Sunday, January 14, 2018

From the Home Fireside

“All the songs of lament, the entire book of Lamentations, and many other Scripture passages reveal the importance of realism and sorrow in the Christian life. No treatment of joy and happiness should deny or minimize such texts. Indeed, a truly biblical worldview and an authentic doctrine of joy and happiness fully recognize and embrace the realities of suffering in this present age. Happiness in Scripture is all the deeper and richer because it doesn’t require denial or pretense, and can be experienced in the midst of severe difficulty.” (Randy Alcorn, Happiness, page 178)

“Modern men, in the absence of absolutes, have polluted all aspects of morality, making standards completely hedonistic and relativistic…We can remember Vincent van Gogh, who tried to fulfill his idealism by starting a community in southern France. He was desperately in search of something beautiful. Yet as we study his self-portraits, we see them disintegrate year after year, until at the end of his life, they are less than human. We must cry for our present world, because the idealists who have screamed so loudly against the falseness and hypocrisy of the plastic culture have ended up in an even worse position -- the inhumanity and destruction of everything they hoped to accomplish.” (Francis Schaeffer, No Little People, pages 55-56)

Friday, January 05, 2018

From the Panera Fireside

After doing a bit of work while sitting beside the fire during my morning coffee time at the Westroads Panera and before I headed home to have a breakfast of blueberry pancakes (Paleo, of course) with Claire, I read a couple of chapters in Randy Alcorn's Happiness and one of the essays in Francis Schaeffer's No Little People. Below are two of the quotations out of the many I could have posted. Great stuff.

“The best work is done by the happy, joyful workman. And so it is with Christ, He does not save souls as of necessity -- as though He would rather do something else if He might -- but His very heart is in it, He rejoices to do it, and therefore He does it thoroughly and He communicates His joy to us in the doing of it.”  (Charles Spurgeon, quoted in Randy Alcorn’s Happiness.)

and…

“If someone asked us, ‘What is the Bible?’ we probably would not begin our answer by saying, ‘The Bible is a realistic book.’ Yet in the twentieth-century this might be the best place to start -- to stress the realism of the Bible in contrast to the romanticism which characterizes the twentieth-century concept of religion. To most modern people, truth is to be sought through some sort of leap from which we extract our own personal religious experiences.

Many feel that the Bible should portray a romantic view of life, but the Bible is actually the most realistic book in the world. It does not glibly say, ‘God’s in His heaven – all’s right with the world!’ It faces the world’s dilemmas squarely. Yet, unlike modern realism which ends in despair, it has answers for the dilemmas. And, unlike modern romanticism, it’s answers are not optimism without a sufficient base, not hope hung in a vacuum.

So we should say at once to twentieth-century people: the Bible is a tough-fibered book.”

(Francis Schaeffer, “The Weakness of God’s Servants” in No Little People.)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Being Held by the Hand of God

Commenting on Psalm 37: 24-25 in chapter 2 of No Little People, Francis Schaeffer writes, “The psalmist sees, as he reviews the past, that the Lord holds His own in His hand. This is not just a psychological projection, a blind leap in the dark, an upper-story experience which is not open to verification. It is the very opposite. We can look into the world and see God acting for His individual people through the might of His hand. This is a beautiful perspective which suddenly changes the world. Instead of living in the modern consensus, surrounded by the impersonal, I live in a personal environment and am more than a speck tossed to and from by impersonal chance.”

I've started reading No Little People in the Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer (5 volumes, of which I've only managed to find 3) and I'm finding it quite good -- enlightening, provocative, comforting, and challenging. But rather than read the whole book through, I'm doing it as Schaeffer himself suggests in the preface; that is, go through one chapter only at a sitting.  I'm finding it a valuable part of my first month of the year reading.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Year's Resolutions for Readers

My Christmas resolutions always include directions and goals for the coming year’s reading. Those resolutions are sometimes quite general as in “read more quality stuff,” but they can also be pretty specific. In 2016, for instance, I purposed to re-read my favorite Alexandre Dumas novels but also to read the ones I’d never got round to. The mission was accomplished and I had great fun doing so.

In 2017, my resolutions included reading through the entire Bible as well as reading a Shakespeare play every month. The first goal of those two was met. Claire and I worked together on that project, greatly stimulated both by a Facebook group committed to the same activity and by Alexander Scourby’s monumental narration of the Bible.

But I fell a bit short of the mark in the Shakespeare resolution. Indeed, instead of 12, I only read 8 of the Bard’s plays. However, I’m fine with that for I appreciate this simple fact. Even when I don’t make it all the way to a certain goal, making the resolution (combined, of course, with subsequent effort and the occasional evaluation of my progress) gets me much further than if I had never set the goal in the first place.

So, what about 2018? Well, I am again getting very specific this time around. For instance, I have compiled a list of books that I have read before but which I know would be of immense profit to read again. I’m calling it the “Return to the Heights” Booklist. It contains some pretty daunting challenges (Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Shelby Foote’s 3-volume history of the Civil War) but also a lot of exciting and pleasurable stuff like Seabiscuit: An American Legend, The Hunt for Red October, Prisoner of Zenda, and Tarka the Otter).

Also, for most people, reading success is profoundly helped when they can find extra motivation, accountability, and assistance. It's certainly true for Claire and I. Examples? A) Our participation in the Notting Hill Napoleons has tremendously boosted our reading of classic novels (for the last 26 years!). B) The Book It! program of Vital Signs Ministries has spurred the reading of important non-fiction titles for all those involved. C) Last year’s reading though the Bible was marvelously aided by Claire, the Facebook group, and those wonderful Scourby CDs. D) In the last few years, we have twice created reading groups through our church to tackle the C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia series. All of these things have impressed us with how much more faithful people are to the task -- and how much more they enjoy the ripple effects of reading the literature -- when there is accountability and shared insight, a sense of purpose and achievement, encouragement and conviviality.

And so, Claire and I are going to continue developing programs and parties to get people into reading!

What does mean for 2018? Well, of course, the Notting Hill Napoleons will continue. And Vital Signs Ministries will be reviving the Book It! program and looking at ways we can extend it to those outside our physical area — Skype participation, live chat connections, etc. We are also considering the creation of a closed Facebook group to aid in stimulation, accountability, direction, and the sheer fun that can come through reading things in common. And finally, we are launching the Wild Knight Literary Society, another book club focusing on classic novels but one which will only meet every quarter. (For information on that club, please note this post.)

If you are interested in joining a closed Facebook group designed to promote reading, and/or if you would like announcements of the titles coming up in the Book It! discussion series, and/or if you think the Wild Knight group might be something you’d like to pursue, please let us know.

An Invitation to the Wild Knight Literary Society

In January our esteemed literary society, the Notting Hill Napoleons, will begin its 27th year. Imagine it. 26 years of reading and discussing classic novels together — books that have enriched us, challenged us, and brought us all immense pleasure. And, of course, the discussions of those books have also been important as they have sharpened our skills in literary criticism and communication, expanded our fellowship, and contributed to our ongoing spiritual maturity. It has been a great experience and we are looking forward to the next 26 years! With all that said, however, Claire and I are looking for a few other bookish friends who might be interested in launching a brand new book club.

Our time with the Napoleons has proved to us how valuable and enjoyable a book club can be. Also, the book discussions we have sponsored over the years through Vital Signs Ministries (the ongoing Book It! program) have proven quite valuable as have our local church discussions of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. But we are desirous of making 2018 a springboard for yet more people to find the motivation, discipline, spiritual growth, and joy of being in a book club.

The Wild Knight Literary Society (the name comes from both a poem and a short play of G.K. Chesterton’s) would be different from the Notting Hill Napoleons in two significant ways. It would also involve quality fiction but rather than meet every month, this club would only meet quarterly. This would allow the opportunity for persons with fuller schedules, more careful readers, etc. to participate. And it would allow everyone the time to read more ambitious (that is to say, longer) works. This is especially good for Claire and I because, truth be told, the Napoleons are not voting in the number of classics we once did. And we really miss the fun and achievement of tackling a substantial, well worthwhile book.)

The second major difference is that we are inviting even distant friends to join in this Wild Knight experiment. That’s right; even if you can’t make it to our home for the quarterly discussion party, you can still benefit from the motivation and accountability offered. (Not to mention being able to impress the folks at work by dropping the fact that you are in a special, international literary club!) Plus, with the creation of a special Facebook page for the WKLS and using technology like Skype and chat and so on, even club members living far apart can make contributions to the common discussion.

We’re planning on our first discussion sometime in March. And the first classic novel on our list is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. So, what do you think? If you are interested in becoming a part of the Wild Knight Literary Society, even if you’re only thinking about joining us for one or two books a year, please let us know soon. And start reading!

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Year in Review (In Reading, That Is)

2017 is almost in the books -- pun intended, I suppose -- and so a quick review of this year’s reading is appropriate. I finish the year a little above my average number of books read. That's good. Several of those were lively, entertaining reads with little ongoing relevance like a couple of Alistair MacLean thrillers, Bill Buckley's Blackford Oakes series, and Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series that I re-read early in the year (for the umpteenth time) and then gave away to get them out of the house for good. Kinda’ like eating all the cookies before going on a diet!

One of my reading resolutions for the year was to stage a substantial return to Shakespeare with an ambitious schedule of one a month. But, alas Poor Yorick, I only got in 8. I read about the same number of G.A. Henry novels as well. He is almost always a delightful read and I like learning the history he packs into his adventure novels. A couple of Jeff Shaara novels came along in the Notting Hill Napoleons selections: The Frozen Hours and The Fateful Lightning. 

I re-read a lot of C.S. Lewis this year: Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, The Abolition of Man, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce (finished in the shadow of the 14, 265 ft. Mt. Quandary which I climbed earlier in the day), and The Screwtape Letters. Great stuff.

I re-read Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago this year and, surprisingly, found it rather disappointing. Oh well, tastes change; readers change. Much more satisfying in fiction explorations were Ice Palace by Edna Ferber, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory by Newt Gingrich & William R. Forstchen, The Innocence of Fr. Brown by G.K. Chesterton, and the lengthy Japanese epic Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa.

Other fiction of superb quality came this year from Charles Dickens: The Chimes, Cricket on the Hearth, A Christmas Carol and an assortment of shorter Christmas-themed stories. And the highlight of the Notting Hill Napoleons’ year (for me, anyhow) was our November reading of Dickens’ wonderful novel, Dombey & Son.

But I’m not quite done with the fiction favorites. I read the first 4 novels in Jan Karon’s Mitford series this year and loved each one: At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, These High, Green Hills, and Out to Canaan. I also returned to Middle Earth late in the year with spellbinding reads of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Terrific!

And there were a couple of exceptionally fun Christmastime reads -- The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler and 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith.

The year’s best non-fiction reading involved, as it always does for me, theology, history, and culture. Besides the C.S. Lewis stuff there was Kingdom Man by Tony Evans, A Torch Kept Lit by William F. Buckley, Who Built That: Awe-Inspiring Stories of American Tinkerpreneurs by Michelle Malkin, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger, Holiness in Hidden Places by Joni Eareckson Tada, and Happiness by Randy Alcorn.

And what would be the tops in my recommendations to others? That's too tough to call but these (in alphabetical order) would certainly be the finalists.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
* Dombey & Son by Charles Dickens.
* Happiness by Randy Alcorn.
Holiness in Hidden Places by Joni Eareckson Tada.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
* Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
* The Middle Earth books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
* The Mitford books by Jan Karon.
* Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa.
* The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Few Literary Links You'll Find Fascinating

Okay, for all of the bibliophiles, literati, and recess readers who occasionally check in here at The Book Den, I have a few intriguing links for you to check out this Yuletide. You’re sure to find some of these of substantial interest.

* “The 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century” (Editors of National Review)

* “The Second World Wars” (Scott Johnson, Power Line)

* “Solzhenitsyn’s Sweeping Tale of War and Revolution” (Will Morrisey, Law & Liberty)

* “The Abolition of Mad Men” (Justin Dyer, National Review)

* “Mark Twain, Huckster” (Bill Kauffman, University Bookman)

“How technology cheapened sex and made men less marriageable: The author of Cheap Sex talks about its provocative thesis.” (Mark Regnerus & Tracey S. O'Donnell, Mercator)

* “Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon” (Greg Laurie & Marshall Terrill)

* “Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now” (Mark Steyn)

"On Going Home for Christmas"

Here's one of my favorite Christmas poems.

“On Going Home for Christmas”
(Edgar Guest)

He little knew the sorrow that was in his vacant chair;
He never guessed they'd miss him, or he'd surely have been there;
He couldn't see his mother or the lump that filled her throat,
Or the tears that started falling as she read his hasty note;
And he couldn't see his father, sitting sorrowful and dumb,
Or he never would have written that he thought he couldn't come.

He little knew the gladness that his presence would have made,
And the joy it would have given, or he never would have stayed.
He didn't know how hungry had the little mother grown
Once again to see her baby and to claim him for her own.
He didn't guess the meaning of his visit Christmas Day
Or he never would have written that he couldn't get away.
He couldn't see the fading of the cheeks that once were pink,
And the silver in the tresses; and he didn't stop to think

How the years are passing swiftly, and next Christmas it might be
There would be no home to visit and no mother dear to see.
He didn't think about it - I'll not say he didn't care.
He was heedless and forgetful or he'd surely have been there.

Are you going home for Christmas? Have you written you'll be there?
Going home to kiss the mother and to show her that you care?
Going home to greet the father in a way to make him glad?
If you're not I hope there'll never come a time you'll wish you had.
Just sit down and write a letter - it will make their heart strings hum
With a tune of perfect gladness - if you'll tell them that you'll come.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Chesterton's Wild Knight

Here's a stirring poem for prophets, warriors, and all others who love justice enough to fight for it.

The Wild Knight
(G.K. Chesterton)

 The wasting thistle whitens on my crest,
The barren grasses blow upon my spear,
A green, pale pennon: blazon of wild faith
And love of fruitless things: yea, of my love,
Among the golden loves of all the knights,
Alone: most hopeless, sweet, and blasphemous,
The love of God:
        I hear the crumbling creeds
Like cliffs washed down by water, change, and pass;
I hear a noise of words, age after age,
A new cold wind that blows across the plains,
And all the shrines stand empty; and to me
All these are nothing: priests and schools may doubt
Who never have believed; but I have loved.
Ah friends, I know it passing well, the love
Wherewith I love; it shall not bring to me
Return or hire or any pleasant thing—
Ay, I have tried it: Ay, I know its roots.
Earthquake and plague have burst on it in vain
And rolled back shattered—
        Babbling neophytes!
Blind, startled fools—think you I know it not?
Think you to teach me?  Know I not His ways?
Strange-visaged blunders, mystic cruelties.
All! all! I know Him, for I love Him. Go!

So, with the wan waste grasses on my spear,
I ride for ever, seeking after God.
My hair grows whiter than my thistle plume,
And all my limbs are loose; but in my eyes
The star of an unconquerable praise:
For in my soul one hope for ever sings,
That at the next white corner of a road
My eyes may look on Him....
        Hush—I shall know
The place when it is found: a twisted path
Under a twisted pear-tree—this I saw
In the first dream I had ere I was born,
Wherein He spoke....
        But the grey clouds come down
In hail upon the icy plains: I ride,
Burning forever in consuming fire.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Classic Mystery Reading for Christmas

A couple of days ago I posted over on my Facebook page a Christmas reading list that I've sent round for a few years...including here on The Book Den. You can find those recommendations right here.

But tonight I'm adding to that list a few "Golden Age mysteries" that concern Christmastime that I recently came across. Now, I haven’t read all of these so I can’t vouch for them but the ones with an * in front of the title represent ones that I have read and do recommend.

* The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932)
Author: Ellery Queen

* The Nine Tailors (1934)
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers

Thou Shell of Death (1936)
Author: Nicholas Blake

* The Santa Klaus Murder (1936)
Author: Mavis Doriel Hay

* Mystery in White (1937)
Author: J. Jefferson Farjeon

* Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)
Author: Agatha Christie

* Envious Casca (1941)
Author: Georgette Heyer

The Clock Strikes 12 (1945)
Author: Patricia Wentworth

Groaning Spinney (1950)
Author: Gladys Mitchell

An English Murder (1951)
Author: Cyril Hare

* Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)
Author: Ngaio Marsh

Happy reading!