Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bookin' Along: Off the Shelves

As I frequently mention, most of my reading in the last couple of decades is actually re-reading -- that is, re-reading books whose meaningful moral values, encouraging inspiration, and/or unusual entertainment value I already appreciate. This latest reading review provides a clear example of this for of the last 15 books I’ve read, 12 of them have been re-reads. They include novels, plays, a collection of short stories, and some books specifically dealing with theology and the Christian life. So, since my latest catch-up post appeared here back on July 5, here are the latest.

The novels? Well, two of them were the July and August selections of our book club, The Notting Hill Napoleons. They were, respectively, Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s fine story of the battle of Gettysburg, and Fire Over England, A.E.W. Mason’s adventure novel set in Queen Elizabeth’s England. Both were re-reads and I found both were informative, entertaining, and inspiring books...again.

Two more in the novel category were the chivalric works of Arther Conan Doyle, The White Company and Sir Nigel. They were okay but this time around I found them both a little tedious at times.

The other four novels in these last couple of months were all re-reads also: the three in the Dickson McCunn series by John Buchan (Huntingtower, The House of the Four Winds, and Castle Gay) and the other was Dashiell Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon. And though I like Buchan quite a lot, the only one of this group that I'd recommend highly would be The Maltese Falcon, a true classic of the hardboiled detective genre.

The short story collection I mentioned was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving. They were a mixed bag. The title story is superb as was “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Devil and Tom Walker” but most of the others were uninteresting.

The plays? Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe has been a favorite since high school even though it wasn’t until I became a Christian that I really got the message. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand is another favorite and it too has profound moral lessons. Finally, I also re-read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Love-Girl and the Innocent, a a very moving play set in one of the Soviet gulags. I recommend all three.

The books read in the past couple of months that dealt most pointedly with spiritual matters were a Bible study by John MacArthur (The Elements of True Prayer), a 1971 practical theology work by J. Dwight Pentecost (Design for Discipleship) and Peter Kreeft’s Jesus-Shock. These were all provocative and helpful but, to be honest, I would recommend many other Christian books before I got down to these.

Okay, that’s it until the next catch-up post. Keep reading!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Viva Cristo Rey!

This brief excerpt from Armando Valladares' compelling memoir of his 22 years in a Castro prison, Against All Hope, tells of the development of his Christian faith while facing those first horrible months in La Cabana prison...

...Every night there were firing squads.

When I heard discharges of the rifles, I would be seized with horror, and I embraced Christ in desperation. I had come to prison with some religious feeling; my beliefs were genuine but no doubt superficial at that time, since they had never been submitted to hard trial. I held to the religion I had learned at home and at school, but it was very much like a man who has acquired good manners or who carries along the lessons of the things he first learns to read, without examining them. But very quickly I began to experience a substantial change in the nature of my beliefs.

At first no doubt I embraced Christ out of the fear of losing my life – since I was certainly in danger of being shot at any time. But that path I took in approaching Him, however human it was, still seemed unsatisfactory and incomplete, merely utilitarian, to me. There came a moment when, seeing those young men full of courage depart to die before the firing squad and shout “Viva Cristo Rey!” at the fateful instant, I not only understood instantly, as though by a sudden revelation, that Christ was indeed there for me at the moments when I prayed not to be killed, but realized as well that He served to give my life, and my death if it came to that, ethical meaning. Both my life and my death would be dignified by my belief in Him.

It was at that moment, I am sure, and not before, that Christianity became, more than a religious faith, a way of life for me. Because of my situation, it seemed my life would necessarily be a life of resistance, but I would be sustained in it by a soul filled with love and hope.

Those cries of the executed patriots – “Long live Christ the King! Down with Communism!” – had awakened me to a new life as they echoed through the two-hundred-year-old moats of the fortress. The cries became such a potent and stirring symbol that by 1963 the men condemned to death were gagged before being carried down to be shot. The jailers feared those shouts. They could not afford to allow even that last courageous cry from those about to die.

That rebellious, defiant gesture at the supreme moment, that show of bravery and integrity by those who were about to die, could easily become a bad example for the soldiers. It might even make them think about what they are doing...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Uh, About This Socialism We Keep Hearing About

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fine play, “The Love-Girl and the Innocent,” he describes a poster hanging on the office wall of one of the Soviet Union’s infamous forced labor camps in the 1940s, one prison of which the great freedom fighter had personal experience. That poster had this ironic inscription, a quote from none other than Josef Stalin: “Instead of the onerous burden it was under Capitalism, work has become a matter of honor, of glory, of valor, and heroism.”

Yes, indeed; work valorously for the State. Work tirelessly until you drop. Work without freedom, justice, or sense of personal dignity.  Work for nothing but the sheer satisfaction of being a cog in the Great Wheel of what Stalin, like Marx and Lenin before him, called "Dialectical and Historical Materialism."

This, sad to say, is real Socialism. Not in theory or a liberal's fairy tales but rather in cold, hard history.

Monday, July 30, 2018

“Keep Your Hands Off It” -- Sherlock Holmes and the Suicide

“The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is a very unusual Sherlock Holmes story.  The shortest of all the Holmes short stories and written quite late in the “canon” (February 1927, the 54th of the 56 Holmes short stories), Conan Doyle uses it to illustrate Holmes’ moral convictions rather than his intellectual skills.  Indeed, in “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” Holmes solves no mystery, foils no villains, and displays none at all of the fantastic deductive powers which provide the theme for all of the other stories and novels.  No, the qualities Doyle shows off in this tale are Holmes’ profound compassion, empathy, and a religiously-based sanctity of life ethic.

Yes, it’s true.  Though Sherlock Holmes’ reputation may be that of a proud, socially-detached, scientific-minded thinker who has little to do with formal religious practices, careful readers know of numerous indications that the great detective is not at all antagonistic to a belief in God.  For instance, there are several allusions to God in the “canon” including Holmes’ reference to his survival at the Reichenbach Falls as “the blessing of God,” his knowledge of the Old Testament narrative of David’s murder of Uriah as being in either 1st or 2nd Samuel, his description of the Great War as “God’s own wind none the less,” his reference to Ecclesiastes 10:8 in “The Speckled Band,” and the mention in “The ‘Gloria Scott’” about a dog biting his ankle when he “went down to chapel.”

Of related interest is that there was only one client for whom Holmes served twice; namely, Pope Leo XIII in “the little affair of the Vatican cameos” and “the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca.”

There are also quite moving passages in which Sherlock Holmes shows his belief in God to be more aligned with biblical revelation than with the detached deism held by turn-of-the-century freethinkers.  Examples? The God Who Holmes believes in is a God of wisdom and justice.  In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Holmes tells a terminally-ill murderer, “It is not for me to judge you.  You will soon answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes.”  And in “The Adventure of the Red Circle,” the detective describes human life as “a series of lessons with the greatest as the last.”

There is also the very moving passage in “The Naval Treaty” where the scientific sleuth recognizes and appreciates the wisdom and grace of a personal God as revealed in His gifts of creative beauty.  Suddenly affected by the fragile beauty of a little flower, Watson records Holmes stopping in the middle of a conversation to say, “‘What a lovely thing a rose is!’ [Holmes] walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. ‘It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

To be fair, one must also mention Sherlock Holmes’ admiration of Winwood Reade’s “Martyrdom of Man,” a secularist tract which was condemned as a most “irreligious work” by none other than William Gladstone.  Holmes’ religious views, one concludes, were neither consistent or thorough.  Nor were they guided by strict exegesis of the Scriptures. Still, Sherlock Holmes' passionate desire for a deeper, more enlightened understanding of a transcendent God is movingly portrayed in both “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” and “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger.”  Those two passages read as follows:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

And, “The ways of fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest.”

These two passages are quite moving, expressing an enigma commonly faced even by convinced Christian believers. They are not the mocking complaints of a skeptic but rather honest evaluations of the anxious problem of suffering and evil…evaluations which are yet founded upon an optimistic trust in God’s enveloping goodness.

But finally, let me get to the matter of Holmes’ fervent belief in the sanctity of life, no doubt born of that same trust in God’s kind and just Providence as illustrated earlier. Here’s the situation — Holmes and Watson have met Eugenia Ronder, a young and once lovely circus performer who has been horribly disfigured by a lion. And again, the story has no mystery to be solved, no true adventure for the great detective to pursue. Indeed, Conan Doyle’s singular purpose for including it in the “canon” seems to be to dramatize (and thereby emphasize) a proscription against suicide by putting it in the voice of the overwhelmingly popular character of Sherlock Holmes.

In the concluding paragraphs of the story, Eugenia has opened up and told her tragic tale to Holmes and Watson. The detective then says:

“Well, well, it is of little consequence now. The case is closed.”

“Yes,” said the woman, “the case is closed.”

We had risen to go, but there was something in the woman's voice which arrested Holmes's attention. He turned swiftly upon her.

“Your life is not your own,” he said. “Keep your hands off it.”

“What use is it to anyone?”

“How can you tell? The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”

The woman's answer was a terrible one. She raised her veil and stepped forward into the light.

“I wonder if you would bear it,” she said.

It was horrible. No words can describe the framework of a face when the face itself is gone. Two living and beautiful brown eyes looking sadly out from that grisly ruin did but make the view more awful. Holmes held up his hand in a gesture of pity and protest, and together we left the room.

 Two days later, when I called upon my friend, he pointed with some pride to a small blue bottle upon his mantelpiece. I picked it up. There was a red poison label. A pleasant almondy odour rose when I opened it.

“Prussic acid?” said 1.

“Exactly. It came by post. ‘I send you my temptation. I will follow your advice.’ That was the message. I think, Watson, we can guess the name of the brave woman who sent it.”

Arthur Conan Doyle was a lapsed Catholic who eventually became involved in Freemasonry and the most extreme elements of spiritualism. Nevertheless, he himself and his character of Sherlock Holmes held a general worldview that had been instructed (though but weakly) by the Holy Scriptures, including the divine virtues of justice, compassion, appreciation of beauty, and faith in the rewards of an afterlife. And, before retiring Sherlock Holmes once and for all to his bee-keeping, Conan Doyle appears to have written one of his last Holmes stories in order to underscore another divine truth; that is, that human life, whatever its state or condition, is created by God and of infinite value to His purposes. It is to be cherished, protected, and promoted both for its inspirational value to others...and for its own sake.

A Sherlock Holmes story with a pro-life message? No doubt about it. And though it is perhaps surprising to the casual reader, to the devout Sherlockian, it is quite elementary.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Bookin' Along

Spring and summer are always especially busy times for Claire and I for, in addition to our Vital Signs Ministries duties, there is the lawn and garden work, extra exercise activity, and a quick trip to Colorado. And this year there were the trips to Fremont twice a week and the twice-daily exercises to deal with my torn calf muscle and lower back pain. Therefore, I’m not too surprised that my reading regimen dipped quite a bit from the first quarter of the year. Indeed, in the first 3 months of the year I read 38 books; the last 3 months only 18. I’m also not surprised that I have fallen behind in writing reviews here on The Book Den of the books thus read. So, like frequently happens, I’m cleaning the slate with a very brief catch-up list.

As is always the case, the books I read involve different genres, times, and topics. Also, about 50-65% of the books I read are ones that I have read before…sometimes several times.

So what pages have been turned since the last catch-up post here? Well, there were several pleasurable diversions: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (2 of 4 stars possible); Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1 star); 3 adventure novels from Alistair MacLean (none of the 3 being anywhere as good as his best stuff); one of Donald Bain’s Jessica Fletcher mysteries (2 stars); the first of Fran Striker’s Lone Ranger novels (2 stars); and the 5 volumes of Conan Doyle’s superb Sherlock Holmes short stories. They all earn 4 stars.

My historical interests were well served in Deadly Times: The 1910 Bombing of the Los Angeles Times and America's Forgotten Decade of Terror by Lew Irwin (4 stars) and a re-reading of Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (4 stars). And history was front and center in two excellent novels as well: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate (4 stars) and The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat (4 stars).

I read another Jan Karon novel this quarter (A New Song, 4 stars) which is her 5th in the series.

And finally there was inspiration, challenge, and spiritual blessings aplenty to be found in my reading of The Adventure of Living by Paul Tournier (4 stars), Creed or Chaos by Dorothy Sayers (4 stars), The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn (4 stars) and Walter Wangerin’s unique novel, The Book of the Dun Cow (4 stars).

Okay, enough of what’s been read. It’s time for me to finish my day’s tasks so I can start in on some news stuff tonight!

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What Are the Elderly (Some of Them, Anyhow) Thinking?

Thinking over the many conversations we have with residents of senior care facilities who attend our “When Swing Was King” shows, I recently recalled a passage from Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. This penetrating and prescient novel, published in 1918, is both fine literature and history, telling as it does the story of the rise and fall of an aristocratic American family at the turn of the century. However, probably because of our ongoing “When Swing Was King” ministry in senior care facilities (and because the evidence of aging has come close to home with friends, family, and ourselves in recent weeks) my recent thoughts about the novel have centered on one particular passage.

Let me set the stage. The elderly Major Amberson is suffering from grief and loneliness as well as from the inevitable ravages of old age.  He sits for hours staring at the fire -- awake and yet generally disconnected from anything that’s happening around him.  The other family members assume that he is in some kind of mental limbo. If any cognizant thoughts do slip through, the family believes they are the Major's memories of his military service, the building of his business, or perhaps sweet dreams of his wife who died long ago. But Tarkington writes,

They were mistaken.  The Major was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life.  No business plans which had ever absorbed him could compare in momentousness with the plans that absorbed him now, for he had to plan on how to enter the unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson...

His absorption produced the outward effect of reverie, but of course it was not.  The Major was occupied with the first really important matter that had taken his attention since he came home invalided after the Gettysburg campaign, and went into business; and he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime  between then and to-day – all his buying and building and trading and banking – that it all was trifling and waste beside what concerned him now.

A few pages later this scene (and Major Amberson's life) reaches its climax. 

He moved his hand uncertainly as if reaching for something, and George jumped up, “Did you want anything, grandfather?”

“What?”

“Would you like a glass of water?”

“No – no.  No; I don’t want anything.” The reaching hand dropped back upon the arm of the chair, and he relapsed into silence; but a few minutes later he finished the sentence he had begun: 

“I wish – somebody could tell me!”

The next day he had a slight cold, but he seemed annoyed when his son suggested calling the doctor, and Amberson let him have his own way so far, in fact, that after he had got up and dressed, the following morning, he was all alone when he went away to find out what he hadn’t been able to think out – all those things he had wished “somebody” would tell him.

Old Sam, shuffling in with the breakfast tray, found the Major in his accustomed easy-chair by the fireplace – and yet even the old servant could see instantly that the Major was not there.

I think you can see why I find that particular scene of The Magnificent Ambersons so compelling, evoking as it does so many connections to my own loved ones and the many elderly friends we’ve made through “When Swing Was King.”

Of course, the applications of this scene in the novel message are limited. For instance, not every nursing home resident is involved in the same intense search for life’s meaning as was Major Amberson.  And though some of those who are seemingly “locked inside” frail bodies and minds are genuinely out of our reach, not all of them are. That’s extremely important to remember and appreciate.  So too is the fact that we are usually unable to determine exactly what’s going on inside a person's mind.  Mercy therefore directs us to give such souls the benefit of the doubt, moving us to speak, touch, and pray for the person until the very end.

Another important point is that serving as the “somebody” who can explain spiritual questions to seekers like Major Amberson requires sincerity, patience, prayer, and the willingness to win the right to be heard.  This is true of all evangelism and discipleship.  In regards to hospital or nursing home visitation, the ministering Christian must be willing to be a genuine friend, to take the time necessary to shine forth the fruits of the Holy Spirit, and to demonstrate appropriate sensitivity to others involved, including family members and facility staff.

But with these practical issues accepted, the yearning for spiritual truth exhibited by Major Amberson should move all Christians to remember the important mission field that our senior citizens represent.  Neither should we overlook those younger citizens who are forced by disease or accident to also require the ongoing care provided by a nursing home.  These places are all around us and every one of them is filled with people who need our attention, our love in action, and yes, our answers to their questions about “that unknown country” that lies behind death.

Postscript: Vital Signs Ministries would love to help you develop your service to seniors -- both to those who yet live on their own and those whose care now requires assisted living or nursing homes. Whether it involves becoming a part of our delightful “When Swing Was King” program, finding out about other types of visitation or service programs, or perhaps joining in a concerted ministry with others from your church, please contact us sometime soon.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume 4

Let's see, Volume 4 of this series makes it a “Top Forty” of sage conclusions about life from the greatest of all detectives. Maybe these quotations will be enough to take you in a hansom cab back through the fogs of London to the 21B Baker Street digs of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson...where the game is always afoot!

And, for handy reference, here are the previous posts: Volume 1; Volume 2; and Volume 3.

1. “Crime is common. Logic is rare.”

2. “Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

3. “It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal.”

4. “As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be.”

5. “Woman's heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male.”

6. “We can but try - the motto of the firm.”

7. “Idleness exhausts me completely.”

8. “An Eley's No. 2 [pistol] is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots.”

9. “There are always some lunatics about.”

10. “These are much deeper waters than I had thought.”

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned From Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume 3

No, don’t worry. For those Baker Street Irregulars among you who haven’t yet had your fill of the great detective’s “points to ponder,” here are ten more from my catalog of Holmesian profundities. (By the way, the first two volumes are, respectively, here and here.)

1) “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

2) “It's a wicked thing to tell fibs.”

3) “Chloroform vapour does not help the palate.”

4) “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person.”

5) “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”

6) “When one tries to rise above Nature, one is liable to fall below it.”

7) “To a great mind, nothing is little.”

8) “All knowledge comes useful to the detective.”

9) “If a herd of buffaloes had passed along, there could not be a greater mess.”

10) “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.”

Friday, June 08, 2018

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume 2

Here’s the next installment of this series, being important “words to live by” from the greatest detective of all time.

(Oh yes; here’s Volume 1.)

1) “It is my business to know what other people don't know.”

2) “Work is the best antidote to sorrow.”

3) “Evil indeed is the man who has not one woman to mourn him.”

4) “It is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.”

5) “You can't play with edged tools forever without cutting those dainty hands.”

6) “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.”

7) “Jealousy is a strange transformer of characters.”

8) “Dogs don't make mistakes.”

9) “I have investigated many crimes, but I have never yet seen one which was committed by a flying creature.”

10) “Our highest assurance of the goodness of providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume One

During a lifetime of avid reading of Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest “private consulting detective,” I have learned many crucial lessons. In the next few days, I'll post here some of the most important. All are direct quotations of the profound Mr. Holmes as recorded, of course, by the ever-dependable Dr. Watson. Some you will find witty, some humorous, but you'll also be surprised at how morally profound some of these quotations are. Enjoy.

1) “When a man embarks upon a crime, he is morally guilty of any other crime which may spring from it.”

2) “A trusty comrade is always of use.”

3) “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

4) “I take a short cut when I can get it.”

5) “I can't make bricks without clay.”

6) “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”

7) “When a doctor does go wrong, he is the first of criminals.”

8) “Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.”

9) “A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library where he can get it if he wants it.”

10) “Your life is not your own. Keep your hands off it...The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.”