Tuesday, December 04, 2018

A Most Welcome Conversion

And why does Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) resound so deeply within us all? Because it is a story of profound repentance and reclamation, a story that offers to our history of moral cowardice, failure, and guilty conscience the welcome hope that change for the better can occur.

And talk about a villain who so desperately needed change…

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge — a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.”

And then talk about reclamation…

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Of course, in fiction dramatic changes of this sort are as possible as they are desirable. In real life, however, the Scripture makes clear that genuine spiritual change comes only through the new birth, that act of God’s grace when a sinner surrenders his self-will, despair, and load of guilt and instead trusts in the finished work of atonement that Jesus won for mankind through His death and resurrection.

Alas, Emma's Failed Resolve to Read

In one of her best novels, Emma (published 1815), Jane Austen brilliantly describes the enthusiasm, overconfidence, and snobbery of a young woman of the would-be gentry. I was struck by the description of her protagonist's lack of resolve regarding quality literature, noticing how true to life it is of so many people nowadays -- people like those who often admire and express interest in our book clubs and reading projects but who quickly take a powder if actually called upon to participate.

“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many of her lists drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through -- and very good lists they were -- very well chosen and very neatly arranged -- sometimes alphabetically and sometimes by some other rule…But I have done with expecting any course of study reading from Emma. She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.”

Monday, November 26, 2018

“And Let This Feeble Body Fail”

Life on this poor, problematic planet will not last.

There couldn't be a truth more obvious. And yet men constantly seek distraction from honestly facing the fact of their death as well as such other hard realities as pain, grief, desperation, injustice, and deep longing.

However, for the Christian; that is, the person who has received the gift of salvation via the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ's death on the cross, there is a joyful confidence that this planet is not our final destination.

Here is how Charles Wesley described this assured expectation in a funeral hymn written in 1759.

And Let This Feeble Body Fail

And let this feeble body fail,
And let it droop and die;
My soul shall quit the mournful vale,
And soar to worlds on high;
Shall join the disembodied saints,
And find its long sought rest,
That only bliss for which it pants,
In my Redeemer’s breast.

In hope of that immortal crown
I now the cross sustain,
And gladly wander up and down,
And smile at toil and pain:
I suffer out my threescore years,
Till my Deliverer come,
And wipe away His servant’s tears,
And take His exile home.

O what hath Jesus bought for me!
Before my ravished eyes
Rivers of life divine I see,
And trees of paradise:
I see a world of spirits bright,
Who taste the pleasures there;
They all are robed in spotless white,
And conquering palms they bear.

O what are all my sufferings here,
If, Lord, Thou count me meet
With that enraptured host to appear,
And worship at Thy feet!
Give joy or grief, give ease or pain,
Take life or friends away,
But let me find them all again
In that eternal day.

"Like a Set of Beggars" -- Revolutionary War Veterans Disrespected by Congress

My generation remembers (with great shame) how American soldiers returning from brave and sacrificial service to their country in the Vietnam War met with despicably unjust and ungrateful attitudes from liberal politicians and a snobbish minority of the public.

But it wasn’t the first time that such selfish and shallow irresponsibility had been shown to American soldiers. Joseph J. Ellis, writing in The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-9 (page 60) describes the response of a majority of low-minded politicians to veterans of the Revolutionary War.

“Congress eventually voted to provide full pay for five years for officers in lieu of half pay for life, but doing so was a purely rhetorical exercise, since there was no money in the federal coffers to pay anyone. Even that meaningless commitment generated widespread criticism, especially in New England, where returning officers were greeted with newspaper editorials describing them as blood-beaked vultures feeding at the public trough.

At least in retrospect, the dissolution of the Continental Army in the spring of 1783 was one of the most poignant scenes in American history, as the men had stayed the course and won the war were ushered off without pay, with paper pensions and only grudging recognition of their service. Washington could only weep: “To be disbanded… like a set of beggars, needy, distressed, and without prospect…will drive every man of Honor and Sensibility to the extreme Horrors of Despair.’”

Friday, November 23, 2018

When Did the Nation Actually Begin?

When did the grand American experiment actually begin?

Joseph J. Ellis answers, “It also helped that all four of them [George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay] had served in the Continental Army or the Continental (then Confederation) Congress, which meant they had experienced the war for independence from a higher perch than most of their contemporaries. They were accustomed, as Hamilton put it, to ‘think continentally’ at a time when the allegiances and perspectives of most Americans were confined within local and state borders. Indeed, the very term ‘American Revolution’ implies a national ethos that in fact did not exist in the population at large.

Perhaps the best way to understand the term ‘American Revolution’ is to realize that it describes a two-tiered political process. The first American Revolution achieved independence. It was a mere, or perhaps not so mere, colonial rebellion. It also created a series of mini-republics in the former colonies, now states, but it did so in ways that were inherently incompatible with any national political agenda.

The second American Revolution modified the republican framework existent in the states in order to create a nation-size republic. The overly succinct way to put it is that the American Revolution did not become a full-fledged revolution until it became more expansively American. Or even more succinctly, the first phase of the American revolution was about rejection of political power; the second phase was about controlling it.” (Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-9; page xvi)

I am really enjoying this read.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Uh, What Book on Heaven Are You Talking About, Chip?

As I began to read Chip Ingram’s book, The Real Heaven: What the Bible Actually Says (published in 2016), I was struck by the absence of references to other books on this critical subject.  I was surprised (and disappointed) that he didn’t mention any sources that inspired or informed him nor did he suggest any sources for additional reading.  Indeed, in his book of 184 pages, there were only 18 footnotes and not a single one referred to a book about heaven.

I found this strange. Where, for instance, were the references and/or recommendations to Randy Alcorn’s penultimate study, Heaven or Joni Eareckson Tada’s book, Heaven, Your Real Home?

This omission was made yet more troubling when, in the first chapter, Ingram describes how his dying father’s attitudes were brilliantly transformed by reading a book on heaven that Ingram himself had given to him.  Ingram writes, “I vividly remember coming back to visit my dad in his final days and observing a dramatic change in his outlook. The book helped Dad get a grasp of what Heaven is really going to be like. The truth about Heaven from God’s Word turned Dad’s fear into positive expectation…An unbelievable transformation had taken place. There was no fear and uncertainty. There was no panic or anxiety. There was only confidence and clarity. You see, my dad now had a deep assurance about Heaven. And that brought hope and comfort and made a huge difference in his last days. That experience in many ways was a catalyst for my own journey of discovering what the Bible actually teaches about Heaven.”

Encouraging? You bet. Stimulating? No doubt.

But then, inexplicably, Ingram fails to tell his readers what book he’s talking about!

I couldn’t help but thinking, “Why write your own book on heaven if such an excellent study on the topic, one of which you have profound experience of its salutary effects, already exists?  Why would you not — at the very least — let your readers know about this great book so they could have yet another helpful source besides your own?”

Well, I’m now quite a bit further into Chip Ingram’s book and, though there certainly is value in reading it, I don’t find it nearly as informative, inspiring, or confidently joyful as are either Randy’s or Joni’s books on heaven. So, take it from someone who, with immense delight, has read Heaven and Heaven, Your Real Home more than once, I’d go with one (or both) of those to enlighten your mind on this critically important subject.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Responding to a Very Sorry List of "Books for Boys"

It’s been over 10 years now since I first described my differences with a list of “books for boys” that had been compiled by the U.K. newspaper, the Guardian. Well, since that list still attracts some interest (you can find it here) and because I was recently asked about what I considered a good selection of “books for boys,” I am posting a slightly edited version of the piece I wrote way back in 2007. Here it is.

What's Missing from the Guardian's List of Books For Boys? Plenty!

The Guardian’s list of “160 Books All Boys Should Read” proved very disappointing to me. In fact, I consider it an absolutely terrible list, a compelling example of just how far afield we have traveled from the high standards of literature society once held.

There were just 7 books of the entire 160 that I had read. No, make that only 6, because my version of Kidnapped was, alas, not the “graphic novel in full colour” edition that the Guardian suggested.

But what was most significant was what the list left out. Here are just a few of the most serious omissions. There was, for instance, no Sir Walter Scott title that made the list. That’s right. None. And no Conan Doyle or Jack London either. No G.A. Henty. No James Fenimore Cooper, John Buchan, Jules Verne, or Edgar Allan Poe.

But that’s not all. 

Watership Down didn't make the list, nor did Kon-Tiki, Raffles, Endurance, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Johnny Tremain, Robin Hood, Sink the Bismarck, The Iliad, or any of the Hardy Boys or Tom Swift mysteries. Even the Bible was absent!

James Barrie was missing from the list. So too were James Herriot, O. Henry, Herman Melville, Rafael Sabatini, and the Brothers Grimm. 

And, it’s hard to believe, but their vapid, political-incorrect list of 160 books didn’t consider even Charles Dickens or Alexander Dumas!

Jonathan Swift wasn't there. H.G. Wells wasn't there. G.K. Chesterton, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Washington Irving were not there. A.E. W. Mason or H.E. Bates were not there. And even taller literary giants were inexplicably left cooling their heels in the Guardian's outer office — C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, Victor Hugo, Kenneth Grahame, C. S. Forester, and Horatio Alger.

Of course, you can guess by now that such sparkling historians as Winston Churchill, Samuel Eliot Morison, Walter Lord, Shelby Foote, and John Toland were not in the list. That’s a genuine crime. But there was also no Tarka the Otter; no Song of Roland; no Don Quixote; no Lorna Doone; no Neverending Story; no Prisoner of Zenda; and no Ben-Hur

You've got to be kidding!

Realizing what literary standards have been so shamefully omitted from the list of “160 Books That All Boys Should Read” was very disconcerting.

So, I hope that this humble post (with its mention of so many wrongfully neglected works and authors) will be a reminder to others (like parents!) of what classic literature was once considered to be. And I urge Book Den visitors to remember what immense treasures are still there for boys (of all ages) to discover.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

“On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness”

“On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness”
(Arthur Guiterman)

The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls
Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,
Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,
And I don't feel so well myself.

Arthur Guiterman (1871 -1943) was an editor of the Woman's Home Companion and the Literary Digest, a co-founder the Poetry Society of America, and a delightful poet whose work was published in over a dozen collections including Betel Nuts: What They Say In Hindustan (1907), The Laughing Muse (1915), and Gaily the Troubadour (1936). In the next few days I’ll share a few more of my favorite Guiterman poems.

Friday, November 09, 2018

How Well Do You Know Your Tolkien?

The photograph at left is an unfamiliar look at a very familiar 20th Century author. It is J.R.R. Tolkien, taken when he was a second lieutenant in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. A rather dashing fellow, what?

Anyhow, from an old New York Times I came across, here's a rather gentle trivia quiz to test your knowledge of that talented and perceptive Lord of the Rings author. The answers are printed after the quiz but, be fair now, no peeking!

1. What does the "J" stand for in J.R.R.?
A. Joseph
B. John
C. Jacob
D. Jerome

2. What is the correct pronunciation of "Tolkien"?
A. toll-KINE
B. TAHL-keen
C. TOLL-key-en

3. Of what ethnic origin is the name Tolkien?
A. Irish
B. French
C. German
D. Swedish

4. In what country was Tolkien born?
A. Scotland
B. South Africa
C. Australia
D. Wales

5. What was Tolkien's first job after serving in World War I?
A. Lexicographer
B. Hospital orderly
C. Accounting clerk
D. Newspaper reporter

6. What was Tolkien's "day job" for over 30 years?
A. Bus driver
B. Magazine editor
C. College professor
D. Philosopher

7. One of Tolkien's first published works was a scholarly treatment of:
A. Finnish etymology
B. German fairy tales
C. American folklore
D. Arthurian legend

8. As a result of the widespread popularity of "Lord of the Rings," Tolkien:
A. Became wealthy
B. Had to move
C. Had to have an unlisted telephone number
D. All of the above


1. What does the "J" stand for in J.R.R.? The correct answer is B. -- John J.R.R. stands for "John Ronald Reuel." Reuel was his father's middle name.

2. What is the correct pronunciation of "Tolkien"? -- According to the Tolkien Society of England, there is equal stress on both syllables.

3. Of what ethnic origin is the name Tolkien? The correct answer is C. German -- Tolkien is derived from the German language, from a word meaning "foolishly brave".

4. In what country was Tolkien born? The correct answer is B. South Africa. -- His father had moved to South Africa for better job opportunities. Tolkien returned to England when he was four years old.

5. What was Tolkien's first job after serving in World War I? The correct answer is A. Lexicographer. -- He worked on the Oxford English Dictionary as an assistant lexicographer.

6. What was Tolkien's "day job" for over 30 years? -- Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and English literature at Oxford from 1925 to 1959.

7. One of Tolkien's first published works was a scholarly treatment of: The correct answer is D. Arthurian legend. -- His "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" was published in 1925, 12 years before the publication of "The Hobbit".

8. As a result of the widespread popularity of "Lord of the Rings," Tolkien: The correct answer is D. All of the above. -- Tolkien and his wife could no longer bear the crowds gawking at his house and the middle-of-the-night phone calls.

And, by the way, if you want some really challenging Lord of the Rings trivia quizzes, try these put together by the Tolkienites over at Quintessence Designs. But be forewarned, they are extremely tough.

Monday, October 29, 2018

On Reading History...in Fiction

“History is not the story of heroes entirely. It is often the story of cruelty and injustice and shortsightedness. There are monsters, there is evil, there is betrayal. That's why people should read Shakespeare and Dickens as well as history — there they will find the best, the worst, the height of noble attainment, and the depths of depravity.”  (Esteemed historian, David C. McCullough)