennyson’s popular appeal does not come from being at the apex of his art; rather, it comes from being a signal representative of the time in which he lived—which is by no means a poor reflection on a nation’s poet laureate.

He is the interpreter of the Victorian era—firstly to itself, secondly to the ages to come. (Garnett)

Read: Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html/rtf), Internet Archive (pdf).

Review: Thoughts upon Slavery

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: John Wesley (1703-1791) was an English preacher best known as the leader of a revival movement that came to be known as Methodism, which began within the Church of England. John and his brother Charles also revolutionized church music by writing and disseminating thousands of hymns. It is believed that John preached 40,000 times in his lifetime, and rode 250,000 miles on horseback in doing so. He was extremely prolific as a author, hymnwriter, publisher, and preacher, and quite lived up to his own motto:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

Overview:

William Wilberforce, the political champion of British abolitionism, was only 15 when Wesley wrote this pamphlet (1774), which shows how far ahead of his time Wesley was. This little booklet is written for a broad audience—that is to say, Wesley did not just write it for Christians.

The booklet includes:

  • Facts and dates about Europe’s slave trade to the Americas
  • Personal accounts about life in Africa before and after slavery
  • Personal accounts from those involved in trafficking slaves
  • Figures and estimates of slaves killed aboard ship and upon arrival

That is just the historical research. Topics addressed for the people of his day also include:

  • Alleged “stupidity” or inferiority of African slaves
  • Arguments alleged to justify slavery
  • Every man and woman’s right to liberty
  • Your involvement in the slave trade

This book would be relevant today for history education, a study of early European abolitionism, or anyone that wants to know more about human trafficking, its roots and results.

Bones:

Wesley deals here with the modern slave trade and does not deal with a wide-lens view of slavery that can help enlighten the biblical texts related to slavery. As such, there are some arguments missing from this book, which are worth mentioning. There are times and cultures (such as the Pentateuch) in which a “slave” is a person bound to work to pay a debt, as opposed to be cast into a debtor’s prison. There are also those peculiar stories of slaves bound in love to their masters as benefactors, among which we can group the story of Philemon in the New Testament. Until all social classes are abolished, there will be poverty and systems of “serfdom”, and people are even today shackled by poverty, even in the richest nations on earth. I think that we can hone Wesley’s argument to make it clear that what we are talking about is owning human beings as chattel:

I would now inquire, whether these things can be defended, on the principles of even heathen honesty; whether they can be reconciled (setting the Bible out of the question) with any degree of either justice or mercy. (loc. 233)

What modern writers on this topic have to realize is how dangerously close to slavery are many of the world’s economic systems. Take for instance the migration of Asian laborers to the Arab Gulf, where they often go into debt to obtain a work contract, their passports are routinely held by their employers, and they are not free to come and go as they please. And yet the stern reality is that millions of South Asians continue to flood into that region for the opportunity to feed their families—while this is, for them, a boon, for those who perpetrate this horribly racist labor system, it is a wretched and deplorable evil. Like a beautifully decorated tomb, it is not so far removed from the European slave trade, and we should keep in mind that many Arab nations only prohibited slavery after 1950—Mauritania officially criminalized slavery in 2006, and Chad followed in 2017.

Quotes:

The Christians, landing upon their coasts, seized as many as they found, men, women, and children, and transported them to America. It was about 1551 that the English began trading to Guinea; at first, for gold and elephants’ teeth; but soon after, for men. (loc. 135)

No circumstances can make it necessary for a man to burst in sunder all the ties of humanity. (loc. 284)

Indeed you say, “I pay honestly for my goods; and I am not concerned to know how they are come by.” Nay, but you are; you are deeply concerned to know they are honestly come by. Otherwise you are a partaker with a thief, and are not a jot honester than him. Now, it is your money that pays the merchant, and through him the captain and the African butchers. You therefore are guilty, yea, principally guilty, of all these frauds, robberies, and murders. (loc. 394-399)

Review: The Club of Queer Trades

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: Detective fiction, humor, short stories.

Overview:

The Club of Queer Trades is a collection of six related mystery stories published in 1905.  All six stories involve “the Club of Queer Trades” in one way or another:

“What on earth is ‘C.Q.T.’?” asked Rupert Grant, looking over the Major’s shoulder.

“Don’t you know?” returned Northover. “Haven’t you ever heard of the Club of Queer Trades? The Club of Queer Trades is a society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money.” (p. 22)

Each story involves a mystery or “case,” but not necessarily related to any violence or crime. Couched in eccentric and explosive literary style, these short stories are sure to make you both ponder and laugh—sometimes at the same time—as you imagine the strange scenarios the author conjures up.

Meat:

As other reviewers have pointed out, these stories could be called anti-mysteries, since Chesterton toys with the genre so much. There are no murder suspects or smoking guns. Most of the plots revolve around two brothers, Rupert and Basil Grant. While Basil searches out “facts” à la Sherlock Holmes, his brother takes the long way round in solving mysteries, and may come out the better by the end of the book.

His brother Basil said of him: “His reasoning is particularly cold and clear, and invariably leads him wrong. But his poetry comes in abruptly and leads him right.” (p.91)

For much of the book, we are not sure if Rupert is a foil for Basil, or if Basil is a foil for Rupert. The solutions turn out to be anything but typical. The joy of the book is to try and solve the cases yourself.

These predate the advent of “Father Brown” by a few years, and in many ways they must be the predecessor of the “Father Brown” stories, scoffing as they do at “deduction” and choosing instead a more imaginative view of life. The biggest difference is that the “Father Brown” stories are much more serious, and they read more in the way that one expects detective stories to read.

Bones:

Although any Chesterton book is aphoristic on almost every page—whether through the narrator or his chosen surrogate—this book doesn’t have much of enduring wisdom in its pages. The book must have been a product of the author’s sheer joy for life, and while his fertile mind kept me laughing and thinking (reflected in my high rating), I couldn’t help but think that all the best fiction, like his Man Who Was Thursday, leaves you with some powerful and unforgettable impression that you will carry with you. This book, while it was a fantastic “light” read, does not have that. The “Father Brown” stories are in general longer, and more thought-out.

Quotes:

Being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world. (p. 24)

“Oh, the mere facts,” he cried out in a kind of despair. “The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?” (p. 26)

“Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” said Basil placidly. “For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it.” (p. 56)

“I know of nothing that is safe,” said Basil composedly, “except, possibly—death.” (p. 96)

Review: Robert Louis Stevenson (1902)

Rating: ★★★★½

Authors:

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.”

Sir William Robertson Nicoll was a Scottish Free Church minister as well as a prolific man of letters.

Series:

This little book is one of a series of six brief biographies of writers (“Bookman Biographies”), which were produced by Chesterton in 1902 and 1903:

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

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

These six books 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:

Robert Louis Stevenson (1902), called in the title page of one edition The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, is probably the best of the six Bookman Biographies in which Chesterton took part. (Chesterton also published a different book by the same title in 1927!) This is one of Chesterton’s earliest books, and contains some of the clearest explanations of his philosophy of life, and especially suffering:

Stevenson’s great ethical and philosophical value lies in the fact that he realised this great paradox that life becomes more fascinating the darker it grows, that life is worth living only so far as it is difficult to live. The more steadfastly and gloomily men clung to their sinister visions of duty, the more, in his eyes, they swelled the chorus of the praise of things. He was an optimist because to him everything was heroic, and nothing more heroic than the pessimist.

Robert Louis Stevenson is known in our time mainly as the writer of two thrilling novels: Treasure Island (1883) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), but in his lifetime, he was known for much more. His novels Kidnapped (1886) and The Black Arrow (1888) are every bit as well produced as Treasure Island. The Master of Ballantrae (1889) was likewise spoken of highly by critics.  But he wrote much more than novels. His travel writings (An Inland Voyage, In the South Seas) were well known. His Child’s Garden of Verses went through numerous editions.

But that is not what made Stevenson so fascinating. Readers in Chesterton’s day would have known that Stevenson suffered from lifelong breathing problems, and died at 44 after relocating to Samoa for health. He was also the grandson of a minister, of whom he wrote:

Now I often wonder what I inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them. (Memories and Portraits)

It not merely his books, but his life as a lens to see them through, that makes Stevenson worth reading about.

Meat:

Stevenson had an interesting relationship with the church and with the missionaries he met in the Pacific. Numerous ministers and lay theologians were enchanted by his philosophy of life; among them we have here two devout authors, but I can also add the eminent names of A. J. Gossip, Oswald Chambers, and F. W. Boreham. They pored over even his lesser known works like Virginibus Puerisque and the volumes of his Vailima Letters.

The secret of Stevenson’s appeal is uncovered by Chesterton more clearly than other critics. That secret, Chesterton says, is his triumphant suffering. He suffered not merely in resignation, but in triumph. That is why Christians find him so interesting; he is himself emblematic of the Christian understanding of “cosmic courage,” to use Chesterton’s phrase.

Bones:

The one annoying thing, as a twenty-first-century reader, in reading about Robert Louis Stevenson, is that we are always told how much he suffered and never told how or why. This is a weak point in Chesterton’s approach, in talking about Stevenson’s life but assuming that the reader already knows his life story. As far as I know, this is mainly a problem of audience; the audience of 1902 would have known the man; the audience of the 2020s knows only the books.

Read for Free: The Internet Archive (pdf), Project Gutenberg Australia (html).

Related: Robert Louis Stevenson (GKC, 1927).

Review: Seven Men

Rating: ★★★½

Author: Eric Metaxas is an author and talk show host, best known as the author of biographies of great Christians, including Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work has garnered more criticism since 2016 as his comments have grown increasingly partisan, and he has characterized his political opposition as “demonic.”

Full Title: Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness

Overview:

Seven brief portraits of men of God. Christian biographies are the history of God’s work in a human life. This book included William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Chuck Colson, Pope John Paul II, Jackie Robinson, George Washington, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Each life was very interesting, quick, and fun to read. What makes the book valuable is that it introduces to us several celebrated believers who have not really been celebrated as Christians, but for whom faith was the driving force behind their greatness.

Seven Men (2013) was later followed up by Seven Women (2015).

Meat:

I very much enjoyed this book, some chapters being more memorable and unique than others. My favorite was probably Jackie Robinson because I had heard the basics of the story, but history class completely neglected the spiritual dimension of Jackie’s life and work. It is really a fantastic story of a man willingly suffering without retribution. He paved the way for many others to suffer less than he himself did.

I’ve studied Eric Liddell’s life in particular and I thought that Mr. Metaxas did a great job of showing that Chariots of Fire was just the beginning for Liddell. Metaxas pulls together many interesting details and quotes on each person and I learned many new things about each of them, including Liddell.

On George Washington I also recommend “The Bulletproof George Washington.”

Bones:

Along with Metaxas criticisms for his snarky political partisanism, I can add that we could have seen it coming if we had thought more critically about his biographies—the full title is Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness. And all seven of them indeed are great men. Two were heads of state (George Washington and John Paul II);  two others were involved in politics (Chuck Colson and William Wilberforce); two others were important athletes (Eric Liddell and Jackie Robinson); the seventh, Bonhoeffer, is mainly interesting to Metaxas because of the intrigue he was involved in against Hitler. Metaxas is often straightforward in his Christian moral stance on key social issues: of course we all oppose slavery (like Wilberforce), and Hitler (like Bonhoeffer), and segregation (like Robinson).

The deeper issue at play is, why did Metaxas choose these men, and not others? He chose these men because his worldview is Christian but it is not spiritual. He could not celebrate a bereaved missionary toiling in Mongolia like James Gilmour; he could not rain accolades on an elderly, multilingual scholar like Bishop French, dying in the desert in his twilight years for the hope of the sons of Ishmael. Metaxas would furrow his brow at such a story, and think in his heart of hearts that a scholar like French could have married himself to the institutions of his day, and gained tenure in any of the best universities of Europe, and effected change in that way, because that is the only path to change visible to Metaxas. If I have learned anything from Chesterton, Browning, and Tolkien, it is that morality united to power does not make the world Christian, and fails even to make the world moral. As much as we love the stories of the famous and powerful, we must celebrate in our fellowships the invisible and even untimely victories of hearts turned toward righteousness.

All in all, these are very good stories, but there are dozens of more spiritually-minded Christian biographies out there.

 

Review: Jacob and the Divine Trickster

Rating: ★★★★

Author: John E. Anderson is a Lutheran Old Testament scholar. Jacob and the Divine Trickster is Anderson’s dissertation written at Baylor and published with the recommendation of Walter Brueggemann.

Genre: Academic theology, narrative theology.

Overview: Jacob and the Divine Trickster is a theological study of the Jacob cycle. Anderson is primarily concerned with theology proper and not with textual-critical issues. The introduction sets up a challenge for readers who try to iron out tensions in the biblical text. In particular, Anderson believes that God is unquestionably implicated in several deceptive acts in Genesis—although the heavy term ‘deception’ is somewhat lightened in his definition towards “withholding information.”

Anderson develops this idea of cunning as a divine attribute, boldly referring to Jehovah as a “trickster God.” I agree, however, with Diana Lipton’s review:

Even if I can come to terms with the idea that God tricks people, I cannot see tricksterism (this may be the wrong term but no better one comes to mind) as a divine attribute, as Anderson seems to.

The key to Anderson’s book is that he catalogues all the ways that the Lord worked for Jacob, in fulfillment of the ancestral promises (in Gen. 12 and 28). This overall optimistic assessment of Jacob will prove to have staying power, I believe, if we can accept the Eastern understanding of ethics given to us in Genesis.

Meat:

Anderson follows the lead of Walter Brueggemann, Eric Seibert, and others in addressing ethical difficulties in the Old Testament head on. Whereas a fundamentalist take would ignore difficulties and systematic theologians cancel them out, Anderson chooses to lean into the difficulties he encounters in the text.

Although its main thesis is overstated in my opinion, the book is an important contribution, as it challenges 1) interpretations that assess Jacob’s deceptive behavior negatively; 2) interpretations that seek to distance God from Jacob’s behavior, when God is real and present in the Genesis text, ensuring the fulfillment of his promise.

A simple review like this doesn’t provide space for the many interesting points in the book. But I can pose some questions evoked while reading this book:

  • If Jacob’s repeated deception of Esau was immoral, would God have allowed him to obtain divine blessing by those means? (Is God’s blessing really so mechanistic that you could obtain godly blessing in an ungodly way?!)
  • Can we trust Jacob’s statement (in 27:20) that the Lord helped him to deceive his father? What if Isaac was in the wrong anyway?
  • What about 31:5, 7, and 9, where Jacob says God is working on his behalf against Laban?
  • Are Jacob’s deceptive acts ethically difficult for non-Western readers? Wouldn’t many Asians see him as merely cunning, a guy with street smarts, who knows how to be in the right place at the right time?

Bones:

Anderson’s book brings up a major ethical problem: is Jacob really immoral, or is it our European ethical framework that cause us to place limitations on the text? Anderson doesn’t answer this question for contemporary readers, in my opinion. He does pretty convincingly argue, though, that the Bible itself does not make excuses for Jacob’s deceptive acts.