Monday, April 20, 2015

"Big Sister Is Watching You" -- Whittaker Chambers on Ayn Rand

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal…

We struggle to be just. For we cannot help feel at least a sympathetic pain before the sheer labor, discipline, and patient craftsmanship that went to making this mountain of words. But the words keep shouting us down. 

In the end that tone dominates. But it should be its own antidote, warning us that anything it shouts is best taken with the usual reservations with which we might sip a patent medicine. Some may like the flavor. In any case, the brew is probably without lasting ill effects. But it is not a cure for anything. Nor would we, ordinarily, place much confidence in the diagnosis of a doctor who supposes that the Hippocratic Oath is a kind of curse.

Whittaker Chamber's review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (first published in National Review in December 1957) remains a true classic.  I highly recommend it for three reasons: 1) Because so many people quote the book (and Miss Rand) with confident praise, thinking that she represented an enlightened libertarianism. In point of fact, she did not. 2) Because so many people think they know what Atlas Shrugged is all about, even though they have never actually read its 1,088 pages. And 3) Because Whittaker Chambers, one of the 20th Century's most profound, courageous, and effective critics of Communism, writes such an insightful review.

You can find the full text of Chamber's fine essay, "Big Sister Is Watching You," right here.

Hits and Misses

Among my recent reading (ever eclectic in nature), there have been some standout hits...and some definite misses too.

First, the hits.

* Fire Over England (A.E.W. Mason)
This adventurous and well-written novel, originally published in 1936, is set in Queen Elizabeth’s England just before the campaign of the Spanish Armada. It's a striking story of heroism that makes for very enjoyable reading.

* Hitler's Master of the Dark Arts (Bill Yenne)
Though sometimes flawed by amateurish writing, Yenne compiled a great deal of thorough and relevant research for this history of the Nazi's deep involvement in cultic paganism, their irrational hatred of Christianity, and their zeal to rid the world of Jews and Slavs. He especially trains his focus on the weird "witch doctor" of the Nazi Party, Heinrich Himmler. It is not easy reading, of course, but it illuminates a very dark part of the 20th Century and, though I've read a lot about the origins of World War II, the philosophy of the Nazis, and the horrors of the holocaust, the book presented a lot of new information.

* Moondrop to Gascony by Anne-Marie Walters. (Here's a review posted earlier.)

Why Men Hate Going to Church (David Murrow)
A 5 star book, this was easily one of the most insightful and provocative non-fiction books that I've read in some time. Having long a critic of the feminization of the Church in the West, I found most of Murrow's points spot on. In addition, the book has fueled a lot of thinking, praying, and discussion. I recommend it highly.

Now, the misses.

* Jesus On Leadership (C. Gene Wilkes)
At the L'Abri Conference in Rochester last February, I talked with an academic who teaches leadership courses at the graduate level. I confessed to her that I had heard a lot about the topic -- let's face it, leadership books and seminars have been the rage for a couple of decades -- but I had never been too interested in looking into the matter. She suggested a few titles and I promised to delve into at least one of them. I chose this one because it had a foreword written by our old friend, the late Calvin Miller. However, I found the book poorly organized and remarkably repetitive. The thesis of the book (and it takes 245 pages to say it over and again) is that Jesus's leadership was servant-oriented. No kidding.

* The Enchanted Castle (E. Nesbit)
Not all children's novels classified as classic deserve the description. This 1907 novel, though quite famous and beloved by many, is one of those that doesn't make the grade.

* On the Beach (Nevil Shute) (Here's a review posted earlier.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On The Beach Is "Out to Sea"

A bestseller in its time, On the Beach was written by Nevil Shute, the author of several books we have liked quite a bit over the years. We haven't been the only ones either. Shute's novels have been voted onto the Notting Hill Napoleons booklist many times. 

However, this end of the world novel was something quite different. For unlike the books we have enjoyed (Pied PiperRuined City, and A Town Called Alice), novels which were interesting, well-written, and containing uplifting themes and characters, Claire and I thought On the Beach a dull and depressing read. Shute wanted the novel to be a warning to the Western world about the proliferation of atomic bombs (it was 1957, who didn't?) but he was so pretentious and unimaginative that he produced less a novel than simply a longwinded tract.

The plot is unrealistic and surprisingly predictable. The characters are generally unlikeable. And the tone of the novel is desperately hopeless. There is, for instance, no hint of transcendence -- except the possibility of reincarnation (a belief that Shute plays with in a couple of his other works).  Finally, On the Beach works hard to put a positive spin on suicide and euthanasia. Why wait for a painful, undignified death from radiation poisoning when you can take a pill whenever you decide you've had enough?

Now in the interest of fairness, I should mention that our evaluation of the novel was substantially more negative than the other members of our book club. In fact, most of them actually liked the book. But for Claire and I, slogging through On the Beach was neither enjoyable or productive.


A Real Life Spy Story

Moondrop to Gascony by Anne-Marie Walters is a compelling history written by a young woman who served the cause of freedom as a courier, spy, and resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied France during the last year of World War II.  More riveting and meaningful because it is true, Moondrop to Gascony won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in 1947 as the best work of literature in any genre by an author aged 25 or young in the U.K.

Walters takes the reader on her courageous and critically-important mission as a 20-year old volunteer who survives a plane crash, parachutes behind enemy lines, and then pursues several daring actions to help the French resistance prepare for the Allied invasion.  To do this, she is trained in combat  and weapons, code-writing and radio, explosives and disguise.  And, before she finishes her tasks and escapes back to England, Anne-Marie uses all her training…and her luck.

Moondrop to Gascony describes thrilling, inspiring deeds performed against a despicable enemy but it also shows the inside life of a real life spy – the fear, the tedium, the danger, the heroes, the heels, the cowards, and the strategies.  It is a remarkable book, made all the more excellent by Walter’s beautiful and detailed writing.  

By the way, Claire joins me in recommending it highly.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Great Novels Every Christian Should Read

This summer I'll be teaching three seminars, each one about two hours long. The first one is titled, "Six Great Novels Every Christian Should Read. The second one will be "Six Theologians Every Christians Should Know About." The third will be "Six Pieces of Classical Music Every Christian Should Hear." I am willing to entertain suggestions beginning immediately.

The above announcement was recently posted on the Facebook page of Jack Niewold, a solid and inspirational friend who is also the author of Frail Web of Intention.  It was a provocative announcement, especially the first part about literature, and so I promised I'd send along my suggestions today.  To do so, I searched back through the files and found the syllabus for a class I taught at Grace University a few years ago, 20th Century Christian Writers.

Now I realize that it doesn't cover everything that Jack is asking about. For instance, limiting the literature selections to the 20th Century would leave out Dante's Divine Comedy, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. And I'm not conversant enough with professional theologians to answer his second question very well.  My preferences move towards what might be called practical theology: C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, John Warwick Montgomery, Harry Ironside, Dwight Pentecost, Howard Hendricks, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Randy Alcorn, Joni Eareckson Tada, Erwin Lutzer, Gene Getz, and so on.

And the classical music? Sorry, Jack. Classical music for me is rock and roll from '57 to '67.

But anyway, back to the literature. I print below portions of that syllabus I mentioned.

General description: 20th Century Christian Writers is a course designed to better acquaint students with some of the modern era's most eloquent, far-seeing Christian writers of fiction. It will concentrate on novelists, poets, and playwrights whose work can provide enjoyment and invaluable spiritual enlightenment for a lifetime. Among the writers to be read in the course will be G.K. Chesterton, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Walter Wangerin Jr., and Randy Alcorn. The course involves reading, maintaining a reading journal, book discussions, media presentations, and even a visit to a local Christian literary society.

Student objectives:
1) To receive an overview of several notable fiction writers of the 20th Century whose work reflects a Christian worldview;
2) To read selected works from these writers and learn an appreciation for their insights, their contributions and their literary skills;
3) To develop friendships with writers that will provide ongoing stimulation and enjoyment;
4) To increase one's abilities and experience in practical literary criticism;
5) To improve one's knowledge of quality Christian literature to improve one's spiritual discernment, understanding of culture, and bridge-building skills in behalf of non-believers;
6) To stimulate one's reading skills and elevate the priority of literature in the Christian's life;
7) To learn more about book clubs, literary web sites and organizations, and reading journals.

Required Texts:
Manalive by G.K. Chesterton
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Safely Home by Randy Alcorn

Additional Texts:
(For extra credit or students
seeking graduate credit.)
Charles Sheldon's In His Steps
G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton's The Complete Father Brown
Joyce Kilmer's Selected Poetry
Dorothy Sayers' The Man Born to Be King
Harold Bell Wright's Shepherd of the Hills
Harold Bell Wright's That Printer of Udell's
C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward
Alexander Solzhenitsyn's First Circle
Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited
Malcolm Muggeridge's Sentenced to Life
Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons
Pope John Paul II's The Jeweler's Shop
Joseph Bayly's The Gospel Blimp
James Mills' The Power
Calvin Miller's Singer Trilogy
Calvin Miller's Snow

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Palm Sunday Reflection, GKC's "The Donkey"

"The Donkey" (G.K. Chesterton)

When fishes flew and forests walked 
And figs grew upon thorn, 
Some moment when the moon was blood 
Then surely I was born; 

With monstrous head and sickening cry 
And ears like errant wings, 
The devil's walking parody 
On all four-footed things. 

The tattered outlaw of the earth, 
Of ancient crooked will; 
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb, 
I keep my secret still. 

Fools! For I also had my hour; 
One far fierce hour and sweet: 
There was a shout about my ears, 
And palms before my feet. 

Richard III: A NRO Slide Show

National Review Online has an interesting slide show about Richard III with an emphasis on the discovery of his remains and their subsequent re-internment. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Top 20 Mystery Writers

Below I list, in alphabetical order, my selections for the Top Twenty Mystery Writers of all time.

Before you scan through it, though, be aware that we define the mystery genre rather broadly. We don't insist, for instance, on the mystery novel being separate from the police procedural or the courtroom drama or the detective story. Indeed, we think the best mystery novels are ones that cross the lines, that effectively give you elements of all kinds of stories -- plot, character, insight into human nature, historical color, adventure, and more.

With that in mind, go ahead and check out the list and see how it compares with yours.

* Eric Ambler

* John Buchan

* John Dickson Carr (also those under his pen name Carter Dickson)

* Raymond Chandler

* Leslie Charteris

* G.K. Chesterton

* Agatha Christie

* Charles Dickens

* Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

* Dick Francis

* Erle Stanley Gardner (also those under his pen name A. A. Fair)

* Donald Hamilton

* E.W. Hornung

* Helen MacInnes

* Alistair MacLean

* John D. MacDonald

* Ngaio Marsh

* Dorothy Sayers

* Josephine Tey

* Ellery Queen

Monday, March 23, 2015

Converting to Kindle? Not Quite.

It was with no small reluctance that Claire and I entered the Kindle age a few years ago.

However, we did so because Kindle gave us access to so many books we either couldn’t afford or that we couldn’t get at all because they were out of print. Now, through Kindle's own catalog and by converting works to the device that are available through public domain sites, we have acquired an amazing collection that otherwise would have beyond our reach

Examples? How about buying over 50 works of H.G. Wells for $2.99? Or 23 Zane Grey novels for $1.99? Or the entire works of Robert Louis Stevenson and William Shakespeare for 99 cents? And there’s a whole lot more besides those. Indeed, our Kindles (we have two of them now) contain the texts of hundreds of books. That’s more than thrifty. It's magically handy too.

Having a Kindle means that you can check out certain books from the library too... even if it’s midnight and you’re sitting snugly in your bedroom. Also, copying a lengthy passage from an actual book takes forever but using a Kindle, one can do it in a matter of seconds. You then have a typed copy ready to upload, e-mail, or store away.  All of these things make Claire and I unapologetic Kindle users.

Well, to a degree.

I must be honest.  Claire has adjusted to the little screen very well. But I have not.   Indeed, for me, reading an electronic text is still uncomfortable and I doubt that it will ever compare with the familiarity, the focus, and the sheer joy that I find in reading an actual book.  A book I can hold.  A book that has pages I can physically turn.  A book that allows me to keep my place with a toothpick. A book that has bulk, texture, color, and sometimes user history.

Indeed, sometimes the user history of a book adds wonderful character to my reading experience. I recently finished A.E.W. Mason’s stirring novel, Fire Over England. It is a novel originally published in 1936 but set in Queen Elizabeth’s England just before the campaign of the Spanish Armada. As such, the parallel themes of a free nation being threatened by a sinister and superior enemy (as England was in 1586 by Spain and in the mid-20th Century by Nazi Germany) are striking.  Particularly when the very book you’re holding was printed in England in 1942 and has a handwritten inscription on the flyleaf which reads, “To Jean with all my love, October 10th, 1942.”

Imagining Jean reading this heroic and hopeful story while the bombs fell upon England certainly added to the power of my experience reading the book (the very same book) 73 years later.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen with a Kindle text.

So, have we converted to Kindle?  There are, as I stated above, many practical advantages and we are truly grateful for the technology, availability, ease, and savings the Kindle brings.

But a thorough conversion? No. We love books, both for what they contain and for what they are, too much.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Doing Battle with the Nothing: The Challenge Within Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story.”

In these dreary, late winter evenings, wrapped in a blanket and yearning for the soft signs of spring, I am re-reading Michael Ende’s masterful The Neverending Story.  The novel is a modern fairy tale, wonderfully replete with surreal characters, magic, heroism, and bold adventure. It is extremely entertaining. The Neverending Story, however, is a very special fantasy to me, one that provides a bountiful share of spiritual applications in its thrilling and memorable pages.

The Neverending Story has much to excite and inspire the reader — exemplary lessons about imagination, creativity, honesty, loyalty, bravery, sacrifice in the pursuit of virtuous causes, kindness, and friendship. But I find the most compelling arguments of The Neverending Story are that evil truly exists; that evil has deliberate and sinister designs upon men and women, even boys and girls; that modernity’s prime evil spreads through the lies of nihilism; and that evil must be fought hard and uncompromising.

In our age of moral relativism, to expose such evils is a daring thing. To dramatize the dire importance for men to actively resist those evils is even more rare…and thus more necessary.

Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (first published in German in 1979 with the standard English translation by Ralph Manheim printed in 1983) is not a Christian novel.  But using classic fairy tale themes, he effectively presents realistic human problems in ways that Christians can respond to, particularly how evil manipulates and uses people for its own ends, destroying them after their usefulness is up. And how evil thrives upon ignorance, confusion, hatred of moral tradition, and fear.

But standing in the way of the Nothing (Ende’s apt term for the evil force
which is destroying the world of The Neverending Story) and its vicious servant, Gmork, are the young warrior Atreyu, a luck dragon, and a human boy who begins reading the book in a deserted school attic but who is drawn into the story himself. Their courage and resolve and loyalty to the prime cause; namely, service to the sovereign of Fantastica, ultimately wins the day.

As most of you know, I read quite a bit and my reading winds its way from novels to theology, from politics to popular culture, from mysteries to history and biographies.  Nevertheless, The Neverending Story remains (on my fourth reading) one of the most inspiring and memorable books I’ve ever read. Probably because it inspires me to continue fighting the Gmorks of our own day, the servants of the Nothing who, like the devil himself, revel in lying, stealing, and destroying.

Reading the novel this time around has me thinking especially about parallels I see between The Neverending Story and the fairy tale tradition…also to other writers who have added their own spice to that literary genre, writers like Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and Barrie. (Hmm. Maybe a research project is in the wings.) Regardless of how that works out, though, my late winter re-reading of The Neverending Story is providing fresh and vivid inspiration to keep fighting the Nothing and the culture of death it spawns.

Postscript. If you don’t plan on reading The Neverending Story (it is 444 pages), at least consider watching the 1984 film version. It is a beautiful and remarkable film that effectively captures much of the spirit of the things I’ve written about above. It’s one of the very rare examples when a movie may be as good as the book. (Claire thinks it's even better!)

And, by the way, don't bother with further film productions. They were not very good.