Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Wild Knight and Other Poems

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.”

Overview:

If you have not read any of Chesterton’s poetry, The Wild Knight and Other Poems (1900) is a great place to start. It holds the distinction of being G. K. Chesterton’s second published book out of a corpus that spans over 100 volumes over four decades (1900-1936).

Published at the turn of the 20th century, when the author was in his mid-twenties, the volume has almost nothing of the archaisms and classicisms that keep modern readers away from older poetry. Just as Chesterton’s other works, it strikes a balance between profound insight and childlike whimsy.

Among all his works of poetry, the more serious (or semi-serious) poems are found in The Wild Knight (1900), The Ballad of the White Horse (1911), Poems (1915), and The Ballad of St. Barbara (1922). Those four volumes deal with many Christian themes and will probably be enjoyed by serious readers. Very different in tone are the light little collections Greybeards at Play (1900) and Wine, Water and Song (1915), which make quick and light reading, but don’t offer much in the way of hidden treasure.

Meat:

Among my favorites from this volume included “The Human Tree”, “The Donkey”, “Ecclesiastes”, and “A Portrait”.

“The Human Tree” is, to me, a striking picture of divine forbearance, reminiscent of the doctrine of kenosis found in Philippians 2.

“The Donkey”—about the donkey that carried Jesus during the Triumphal Entry—is frequently quoted by Ravi Zacharias and other Christian authors.

Many of Chesterton’s poems, both here in and in his 1915 volume of Poems, deal with Christmas themes, and these were later arranged into a pamphlet called Christmas Poems (1929).

Bones:

Like any good poetry, the author’s meaning is not always on the surface, and so I can’t say that these books make suitable devotional reading. Chesterton was a literary genius and sometimes makes use of archaisms that are not to be found in my little dictionary. Many poems will have to be read twice or thrice, but then, if that weren’t true, what is poetry for?

Read: LibriVox (audiobook), Project Gutenberg (epub, mobi, html), Online Literature (html), Kindle Store (mobi)

Review: What Will Be Must Be

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Samuel Fancourt (1678–1768) was a Dissenting theologian in early eighteenth-century England. He is today well-known for two reasons: firstly, as a pioneer in creating the world’s first circulating library, a cause for which he practically bankrupted himself; and secondly, for being the earliest English theologian to write that some human actions are unknowable to an omniscient God.

Overview:

What Will Be Must Be is one of a polemical series centering around the Arminian theology of Samuel Fancourt, lasting from 1725 to 1735. The letters and essays include responses to Fancourt and Fancourt’s rebuttals, mainly around the concept of “future contingencies,” and the concomitant concept of God’s foreknowledge (of them). I have called this series of writings “The Prescience Papers,” and the titles are worth skimming:

  1. The Greatness of the Divine Love Vindicated (1727) [concerning his The Greatness of the Divine Love, A Sermon (1725), no longer extant]
  2. Appendix to the Greatness of Divine Love Vindicated (1729)
  3. The Divine Prescience of Free Contingent Events, Vindicated and Proved, Anonymous (1729)
  4. An Essay Concerning Liberty, Grace, and Prescience (1729)
  5. God’s Foreknowledge of Contingent Events Vindicated, John Norman (1729)
  6. Apology, or Letter to a Friend Setting Forth the Occasion, &c., of the Present Controversy, 2nd ed. (1730)
  7. A Letter in Vindication of God’s Prescience of Contingencies, Anthony Bliss (1730)
  8. What Will Be Must Be, or Future Contingencies No Contingencies (1730)
  9. All Future Free Actions : Future Contingencies, David Millar (1731)
  10. The Principles of the Reformed Churches, David Millar (1731)
  11. Greatness of the Divine Love Further Vindicated in Reply to Mr. Millar’s “Principles of the Reformed Churches” (1732)
  12. The Omniscience of God, Stated and Vindicated, David Millar (1732)
  13. Appendix to a Letter to the Rev. Mr. Norman (1732)
  14. Free Agency of Accountable Creatures (1733)

Many other books on similar topics were circulating in Dissenting circles during the same time period, such as A Vindication of Human Liberty: In Two Parts, J. Greenup (1731).

In particular, What Will Be Must Be (1730) argues that there is no such thing as a “future” event (that is, an inevitably future event) that is also a “contingent” event. This was a key idea for his opponents, such as Bliss and Norman, who argued that future events were contingent for us but inevitable for God at one and the same time.

These old works are not so fascinating in themselves, or in their precise content, because it contains no argument that would be novel to anyone well read on open theism. But the very fact that this “open view” was defended in Dissenting English theology 300 years ago is mind-boggling to those who have heard repeatedly that the open view is an innovation of the 1980s.

Meat:

The chief value of Fancourt’s writing is his return to the logical predecessor to open theism: the incompatibility of “absolute” foreknowledge with human freedom (or “the contingency of events”). Calvin also taught that contingency and foreknowledge were incompatible, but there it results in the denial of contingency and the affirmation of foreknowledge.

Fancourt’s relentlessly positive statement of God’s omniscience should be a lesson to modern open theists, who so clearly distance themselves from what they call “classical Theism.” Fancourt writes:

God’s foreknowledge is truly exhaustive: he knows past as past; present as present; certain future as certain future (because he has determined it in his providence); contingent future as contingent future (because he will allow men and angels to choose).

Again, in The Narrative (1747):

Why, it may be said—don’t you deny the prescience or foreknowledge of God? And this, however, is, we assure you, a prejudice to you here. I answer: if I deny God’s foreknowledge, it is more than I myself know. I never denied that God foreknows whatever will be.

Interestingly a chief axiom for Fancourt is that God did not plan the Fall of Man. Whatever glory he may get out of his atoning work, is not as great as his original plan, in which, Fancourt affirms, the Fall was neither foreplanned, nor a necessity.

Bones:

Reading this book in a fascimile from the 1730 edition was a hassle because of the many strange printing conventions, and I recommend getting an updated edition.

It is also annoying that the entire correspondence is not available in any format, and I hope that someone makes them all available.


Note: This review was written on May 28, 2016 and published online in 2020.

Review: The 1:8 Promise of Jesus

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Denzil (Denny) R. Miller, missionary to Malawi and director of the Acts in Africa Initiative. Miller saw that evangelism was alive and well in Africa, but very few African pastors were being discipled about the filling and gifts Holy Spirit, so this has been his primary ministry focus for some years. He has many books on the Holy Spirit and on Luke-Acts.

Overview:

Loren Triplett said that Denny Miller has pointed us to “the lost secret of Pentecost.” I think he’s right. Disconnecting the Spirit’s power from the Spirit’s mission has led to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches that have great experiences but lack influence or persuasive power. The Holy Spirit does not give us his gifts or power to titillate us or to make us feel good. Denny shows that the Holy Spirit gives us tools with an intention: to reach the world, from our nearest neighbors to the ends of the earth. That is the theme of The 1:8 Promise of Jesus (2012).

In my view, this is probably the most important book I have read about the Holy Spirit.

Meat:

What is unique about this book, as well as many of Denny Miller’s books, is that he brings both biblical scholarship and Classical Pentecostalism to the table, and it is unfortunate that this is a rare combination in North America.

I believe recovering this missional intention of God in the book of Acts will lead to more young people being filled with the Spirit. Today’s young people in America are disillusioned with purposeless power and treadmill churches; they want to be involved with something that will change the world. Acts 1:8 offers us the means as well as the purpose; the means is the Spirit’s power, and the purpose is the mission of God to restore the lost to him.

Bones:

While this book re-explores an important truth about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, it is a very small book, and is only intended to re-orient our understand of the purpose of the gift of the Holy Spirit. If you want more about the mechanics of the Holy Spirit or the history of Pentecostalism, I would recommend Dr. Miller’s other books, such as The Spirit of God in Mission. If you want more about the missional work of the Holy Spirit, I would recommend John V. York’s Missions in the Age of the Spirit, or his son Paul York’s A Biblical Theology of Missions.

Review: The Psalms of David Imitated

Rating: ★★★

Full Title: The Psalms of David: Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Apply’d to the Christian State and Worship

Author: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is known as the father of English hymnody. He is the author of an remarkable quantity of Christian hymns, probably only surpassed by the Wesley brothers and Fanny Crosby. His most famous hymns are “Joy to the world” (found here in his Psalms of David) and “When I survey the wondrous cross” (found in his Horæ Lyricæ). He was also renowned as a logician and coined the “straw man” fallacy.

Overview:

Watts’ Psalms of David Imitated (1719) was a watershed book in English Protestantism. Psalms of David Imitated were part of a long tradition of singing paraphrased psalms, which began in the Protestant era with the Genevan Psalter (1539) and the Scottish Psalter (1564); but Watts also wrote and encouraged the use of (non-Scripture-based hymns in his other works, namely Horæ Lyricæ. Thus, Watts, in a sense, bridges the divide between two traditions of Protestant worship: exclusive psalmody and hymns. This will require some background.

Historically, hymns have been used in Christian worship since its earliest era. But the Protestant Reformation led to a split in practice between certain churches (German; English), which sang hymns, and other churches (Geneva; Scotland), which practiced exclusive psalmody and believed that practices not expressly authorized in the Bible were forbidden (i.e., as vestiges of Catholicism). Martin Luther, of course, did not follow this latter principle and wrote many hymns himself. Because of his work, a revolution in German church music happened in the early 16th century; the accompanying revolution in English church did not happen for 200 years. Writers such as Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795) promoted the principles of freedom in worship in Protestant churches; but Watts’ prolific verse in particular became known as a mark of this transition.

I have not read straight through other psalters, but, as far as I can tell, Watts does not follow the psalms as strictly as other paraphrased psalters. As suggested in the subtitle, he brings in as much as he can of New Testament theology, mentioning in turn the birth of Christ, his work of atonement, and his second advent.

I was very excited that I managed to dig up an early edition of this book in a digital format, which included such classics as “Joy to the World” as they were printed by the author himself. I can say, though, that “Joy to the world” is easily the best the volume had to offer. The name of the game here is quantity, not quality.

Meat:

Everything glorious about this book is epitomized in its most famous paraphrase, given in the book as “Psalm 98, Second Part” and subtitled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom,” but known today by its first line:

Joy to the World; the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

If we can get past the commonality of these words, we will realize Watts’ vision of the overawing supremacy of God our Creator, and the power of his atonement. Here The Psalms of David Imitated is at its strongest.

Bones:

People often praise the depth of Watts’ theology, but in this work I primarily sense the sternly judicial aspects of God’s love and care. Watts ties everything to God’s majesty and sovereignty, if anything, much more so than the psalms themselves. The tone is strictly Calvinist. For a more relational theology that draws deeply from the cross, I would highly recommend his other works. But if you want to a vision of God’s glorious sovereignty, The Psalms of David Imitated is well nigh unbeatable.

There are two other related hymnbooks that are too long to receive their own reviews, but which I recommend here as alternatives:

Watts’ Horæ Lyricæ, is less cramped in its form and content by the constraints that the psalms put on Watts. In his Psalms of David, Watts also constrains himself in terms of meter, to make these verses better for congregational singing.

Samuel Worcester has a well-done edited compilation (1859) that draws from all of Watts’ works, and I believe that it gives the best sampling. Watts is very prolific and reading these in the original was much less inspiring than Cowper’s Olney Hymns, for example, because of its length and lack of variety.

Review: The Greater Life and Work of Christ

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: In addition to The Greater Life and Work of Christ, Alexander Patterson is the author of The Other Side of Evolution: Its Effect and Fallacy (1903), and Broader Bible Study.

Overview:

The Greater Life and Work of Christ (1896) is a novel take on a genre known well in Patterson’s day: “the life of Christ.” Many famous theologians published attempts at biographies of Jesus in the second half of the nineteenth century, most of them titled simply The Life of Christ. The focus of this genre was to present a kind of narrative gospel harmony, and sometimes a more introspective, speculative, or biographical look at how Jesus interacted with people and went about his day. Some popular and typical examples include that of Dawson (1874), F. W. Farrar (1875), James Stalker (1880), Joseph Parker’s Inner Life of Christ (1883), and Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). Some more modern examples include R. J. Campbell’s Life of Christ (1921) and Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (1948).

Patterson’s book differs significantly from all of the above. In the preface to his book, he states his theme:

It will be seen at a glance that this is not a life of Christ in the usual sense. It is not a review of the events of the earthly existence of our Lord. There is a greater life and a larger work of Christ of which his life on earth is but a single chapter. . . . The great defect in the study of Christ is to consider him in but a single chapter of his life and work.

Thus, literally, “Christ in His Earthly Life” is only one of Patterson’s seven chapters. The table of contents is worth a long look:

I. Christ in the Eternal Past
II. The Word: Christ in Creation
III. Jehovah: Christ in the Old Testament Age
IV. Jesus: Christ in His Earthly Life
V. Jesus Christ: Christ in His Present State and Work
VI. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords: Christ in the Day of the Lord
VII. Christ in the Eternal Future

Chapter IV has its source texts mainly in the Gospels; chapter VI and VII have their source texts mainly in the Revelation. The other chapters, though, are fascinating composites of thoughts drawn from a variety of Scriptures. When you read about “Christ in Creation” you will marvel at how many Scriptures speak of Jesus at Creation, and wonder why you have so seldom heard a sermon on such a worthy topic. I also enjoyed the meditations on “Christ in His Present State and Work”—the comfort of the intercession of Christ for us was a topic constantly on the lips of the Puritans, but it is a topic seldom explored at any length today.

Patterson is rather ahead of his time on some topics. He takes a bird’s-eye view of Scripture that is attractive for its thoroughness. The first three chapters are often in innovative territory as he draws together Scriptures in new ways. Interestingly, he was an early opponent of evolution, and there is one section of “post-colonial” thoughts that sounds like it was in yesterday’s Christiantiy Today, even though he lived at the height of the British Empire.

Because it follows a chronological scheme, this book may seem at first like dispensational theology, but that is really outside its goal. Rather, Patterson’s purpose is to present the unity in Christ’s work throughout history, over against its disparities.

Meat:

The very idea of this book is thrilling in itself, beginning in eternity past and ending in eternity future. There is such a variety of thoughts and Scriptures that it is difficult to choose only a few quotations.

One high point of the book is that Patterson takes an essentially missional view of the Church.

The church exists for a specific work—the proclamation in all the world of the gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ as declared by himself and his apostles. This we dare not neglect for any other mission, however good.

Along these lines, in Chapter VI, he usefully differentiates Christians from Christendom—meaning the historically-Christian or majority-Christian nations of Europe and the North America. His comments here were remarkably ahead of their time, written in the 1890s, and I felt it was worth sharing the whole section:

What will be the record of Christendom? It has laid hands on the fairest regions of the world “for their good” and ostensibly to “extend civilization,” really to extend national power and trade and to enrich the merchants of the dominant nations. It has taken, without compensation, from weaker nations their God-given heritage . . . The work of the missionary of the gospel has been taken advantage of, and has been followed by the trader, and he by the soldier. There has followed them the train of evils which have destroyed these peoples. Opium was forced into China by Christendom. Rum is being poured into Africa by Christendom.

Where the so-called Christian civilization has appeared, the native races have gone down by its drugs, drinks, and diseases. It has put into the hands of these races, arms and material of most diabolically consummate perfection for the destruction of human life. It calls the arming of these peoples with these infernal weapons “advancing in progress and civilization.” It lends them money for this purpose and sends them teachers who instruct them in the satanic art of wholesale butchery of human life, and sets them at war with each other, and profits by their mutual destruction.

There has been given the nations of whole continents, in place of their original paganism, a bastard Christianity more difficult to overthrow than their pagan faith. . . . The God of heaven and earth is not oblivious to the awful sins of Christendom.
(p. 273-274, 2017 ed.)

Bones:

This book is very long but very good. The only part where I felt very bogged down was the eschatology. A reader cannot help but think that many of the thoughts presented are speculative. That being said, I highly recommend that you finish the book if you can, because the conclusion masterfully synthesized all that preceded and fully compensated for the less exciting sections.

Review: Letters from a Skeptic

Rating: ★★★

Author: Gregory (Greg) Boyd is an American pastor and theologian known for promoting relational theology. He is best known for popular theology books like Letters from a Skeptic and Myth of a Christian Nation, but he has also written ambitious theological works like God at War and The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

Overview:

This book is an apologetics crash course, packaged as a correspondence between a theologian and his skeptic father. It is atypical in that the main problem dealt with in this book was theodicy and theology proper. About half of book deals with suffering and the freedom of God in his Creation.

Boyd’s response to these issues is found in the relational theology of open theism, which is a modification of Arminianism. As such, some of the answers are identical to those given by C. S. Lewis:

It is not the will of God which keeps sinners in hell, but the will of sinners. (p. 198)

Where did our longing for something that never existed, and that never could exist, come from? (p. 70)

Other concepts will sound quite novel for those unfamiliar with relational theology:

We tend to become the decisions we make. The more we choose something, the more we become that something. We are all in the process of solidifying our identities by the decisions we make. (p. 51, emphasis his)

I should add, here, that some online reviewers doubt the veracity of the letters because of the overall tone in writing being so similar; my gut feeling is that this could be the result of excessive editing, but I don’t see any reason to doubt the overall story.

Meat:

The strengths of the book include discussions of the problem of evil, free will, Satan, biblical prophecy, the problem of the existence of hell, and problems in the biblical canon. Whereas elsewhere Boyd gets into polemical discussions related to Calvinism and open theism, I liked that this book kept it more to discussing basic objections to faith and didn’t get too bogged down.

If you enjoy the relational theology of writers like George MacDonald, you will probably find the theology of this book compelling and interesting, though liberal on some points. If you hate Arminianism, this book is not for you.

Bones:

I would recommend this book with a few reservations:

1. Accessibility: It was written by a theologian, not your typical pastor. As such it contains a few brief discussions of some things which may not even be relevant: canonization, source criticism, etc. He tries to make it accessible, but a few of the sub-points here are pretty nitty-gritty.

2. Interpretation: Some would consider Greg to be pretty liberal in interpretation, and many Calvinists find him offensive for his free will theology in this book. However, as I stated, I think we get less of his snark in this book than some others!

3. Hell: Near the end both are overly sympathetic (in my opinion) with annihilationism, the belief that souls are destroyed in Hell rather than eternally tortured. This is mentioned only cursorily, and Greg says that he has “exegetical reservations” but nevertheless tells his dad that it is a “viable option.” His father practically accepts this hook-and-sinker with no further discussion.
I’m sure their discussion of this was not over in one letter, but I don’t like the impression that it gives in the book. Most of the book does a good job grappling with such questions, but this answer was pretty dismissive! What about Revelation 14:11?

And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.

I wouldn’t form theological opinions based on this book alone, but I think for anyone, it could help them to think through some of the most basic issues of the faith and suffering, along with outside discussion.

Review: From Azusa to Africa to the Nations

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Denzil (Denny) R. Miller, missionary to Malawi and director of the Acts in Africa Initiative. Miller saw that evangelism was alive and well in Africa, but very few African pastors were being discipled about the filling and gifts Holy Spirit, so this has been his primary ministry focus for some years. He has many books on the Holy Spirit and on Luke-Acts.

Overview:

From Azusa to Africa to the Nations (2006) is a simple summary of the leading figures and missionary movements that spawned out of the Azusa Street Revival, focusing on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the works that were birthed in Africa.

This little book addresses an important historical idea that began in the early modern Pentecostal movement: the idea that missionaries who spoke in tongues would be able to “preach in tongues” as on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12).

Early leaders like Charles F. Parham and William J. Seymour even believed that those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit would always speak in a known language of the world. They would then be able to supernaturally preach the gospel to that particular people without ever having to study the language. (p. 33)

Some showed up to a mission field, and when their speaking in tongues “didn’t work,” they thought—I must be in the wrong mission field!—and moved on. Eventually, a clear consensus was reached that they had misunderstood the purpose of modern tongues, drawing on Acts 2 when they should have been comparing the passages on “tongues” in 1 Corinthians, which are pretty clearly differentiated in Scripture by the following points:

  1. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 are directed towards God, but readily understood by hearers; “edification tongues” in 1 Corinthians are directed towards God, and not readily understood by bystanders. (See 1 Cor. 14:1-14.)
  2. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 edified onlookers; praying in “edification tongues” edifies yourself (1 Cor. 4:4).
  3. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 require no interpreter; “edification tongues” do require an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27-28).

One point apparently common to both types of tongues is that they are both used by God as “a sign” for unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22). Early Pentecostals were right in believing that all tongues had an empowering element; they were wrong in believing that all tongues were readily understood without interpretation.

The Azusa Street Outpouring reminds us that missions is at the heart of true Pentecostalism. (p. 66)

While they were mistaken on that point, Miller points out the positive aspects of the story: 1) they left their homeland in outstanding (although perhaps somewhat mistaken) faith; 2)  the modern Pentecostal movement began as a missionary movement, not as a selfish club for boosting self-esteem; 3) their failure to “preach in tongues” led to the refinement of Pentecostal theology, which now differentiates more readily—though this is not always clear from the pulpit—between the “missional” tongues of Acts 2 and the “edification” tongues of 1 Corinthians 12-14. This was a key development in modern Pentecostalism and should not be neglected when an explanation of the purpose of “tongues” is given.

Meat:

Miller treads a fine line in this book: cessationist writers would have you think that the early Pentecostals were crazy for showing up in an overseas mission field expecting to re-live Acts 2; many Pentecostal writers would rather not talk about it. I appreciated his courage in addressing a theme that I have not found other Pentecostal authors writing about at any length.

Miller is also a scholar. All of his books are well-researched and documented, so you know that he is not just making generalizations; he gives numerous names and dates that help us orient our understanding of the early Pentecostal movement.

Bones:

This book is a very brief read, and probably will only require one or two sittings for most readers; unfortunately, I do not know of any other references for those interested in going deeper on this topic.

Read:

At the time of writing, you can read From Azusa to Africa to the Nations for free on Denzil R. Miller’s personal website.

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)