Thursday, June 16, 2022

Reading Together

Reading quality books is a very good thing.  Indeed, as almost everyone would agree, such a practice makes a person smarter, more interesting, and more appreciative.  And discussing those books with others only increases those values.  This is why Claire and I started the Notting Hill Napoleons book club way back in 1992 – a book fellowship involving Christian friends who read a classic novel every month and then get together to talk about it.  That group, by the way, is still going strong for we see how important it has been in not only stimulating us to read more, but also in sharpening our skills in literary criticism, meaningful conversation, and the application of a book’s lessons to practical life.

It was for the same reasons that Vital Signs Ministries began hosting book discussions way back in the 1990s and our current practice includes both small and large group book discussions.  The former is usually an agreement of 1-4 people to read the same book and discuss it over lunch at a coffee shop or cafe, while the latter takes the form of an evening party or Saturday morning brunch which we host at our home. Either way, we're encouraged (and made accountable) to read.

And to waste less time in more trivial pursuits.

The books we choose for these discussions cover a wide range – history, the culture wars, literature, and Christian living.  But they are all selected for the purpose of making us more informed, effective, and consistent servants of Christ’s kingdom. Want a few examples? Sure, let me list a few of the more memorable titles and authors from over the years: 

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan; 
Heaven by Randy Alcorn; 
Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas by Ken Foskett; 
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali; 
A Christian Manifesto by Francis Schaeffer; 
A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte; 
Eugenics and Other Evils by G.K. Chesterton; 
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame; 
Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas; 
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis:
Men in Black: How the Supreme Court is Destroying America by Mark Levin; 
Check with Chip on Stem Cell Research by Chip Maxwell; 
Enemies and Allies by Joel Rosenberg; 
Heaven: Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada; 
Everlasting: God’s Faithfulness to Israel by Stuart Cunliffe; 
The Rush Revere books by Rush Limbaugh; 
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. 
And the latest?  The Apostate by Dr. Mark Christian. 

If you are interested in joining us for these Vital Signs book discussions, please let us know.  And we will, of course, continue to promote them beforehand in our monthly letters and Vital Signs Blog.

A Remarkable New (Yet Very Old) Christian Adventure

 If you loved Pilgrim’s Progress, now you need to read what inspired it. Labyrinth of the World was written 55 years prior to Pilgrim’s Progress yet it remains virtually unknown to English readers. Now, thanks to Timothy Price, this work has been made more available in a beautiful new edition.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume Four (of Four)

Let's see, Volume 4 of this series makes it a “Top Forty” of sage conclusions about life from the greatest of all detectives. 

Perhaps these quotations will 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.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned From Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume Three (of Four)

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.”

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume Two (of Four)

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.”

Monday, May 23, 2022

On a Roll

Yes, I’ve been “on a roll” the last few weeks in my reading.  In fact, the last six books all scored my highest rating of 4 stars and so I can present them to you with the most enthusiastic recommendations.  Among the lot are two splendid novels, a detailed but fascinating history, a brief book of essays on practical Christianity, a riveting biography, and an exciting anticipation of the “better country” awaiting the Christian pilgrim.  Anyhow, let’s do a quick review.

1) The first of this group is Michael Ende’s thoughtful fantasy, The Neverending Story.  This is a favorite of mine in this genre and I read it every few years for fresh delights, insight, and inspiration.  If you’d like, you can read a previous post about The Neverending Story right here.

2) Heaven: Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada is another favorite which I usually read every 2 or 3 years. The times in between I read Heaven by Randy Alcorn.  Randy’s book is more of a Bible study and it’s longer, more detailed, and a bit more work to move through.  This book of Joni’s has excellent biblical content but is more in the devotional style.

3) The Apostate by Dr. Mark Christian is the first in what will eventually be two books describing his conversion from Islam.  Here’s what I wrote about it in an Amazon review: “I found Dr. Christian’s book a fascinating and enlightening read. It relates his early life as an intensely dedicated Muslim, gives an inside look at Middle East politics in our era, takes the reader on a fascinating adventure through Islamic history, and tells the riveting story of his intellectual/spiritual journey out of Islam and into Christianity. It has been one of the most interesting, relevant, and well-written books of the year for me.”

By the way, The Apostate will be the subject of a special Vital Signs Ministries Book Brunch on Saturday morning June 11 from 9-11 in Room 201 of Community Bible Church (9001 Q Street, south doors). And the author himself will be on hand for the event. Get in touch with us if you're interested in reading The Apostate and coming along for the event.

4) Another re-read was Owen Wester’s The Virginian. Published in 1902, this is considered the first book in the now celebrated genre of Western novels. Wister is an excellent writer and storyteller – not always a combination found together – and this story of the old West is realistic, adventurous, romantic, and fun.

5) At 593 pages, Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War is an ambitious undertaking but not even close to the task of tackling the 10-volume history of the naval operations of World War II that Morison wrote for the U.S. Navy.  However, let me emphasize that history buffs will find The Two-Ocean War an easy read with tremendous insight into the strategy, weapons, and battles of the war.  This was also a re-read for it is truly an excellent work.

6) And finally, there’s the collection of brief essays written by C.S. Lewis for newspapers and journals, Present Concerns.  It is a brief, but terrific collection compiled by Walter Hooper and published in 1986.

Next up?  Well, there’s this month’s selection of the Notting Hill Napoleons, Show Boat by Edna Ferber which both Claire and I need to finish by Friday’s meeting.  Also, I’ve started The Admirals, Walter R. Borneman’s detailed compilation of America’s 4-star admirals of World War II (Leahy, King, Nimitz, and Halsey).  And a few others are on the “next to read” shelf that I hope to get to pretty soon.  

Happy reading to you!

Everything I Needed to Know I Learned from Sherlock Holmes! -- Volume One (of Four)

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.”

Monday, April 11, 2022

The First Quarter Scores

It has been a good year for reading thus far but, of course, every year is if one selects the right books to read.  I tend to guarantee high scores on that front by doing a lot of re-reads.  Indeed, spending time with old friends (including books) is always an enjoyable, profitable experience.  But this quarter is a little different with re-reads constituting less than 1/4 of the list. Still, I’ve been very fortunate in my choices and 13 of the 23 books read I’ve been able to rate 3 or 4 stars. So, like I said, it’s been a good year for reading thus far.

Recommendations from this group?  Well, the 3 start ratings include the 100 year old (but still remarkably relevant Eugenics and Other Evils by G.K. Chesterton; a WWII novel about British submarines, Gone to Sea in a Bucket by David Black; suggestions on fresh approaches to evangelism, Soul Whisperer by Gary Comer; a brief but valuable book by a British theologian long living in heaven, The Cross by J.C. Ryle; and two Rafael Sabatini novels featuring his buccaneer hero Peter Blood, Captain Blood Returns and The Fortunes of Captain Blood.  All fine.

And the 4 stars? 

* Hunting the Nazi Bomb by Damien Lewis. An enlightening, inspiring book about the desperate efforts made to stop Hitler from making an A bomb.

* Your Time is Now by Jonathan Evans.  An excellent book on the necessity of both grace and grit in the sanctified life.

* To Be Where You Are by Jan Karon.  The final in the highly esteemed Fr. Tim/Mitford series.  These are wonderful books which stimulate a life of faith, humility, gratitude, and joyful faithfulness to serve Christ in the “little things.”

* The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas.  This is one of those “old friends” I mentioned earlier.  A terrific read.

* Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini.  Finely written, exciting, cleverly planned plots – Sabatini is a treasure and this is one of his best.

* The Stalking Horse by Rafael Sabatini.  Another fine novel of adventure, redress of injustice, and a bit of romance.

* The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit.  Read on my Kindle during a long plane ride, this proved a real find.  It is a charming story for children…and for grownups who are wise enough to know there’s a lot to appreciate and learn in the best so-called “children’s literature.”

Next up (that I know of now) are a re-read of Joni Eareckson Tada’s Heaven: Your Real Home; Apostate by Dr. Mark Christian; Showboat by Edna Ferber; and re-reads of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story and C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

White Nights, Dark Dreams: Revisiting Dostoevsky

Man changes during the course of his life, especially spiritual men who willingly accept the imperative for moral improvement…men who understand that God’s gracious sovereignty actually includes a man’s own prayers and dedicated efforts to change. And sometimes the changes occurring in life are not pleasant ones. For instance, trials can mellow a man, give him greater humility and understanding, give him a more profound gratitude for the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ. But sometimes it turns out that trials can distract and deter a man from his previously held early purposes and principles. They can even break his spirit and leave him cynical, morose, with only the murkiest of spiritual hopes.

I’ve pondered these thoughts after recently re-reading two short works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.  White Nights is 55 pages, Dream a mere 25 pages but, especially when read together, they illustrate how remarkably changed were Dostoevsky’s attitudes and perceptions of life from his early years starting out in Saint Petersburg’s literary circle until his days in Staraya.

White Nights was written in 1848. Dostoevsky was young and just getting started. He had high principles and firm hopes – both rooted in an optimistic socialism. He was a very emotional, introspective man (those traits never changed) but he was a believer in rationality, progress, and the positive role that a Christian could have in establishing meaningful relationships and in building a just society.

White Nights is a compelling love story that reflects these things. It isn’t an easy read for Westerners. Indeed, the lovesick protagonists are sometimes maudlin and verbose to a point most of us would believe silly, but one must remember Dostoevsky was writing to a 19th Century Russian audience who loved Pushkin’s and Gogol’s over-the-top emotional scenes.

The story introduces a young recluse who has retired into a weird, introspective fantasy life after failing in normal relationships. He imagines passersby as his friends; he thinks of buildings as greeting him in his daily walks; he builds love castles in the air. But one day he fumbles his way though a strange circumstance in which he actually speaks to a girl. He loves her immediately and releases all the stored up passion in his lonely heart. She eventually agrees to marry him until an unexpected twist in the story takes her back to a former suitor. It’s all a bit eerie and, on the surface, every relationship left in the story looks unhealthy and doomed.

But not exactly so. For Dostoevsky describes the boy’s love, unrequited as it is, to be an ennobling, liberating, and highly spiritual experience. And even in a Western reader’s discomfort with the story’s heavy emotionalism (and perhaps their disappointment in the story’s conclusion), one is left with a moving respect for Dostoevsky’s commitment to the exalting power of unconditional love. It is a bright and joyous tale even though the boy loses the girl (as a wife anyhow) because it reveals how sacrificial love has transformed the boy’s life into something beyond loneliness. He is now a man with a true heart and noble goals who is finally involved in the real world.

But White Nights was written before Dostoevsky’s arrest, before the famed “almost execution” where he was minutes away from a firing squad. It was written before his imprisonment, exile, and intense suffering from a variety of illnesses. The changes wrought in the author's life by these grievous trials were profound. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s already emotional and introspective personality began to bend still further towards mystery, then doubt, and eventually to a fascination with the irrational and morbid. Though still deeply religious, the optimism and joy ebbed away from Dostoevsky and he began to plumb the murkier waters of man’s fallen nature.

His contemporary Ivan Turgenev determined that Dostoevsky was the nastiest Christian he had ever known.

So by the time Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Dream of a Ridiculous Man nearly 30 years later, his beliefs and artistic purposes dramatically changed. This, the last short story he ever wrote, is a brief and bizarre tale about another reclusive dreamer and another accidental (but life-changing) meeting. As the story begins, the protagonist (never named) is planning his suicide. He has ceased to think along rational lines but is guilty of overthinking nonetheless, trying to fathom the deepest motives behind his and others’ actions.

A crying child, panicked because of a catastrophe that has befallen her, appeals to the man. He shuns her, even runs away from her. But his subsequent examination of why he was so cruel and selfish distracts him from his suicide plans. He sleeps for the first time in days. While he sleeps, he experiences a wild dream in which he’s taken to another planet, an Edenic society where the inhabitants are all gentle, loving and pure. However, rather than embracing the peace and innocence he finds here, the protagonist ends up contaminating the entire world. The people of the paradise all fall into sin just as did Adam and Eve. The story thus allows Dostoevsky ample opportunity to describe the bleak pessimism that now owned his life. 

Below is an excerpt…

They learned about shame and they made a virtue of it. The concept of honor appeared, and each alliance hoisted its colors. They started to torture animals, and the animals escaped into the forests and became their enemies. They fought to secede, for independence, for individual advantages, for what’s mine and what’s yours. They ended speaking different languages; they experienced suffering, and came to love; they declared that suffering was the only way to Truth. Then science spread among them.

As they became evil, they talked about fraternity and humanitarianism and came to understand those concepts; as they became criminal, they invented justice and drew up voluminous codes of laws to enforce their justice – and built a guillotine to enforce their laws.

They only dimly recalled the things they had lost and refused to believe that there had been a time when they were pure and happy. They even dismissed as ridiculous all possibility of return to that lost bliss, branding it a pipe dream. They were unable to visualize or conceive of it...

Religions appeared worshiping the nonbeing and self-annihilation for the sake of an eternal repose in nothingness.

Finally these people grew tired in their senseless efforts and suffering appeared on their faces. Then they proclaimed that suffering is beautiful because suffering alone contains thought. So they praised suffering in their songs. I walked among them wringing my hands in despair and crying over them. I believe I loved them even more than before the suffering had appeared on their features, when they were still so pure and beautiful. I loved their degraded earth more than I had loved it when it was a Garden of Eden, if only because sorrow had made its appearance in it. Alas, though I’ve always welcomed sorrow and torment myself, I was not happy to see them struck by it, and it made me cry.”

Near the end of Dostoevsky’s story, the man finally awakens from the nightmare. But it has caused him to be an even stranger, more manic personality than ever. In fact, he becomes a kind of preacher -- though he confesses that he doesn’t make much sense and is really quite unable to put into words the message of his dream. He is ridiculous to others and even to himself.

Ironically though, Dostoevsky’s hero is no longer suicidal. He’s not even lonely or unhappy. He now understands that true happiness, real spirituality is something which emerges from feeling, not thinking. He had been too tied up by rationality. Freedom came as he released himself to God. And God was to be found not in organized religion or divine revelation but from purely subjective sources...even the surrealism of a dream.

The Dream of the Ridiculous Man thus underscores several of Dostoevsky’s philosophic themes from those last years of his life. Society is a sham, composed of hypocritical people and unjust institutions. Religion surely gives meaning to an individual’s life, he would argue, but it will be a religion that is subjective, incommunicable, non-rational. And suffering, even when it is caused by wickedness, is a positive thing not because it provides opportunity for character transformation (which would be the traditional Christian view), but because it thus provokes an escape from the world of reason and social relationships into the more profound spiritual mysteries of the  self. In Dostoevsky’s view now, prayer becomes less a conversation with God than it is an exercise in self-contained meditation.

Certainly Dostoevsky’s popularity has waned in recent decades. His dualism, dark moods and distorted characters are tough to take in regular doses. Readers now prefer brighter themes. Even the most committed cynics have moved away from such dark writers as Kafka, Nietzsche, Camus, and Dostoevsky, preferring their skepticism colored in lighter shades and guided by the elements of Eastern religion or socialism, Scientism or liberal self-help formulas, even Gaia-inspired nature love.

And Christian readers? Well, they were never all that attracted to Fyodor Dostoevsky anyhow. And while they might be persuaded to share an occasional evening with such curmudgeons as T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, or Hilaire Belloc, Fyodor Dostoevsky was way too much of a downer to endure. True, there is that marvelous chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, “The Grand Inquisitor,” that they read in college or in an anthology. That was okay. But for the long haul, they desire cheerier companions, Christian writers who applaud and promote the fruits of the Spirit in one’s life -- writers who gratefully acknowledge objectivity, rationality, social relationships, beauty, the value of love in action, the trustworthy revelation of Scripture, and the triumph of Christ’s atoning work.

Had Fyodor Dostoevsky kept the enthusiasm for life and love and optimism that he so compelling portrayed in “White Nights,” I have no doubt he would have remained not only in the pantheon of great writers, but in the one dedicated to popular and beloved writers as well. But alas, by concentrating his search for truth in the turgid waters of subjective suffering, mystery, and the unknowable depths of the human psyche, he made sure his following (that is, the people who actually read him and try to understand his work) will be small.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

In Which "Class" of Readers Are You?

“Readers my be divided into four classes,” believed the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famed author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The first of those classes Coleridge believed were the sponges. They were those, he said, “who absorb all they read and return it nearly in the same state, only a little dirtied.” Ouch! 

The second class consisted of the sand glass (moderns would know them as hourglass) readers. These retained nothing from their time with a book. Indeed, they were content to merely get through the book for the sake of passing the time. 

The third class? They were the strain-bags, like our day’s tea bags, who retained merely the dregs of what they read. 

And, finally, Mr. Coleridge described the fourth class of readers as “mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read and enable others to profit by it also.”

Mogul diamonds; that, of course, is the class to shoot for, becoming a reader that allows quality books to illuminate his own life and then who gratefully passes the glistening shine on to others.