Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

Review: Lord Kitchener

Rating: ★★½

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: Eulogy.

Overview:

Lord Kitchener (1917) is a long eulogy of Herbert (Lord) Kitchener, who held a number of positions in the British colonies, including field marshal (the highest-ranking general) and Secretary of State for War. He oversaw combat at the Battle of Omdurman (in Sudan), in the Second Boer War, and the Western Front during World War I. He died in 1916 when the HMS Hampshire struck a German mine on the way to negotiate with the Russian . Kitchener’s image was used in patriotic advertising and military recruitment posters for decades afterwards.

Kitchener is held in notoriety today for his cold and calculating methods among the Boers. His colonial escapades and Chesterton’s patriotism in today’s post-colonial intellectual climate make this one of his least popular books, although it is a somewhat interesting lens into a moment in time.

I am not sure why Chesterton wrote this eulogy. Lord Kitchener was the poster child of British imperialism, and Chesterton wrote bluntly that he was against imperialism (see, e.g,, How To Help Annexation, 1917). A few years earlier, in A Miscellany of Men (1912), he had even made light of Kitchener’s efforts in East Africa:

Here we have evident all the ultimate idiocy of the present Imperial position. Rhodes and Kitchener are to conquer Moslem bedouins and barbarians, in order to teach them to believe only in inevitable fate. We are to wreck provinces and pour blood like Niagara, all in order to teach a Turk to say “Kismet”; which he has said since his cradle. We are to deny Christian justice and destroy international equality, all in order to teach an Arab to believe he is “an agent of fate,” when he has never believed anything else. (“The Sultan”)

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.

Meat:

There are basically two interesting anecdotes in this booklet, which are short enough to include them in this review. The first involves Kitchener’s acculturation among the Arabs:

Well-known English journalist, Bennet Burleigh, wandering near Dongola, fell into conversation with an Arab who spoke excellent English, and who, with a hospitality highly improper in a Moslem, produced two bottles of claret for his entertainment. The name of this Arab was Kitchener; and the two bottles were all he had. (p. 6)

The other interesting story about Kitchener was a war tactic he used in the Battle of Omdurman. Knowing that supplies were hard to come by in the desert, Kitchener worked with a cunning engineer to create a new railway line for he express purpose of winning the war. The army built while fighting, and as a result of this clever tactic, they utterly overwhelmed Sudan’s Mahdist army.

The fact that Kitchener fought with rails as much as with guns rather fixed from this time forward the fashionable view of his character. He was talked of as if he were himself made of metal, with a head filled not only with calculations but with clockwork. (p. 10)

Bones:

Some reviewers have regarded this book as a “short biography”; rather, it definitely excludes many aspects of Kitchener’s life, and eulogies are necessarily published with the purpose of making the public aware of the achievements, honor, and legacy of the deceased. As such, it may be suitable as an introduction to Kitchener’s life, but Christian writers would do well to be aware that he was not so universally regarded as a “hero.”

For instance, one of Kitchener’s failures, which would not receive mention so close to his death, is the use of concentration camps to control Boer families during the Second Boer War. This was a strategy he had inherited from a previous British commander, and it turned out to be far beyond the capacity of the British armies to control, leading to overpopulation, disease, and the death of 26,730 people (including more than 20,000 children).

Although Chesterton has many fantastic books, many of his writings during World War I were understandably patriotic, and these may be considered a weak point in his writing career.

Related Works: The Appetite of Tyranny, The Crimes of England.

Quotes:

“He was the embodiment of an enormous experience which has passed through Imperialism and reached patriotism. He had been the supreme figure of that strange and sprawling England which lies beyond England.” (p. 13)

Review: Eugenics and Other Evils

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:

Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) delineates the scientific and ethical fallacies of “eugenics,” the science of human breeding to improve the race, which was called by its proponents “the self-direction of human evolution.” The first English proponent of these ideas was Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin, who coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Chesterton is today known as one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of this pseudo-science.

Here it’s necessary to give some background on what eugenics is, before I can break down Chesterton’s objections to it, and what it means for us today.

The History of Eugenics

Many reviewers have started out by saying that eugenics is now defunct, but this is not exactly true. During a period extending until 1952, as many as 20,000 mentally ill patients were sterilized in the United States. This happened after the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials had declared such acts “crimes against humanity.” In the Arabian Peninsula, where cousin marriage is considered ideal among many families, screenings are frequently given that determine the likelihood of birth defects; so, in that sense, a soft form of genetic planning is being practiced in some of the world’s richest societies, and it is not without controversy.

Eugenics was also a key motivator in the promotion of the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, “increasingly rationalized birth control as a means of reducing genetically transmitted mental or physical defects, and at times supported sterilization for the mentally incompetent.” The biographer adds, “While she did not advocate efforts to limit population growth solely on the basis of class, ethnicity or race, and refused to encourage positive race-based eugenics, Sanger’s reputation was permanently tainted by her association with the reactionary wing of the eugenics movement.” [1] This last sentence is very controversial; others have written elsewhere that Sanger did promote race-based eugenics, but here I am getting too far afield.

Chesterton’s Objections to Eugenics

Chesterton’s arguments against eugenics are somewhat scattered in his book, but they may be grouped into ethical, economic, practical, and political objections.

The ethical objections are the most obvious. In Chesterton’s time, eugenics was being pegged as the end of “feeble-mindedness”; the thought was, mentally ill parents have mentally ill children, so all we need to do is prevent the mentally ill from copulating. In contemporary terminology, this leaves little or no room for those who are “disabled” or “differently abled.” It was unashamed ableism, and it was being promoted by great minds like H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bertrand Russell. Eugenists believed that the disabled were merely a burden on the rest of society; in capitalist thought, they provided no value inasmuch as they could not contribute to industry.

The economic objections are just as damaging. Here it may be pointed out that abortion, in common with eugenics, is touted as a way of aiding the poor by decreasing their family responsibilities. In fact, Chesterton points out, In America, black women have almost triple the abortion rate that white women have (27.1 / 1000 among blacks; 10 / 1000 among whites). Classism can easily masquerade as either eugenics or abortion, and it can be a way of keeping minorities minorities. Both are destructive for diversity.

As a practical objection, Chesterton points out that eugenics was on shaky ground scientifically, and almost carried the absurdity of the famous statement, “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” In Chesterton’s day, there simply was not sufficient knowledge of the genome to even attempt such widespread changes as some were promoting.

There cannot be such a thing as the health adviser of the community, because there cannot be such a thing as one who specialises in the universe. (p. 26)

Again, a policy of eugenics would require a vast quantity of knowledge that, even in 2020, evades us. Even with modern genome mapping, there is still much that we do not know and cannot predict:

I simply cannot conceive any responsible person proposing to legislate on our broken knowledge and bottomless ignorance of heredity. (p. 31)

Eugenics also operates under the assumption that we know what the results will be.

Marry two handsome people whose noses tend to the aquiline, and their baby (for all you know) may be a goblin with a nose like an enormous parrot’s. (p. 32)

Chesterton’s political objections mainly refer to the limitation of state power. Chesterton considered himself a democrat in the most literal, non-partisan sense of the word; that is, he believed in “the common people.” As such, he could not support a politicized pseudo-scientific movement, like eugenics, that would lead to a rapid expansion of state power. He did advocate the expansion of power in special circumstances—such as the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic—provided that these were regarded as special circumstances. For more on this, read what follows.

Meat:

On its most basic level, this book is a statement of the value of human life. This is a topic where American Catholics have been, I believe, more consistent in contemporary thought than American Protestants. Wherever else our philosophy turns, it must begin with the axiom of the great value, not of people or personhood, but of a person.

In the matter of fundamental human rights, nothing can be above Man, except God. (p. 27)

There were two other sections of the book that I thought any modern reader would find very interesting.

The first was Chesterton’s thoughts on the limitation of state power. Libertarians will be licking their lips when the read chapter titles like “The Eclipse of Liberty” and “The Transformation of Socialism”; however, what Chesterton espouses here is not libertarianism, or socialism, or capitalism. He does point out eugenic policies could lead to the bloating of state power, and would also be oppressive to the poor. What he says is happening instead, is that we are losing our liberties to the state, and we are oppressing the poor, and therefore are getting the worst of both socialism and capitalism, without getting the benefits of either.

The compromise eventually made was one of the most interesting and even curious cases in history. It was decided to do everything that had ever been denounced in Socialism, and nothing that had ever been desired in it. Since it was supposed to gain equality at the sacrifice of liberty, we proceeded to prove that it was possible to sacrifice liberty without gaining equality. (p. 71)

The second section of the book that intrigued me was in the very last chapter. There, the author tells the strange and true anecdote of “Eugenette,” a poster-child of eugenics in its heyday:

Round about the year 1913 Eugenics was turned from a fad to a fashion. Then, if I may so summarise the situation, the joke began in earnest. The organising mind which we have seen considering the problem of slum population, the popular material and the possibility of protests, felt that the time had come to open the campaign. Eugenics began to appear in big headlines in the daily Press, and big pictures in the illustrated papers. A foreign gentleman named Bolce, living at Hampstead, was advertised on a huge scale as having every intention of being the father of the Superman. It turned out to be a Superwoman, and was called Eugenette. The parents were described as devoting themselves to the production of perfect pre-natal conditions. They “eliminated everything from their lives which did not tend towards complete happiness.” Many might indeed be ready to do this; but in the voluminous contemporary journalism on the subject I can find no detailed notes about how it is done. Communications were opened with Mr. H.G. Wells, with Dr. Saleeby, and apparently with Dr. Karl Pearson. Every quality desired in the ideal baby was carefully cultivated in the parents. (p. 78)

Bones:

This was not by any means a favorite among Chesterton’s many wonderful writings. It was mainly worth reading simply because Chesterton wrote it. I recommend beginning with his other books of non-fiction.

Chesterton associates eugenics with several German authors, and it is today associated with the evils of Nazi Germany. Ironically, modern sources associate the twentieth-century popularization of eugenics with the United Kingdom. (On this point, you can compare my reviews of The Crimes of England and The Appetite of Tyranny.)

Some of Chesterton’s objections to eugenics have weaknesses that would not have been apparent in 1922. For instance, although our knowledge is very limited, we do have a much more certain knowledge of the causes of certain birth defects than we did in 1922, and we are capable of avoiding some of them.

Quotes:

On expansion of state power in exceptional circumstances, such as war or plague:

“Now it is perfectly plain that government ought to have, and must have, the same sort of right to use exceptional methods occasionally that the private householder has to have a picnic or to sit up all night on New Year’s Eve. The State, like the householder, is sane if it can treat such exceptions as exceptions. Such desperate remedies may not even be right; but such remedies are endurable as long as they are admittedly desperate. Such cases, of course, are the communism of food in a besieged city; the official disavowal of an arrested spy; the subjection of a patch of civil life to martial law; the cutting of communication in a plague; or that deepest degradation of the commonwealth, the use of national soldiers not against foreign soldiers, but against their own brethren in revolt. Of these exceptions some are right and some wrong; but all are right in so far as they are taken as exceptions. The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.” (p. 12)

Read: This book is available for free in multiple formats on Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, and the Kindle Store.

Review: Mud, Sweat and Tears

Rating: ★★★

Author: Bear Grylls is an adventurer and motivational speaker who is driven by his Christian faith. He is best known as a reality television personality (Man vs. Wild, Running Wild); as an adventurer, he is best known for climbing Mount Everest, crossing the Atlantic in a raft, and narrowly surviving a parachute failure while skydiving; but he has a number of ventures under way including numerous books, a growing brand, and survival skills training camps.

Overview:

Grylls came from an aristocratic family. Amazingly, both positive thinking and disaster run in his family: His great-grandfather died in a shipwreck, and, further back, he’s related to Samuel Smiles, who invented the genre of “self-help” with his 1859 book by that title. (F. W. Boreham was a huge fan of Smiles and his motivational biographies.)

Known for his faith and adventures, Bear Grylls is far from a modern Puritan. He is a Special Forces veteran with a lot of close calls under his belt, not all of which are even in this book. This biography is jammed with crazy and amusing stories including prep school hijinx, urban climbing, bullying, and skinny dipping.

In this book, highlights include a very free boyhood, passing selection for the British Special Forces—essentially an endless mountain marathon with full combat gear—and a treacherous Everest bid as he recovered from a skydiving accident which had broken several vertebrae. He also describes the career transition that enabled him to market himself as an “adventurer” and transform that title into a paying job.

Meat:

Grylls is not an effusive or florid writer, and that makes this book a quick read. The book’s main merit is probably just the fascination of the stories he tells. The way he describes British Special Forces, by the way, makes it sound more wearisome than climbing Everest (though certainly not more dangerous).

Though Grylls is not a particularly profound thinker, he makes up for this by expressing himself in historical quotes and simple inspirational aphorisms:

Do the impossible. Climb the impassable—eat the inedible. (p. 393)

Bones:

I disagree with Grylls on several finer points, but his lust for life is definitely inspiring. Overall, our differences almost entirely stem from the fact that he is English, and I am not. Europeans are almost never in your face about their faith, and so Grylls doesn’t talk about his faith nearly as much as I expected in this book.

I think the audience of this book was meant to be very broad and popular; Grylls is not just interested in being pegged as a fixture on the Christian bookstore shelves, and I suppose I can respect that.

Quotes:

Fear forces you to look tough on the outside but makes you weak on the inside. (p. 64)

My dad had always told me that if I could be the most enthusiastic person I knew then I would do well. (p. 89)

Faith in Christ has been the great empowering presence in my life, helping me walk strong when so often I feel so weak. (p. 98)

Dreams, though, are cheap, and the real task comes when you start putting in place the steps needed to make those dreams a reality. (p. 117)

Mental strength was something that had to accompany the physical. And the physical is always driven by the mental. (p. 160)

On public speaking:

Be sincere, be brief, be seated. (loc. 4692, attr. to John Mills)

On finding a sponsor for his Everest bid:

I got lucky. But then again, it took me many hundreds of rejections to manage to find that luck. (p. 269)

On mountains and mountain climbing:

Sir Edmund Hilary, Everest’s first conqueror, once said that the mountains gave him strength. (p. 339)

Statistically, the vast majority of accidents happen on the descent. It is because nothing matters any longer, the goal is attained . . . (p. 347)

There are man for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. (qtd. from Everest: A Mountaineering History)


Note: This review was written November 10, 2015, but published online in 2020.

Review: The Queen of Seven Swords

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:

Despite its humble length (50 pages), this book was an admittedly difficult read for theological reasons, focusing as it does on adoration to Mary. (Other reviews mentioned this, but most lack enough detail to deter a serious, though Protestant, Chestertonian, such as myself.) The poetry itself was beautiful; much of it has the same lilting meter found in Myers’ famous Saint Paul. In its prosody, it follows the same sort of patterns seen in Chesterton’s general collections like The Wild Knight and Other Poems. But unlike the others, it lacks variety of subject matter.

Most readers will either love or hate this book, depending solely on whether they allow for prayer to Mary. For my part, I have always found prayer to the departed saints (including Mary) to have no biblical backing whatsoever; the practice stems from culture and custom, not from wholesome spirituality. The New Testament authors ring with one accord the glorious news that we have become “a kingdom of priests,” fully entitled to “boldly approach the throne” on our own behalf but not on our merits, needing no other surety than the blood of the Lamb.

The eponymous cycle of poems turns on a metaphor of Mary having seven swords in her (see Luke 2:35), which are the swords of seven saints (which he admits are purely fanciful, not reflecting a historical reality).

Favorites were “St. George of England,” and “A Little Litany.” Other than these, there is almost nothing in the book that doesn’t relate directly to the honor of Mary. There are romantic, medieval-sounding themes and Robin Hood and King Arthur receive prominent mention, but mainly as adorers of Mary, whom the author calls by various honorifics, such as “Our Lady,” “Our Mother,” “the Queen of Angels” and “the Mother of the Maker”—an unbiblical falsehood that has been the constant stumbling block of millions of Muslims, who are told in the Quran that we believe God and Mary literally begot Jesus together.

Of the hymns to Mary, “The Black Virgin” was probably the most interesting for theological reasons, dealing with cultural expression of religion.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book at all to Protestant readers. Let not its rarity make it seem a jewel to you; not all rarities are precious.

Review: The Innocence of Father Brown

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.”

Series: The “Father Brown” series of short stories was collected into five books:

  1. The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)
  2. The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)
  3. The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)
  4. The Secret of Father Brown (1927)
  5. The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)

One additional story, “The Mask of Midas” (1936), was not included. (The author died in 1936.)

Overview:

Father Brown epitomizes one key of Chestertonian thought: the triumph of common sense over intellect. While Sherlock Holmes—especially in modern interpretations—glorifies uncommon intellect, Father Brown glorifies the common man. Here is how he is introduced in “The Blue Cross”:

The little priest had a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown paper parcels, which he was quite incapable of collecting.

He is no Sherlock Holmes. In many places in the stories, he summarizes his method of solving crimes, and it is inductive rather than deductive. He solves crimes mainly by his intuitive, priestly knowledge of people, not a knowledge of facts.

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

The above quote summarizes the message of Father Brown. The “Father Brown” corpus carries an intrinsically personal vision of life on earth, and in that way it acts as a weighty supplement to Chesterton’s other writings.

Meat:

My favorite stories from this collection were “The Blue Cross,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Honour of Israel Gow,” “The Hammer of God,” and “The Three Tools of Death.”

In 1910, “The Blue Cross” became the first “Father Brown” story to be published, and in many ways it exemplifies his humble character, and has less violence than many of the others. “The Hammer of God” is also classic Chesterton as well as a thrilling mystery.

Chesterton masterfully utilizes the Scottish castle setting in “The Honour of Israel Gow,” to set the tone of a horror story. In general, I really enjoyed his use of setting. The modern BBC series ties Father Brown down to the Cotswolds (SW England), but this book alone has numerous and varied settings.

Bones:

Although I know it is par for the field, I did not like that nearly all of the stories involved a murder. I felt that Chesterton displayed his unique cleverness whenever there was no violence in the story at all, as in “The Blue Cross,” or Father Brown’s whimsical prelude, The Club of Queer Trades. I wanted more variety.

Quotes:

“Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down.” (p. 65)

“I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous.” (p. 111)

“‘How do you know all this?’ he cried. ‘Are you a devil?’
“‘I am a man,’ answered Father Brown gravely; ‘and therefore have all devils in my heart.'” (p. 140)

“There is this about such evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers. This is the real case against crime, that a man does not become wilder and wilder, but only meaner and meaner.” (p. 167)

“Even the most murderous blunders don’t poison life like sins.” (p. 183)

Read (free): Internet Archive (pdf), LibriVox (audio), Project Gutenberg (epub/mobi/html)

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

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:

Like its more famous cousin The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a tale of paradoxes and dichotomies. It was published in 1904 (his first novel) and set in semi-utopian future, and the tale arcs around two central characters.

The first central character is Auberon Quin, described in the following way:

When he entered a room of strangers, they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.

Auberon is selected by a kind of hyper-democratic lottery as the King of England while he is ludicrously babbling about Nicaragua. This plot device—the selecting of monarchs at random—was not a mere gimmick for Chesterton, but was his actual explanation of dynastic monarchy, as he had stated in his chapter of Robert Browning’s philosophy:

The great compliment which monarchy paid to mankind [is] the compliment of selecting from it almost at random. (Robert Browning, p. 94)

The second central character (to whom the title alludes) is Adam Wayne, who lives his whole life in Notting Hill, and grows an obsessive patriotic loyalty for the London borough that he calls his home.

He still retained his feeling about the town of Notting Hill . . . He was a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland. But he was perhaps the first to realise how often the boundary of fairyland runs through a crowded city. Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights [i.e. street lamps] thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the wood of elf-land.

The playful competition and opposition of these two characters comprises the whole plot of this novel.

Meat:

Without spoiling the plot, there are some themes worth mentioning. One is the nearness of fairyland. “Fairyland” or “Elfland” in Chesterton (and the Inklings who read him) refer to a hypothetical land visited by imagination. The theme is the precise precursor to Lewis’ Narnia and functions like another dimension, visited in vision by the most childlike characters. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, the narrator references “fairyland” quite a few times through the course of the novel (for example, see the above quotation). This is important because these are some of his earliest published references to an idea that became integral to Chesterton’s view of life. “Fairyland” figures most prominently in Chesterton’s works Magic: A Fantastic Comedy and Orthodoxy, but I have yet to find a book in which it is not mentioned.

Another theme is the vindication of humor. (See also “A Defence of Nonsense”!) Auberon Quin seems to take nothing seriously, and Adam Wayne seems to take everything seriously. As the novel proceeds, positive and negative judgments are given on both characters, and the reader is left wondering who is the hero.

“Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour. You are looking serious yourself, James.” (Auberon Quin)

Chesterton also has an interesting take on patriotism, which I give here at length, since it does not in any way spoil the novel, and is a characteristic sample:

Upwards from his abstracted childhood, Adam Wayne had grown strongly and silently in a certain quality or capacity which is in modern cities almost entirely artificial, but which can be natural, and was primarily almost brutally natural in him, the quality or capacity of patriotism. . . . He knew that in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems. Above all, he knew . . . that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.

All this he knew, not because he was a philosopher or a genius, but because he was a child. Any one who cares to walk up a side slum like Pump Street, can see a little Adam claiming to be king of a paving-stone. And he will always be proudest if the stone is almost too narrow for him to keep his feet inside it.

It is almost impossible to convey to any ordinary imagination the degree to which he had transmitted the leaden London landscape to a romantic gold. . . . To this man, at any rate, the inconceivable had happened. The artificial city had become to him nature, and he felt the curbstones and gas-lamps as things as ancient as the sky. (p. 134-136)

Political themes are also important to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is nothing there I haven’t written about in my review of What I Saw in America. His stance on “internationalism” is obvious in Napoleon from the semi-utopian setting of the book; ultimately, he sees efforts to unite the world in peace to be idealistic and misguided. He also mocks pure democracy in the setup to the novel (again, he wrote about this in his writings on America).

Bones:

This novel is not as fast-moving as The Man Who Was Thursday. Admittedly, during the first few chapters, I was quite lost as to where the novel was going, or who the “Napoleon of Notting Hill” could be. The first chapter is essentially an essay. But the novel does start to get interesting after “The Charter of the Cities,” and it does have its fair share of action in the second half. Take heart; patience is rewarded in this one.

When I saw how the plot turned in this novel, I was inclined to think that it could have been a short story. The short story usually turns on one key dilemma or plot device (in this case, a monarch selected at random), and so far that has been true of Chesterton’s novels. At least they are interesting, and Chesterton’s narration has many intriguing asides.

Review: Notes on the Psalms

Rating: ★★★

Author: G. Campbell Morgan was a British Congregational preacher, active from 1883 to 1943, mostly at Westminster Chapel in London. Nicknamed “the Prince of Expositors,” Morgan’s accessible expository preaching gained him a wide audience on both sides of the Atlantic. During his long life of ministry, he published more than 60 books, many of which were sermons.

Overview:

The first edition of Morgan’s Notes on the Psalms (1947; posthumous) contains brief notes on all 150 psalms, as well as the full English text of the Psalms (in a metrical layout, two columns). I believe the Bible version used is the American Standard Version. For each psalm, Morgan gives a kind of outline or summary, with a few devotional comments. Most psalms have only one or two paragraphs, meant to give you the core of the psalm. Where needed, he sometimes adds brief notes related to translation problems.

Meat:

I really liked the way this book was laid out. Including the full text of the Psalms, while unusual, made the book extremely useful as devotional reading. I was amazed how much poignant historical and textual information he was able to fit in such a short book. I also felt that his summaries of each psalm were weighty. I did not feel—as I often feel in reading a modern Bible with headings—that the heading given to each psalm was overly modern and fell short of the author’s intended theme.

Bones:

Probably the most distracting thing about this book (for me) is the charts that divided the psalms into sections or “books”. Morgan himself admits in his preface that attempts to classify the psalms are “arbitrary,” but I felt that the book divisions in particular did not provide any helpful index to interpreting the individual psalms within them. There are differences in authorship and perhaps linguistic differences, but thematic differences were just too broad to detect over as many as 30 or 40 psalms. It distracts the reader from the fact that each of them has a unique origin, and even the traditional grouping and ordering was probably, to some extent, arbitrary.

For this reason, in my own summary of the Psalms, I recommend a variety of methods of classifying the Psalms, the best of which was the one I found on Dennis Bratcher’s website.

Read: At the time of writing, this book is freely available in PDF format here.