Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book Review: Raised Right

Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the GospelRaised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics and Learned to Start Living the Gospel by Alisa Harris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is part memoir, with Alisa Harris walking through key events in her life, and part meditation on the appropriate relationship between religion and politics. I highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in thinking more carefully about church/state relations or the place of religion in the public square.

The strengths of this book are many. It is well written, and flows easily (I read the whole thing in three sittings of about an hour each), which I suppose is to be expected of a professional journalist...

Moreover, it is thoughtful and raises points that many polemical Christians have forgotten. Our primary point of interaction with the world is not to be power, but rather love. As Christians we should find our responsibilities not in political credos or shallow one liners, but in care for those around us, in concern for those who cannot defend themselves, and in working to love our neighbors. This love should not be any kind of abstract love for humanity, but in concrete relationships with those in our lives (Harris is quite right to point out that the two are mutually exclusive anyway). Areas in which we can all agree, left and right alike, are that we should: 1) care for the poor and underprivlidged; 2) love "not just with words but with actions," and 3) to take heart that Christ has overcome the world "not through a show of power but a picture of love." (218-219)

The problem with so much of the Christian right, according to Harris, is that
The hope of the gospel meant more than the truth that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, had come to earth, died on a cross to free us from sin, and then rose on the third day. It also meant the hope of being free from the shackles of government as we worked to redeem the world for Christ through political means.(65)
Most importantly, this book is remarkable evidence that as Christians we can disagree on issues (no doubt Harris and I would differ on many) while agreeing on methods and respecting each other as believers.

The primary weakness in this book seems to be that Harris has spent her life looking to politics for what she should be finding in a healthy, Gospel-centered church. As a conservative and as a liberal (seemingly starting with her parents' activism), she has continually looked to politics as a place where love is achieved. She writes of the civic potential to become a people of "no color, just people, loving each other and doing the right thing, helping." (162) While this of course is something we can and should work for not just in politics but in all of life, it must always be remembered that this is an ideal that will only be fulfilled where people are drawn together by the Gospel, and that is something which no state, political party, or law will ever be able to do. Only in a faithful local church do we see this ideal at work, and even then only imperfectly. (Perfect love on the part of Christians is seen only in heaven.)

But even this is a fairly weak criticism, as the book is about politics. Perhaps if she had written a book on the church this sentiment would be echoed...

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review: Ascent from Darkness by Michael Leehan

Ascent from Darkness: How Satan's Soldier Became God's WarriorAscent from Darkness: How Satan's Soldier Became God's Warrior by Michael Leehan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ascent from Darkness is the story of Michael Leehan's conversion from Satanism to Christianity. The bulk of the story covers his time as a Satanist, how he felt and what he did during that time, and how he eventually converted.

It's probably important that I give a disclaimer before I give my thoughts on the book. I am likely not the intended audience here. Leehan is a charismatic to the very core of his being, first as a Satanist and then as a Christian, and I just can't get on board with that way of doing things. Not that I think it's necessarily inherently wrong, just that it's not my cup of tea.

Having said that, the book is overall fairly well written. The narrative flows well, and he keeps you wanting to know what happens next. By the end, you're pulling for the guy and want to see him saved from his lifestyle and brought to Christ.

The great strength of this book, and the main reason I'd recommend it (should I ever do so) is that it deals very honestly with the spiritual world. In the vein of a Frank Peretti work, Leehan discusses the reality and influence of the world of demons, angels, and all other sorts of extrasensory matters. In our deeply materialistic culture full of people who refuse to believe in anything beyond what we can see and touch and feel (and occasionally not even that), it's refreshing to be reminded that there is a greater world at work, and that our actions and lives have one foot in an eternal realm. Especially clever and useful was the inclusion of testimony at the end of the book of people who know Leehan and witnessed some of the events of his life. It gives an element of depth that would not otherwise be present.

And yet, I don't really see myself recommending this book (it still gets three stars for being well written, that's a rock-solid rule I hold myself to). Nowhere does it have a clear expression of the Gospel, and it almost seems as if there's a deeply dualistic worldview at work in the text. Leehan is clear that he has exchanged service to Satan for service to Jesus, but he never makes clear any idea of how that works. The atonement is nowhere discussed, nor is it clear what the role of the cross is in Leehan's conversion (I am not commenting one way or another on his personal salvation- he says he's a Christian, and I am perfectly willing to take him at his word, I'm just commenting on what is contained in the book). The book is quite clear that God wins over Satan and evil and darkness, but it is not clear how God does so. It's certainly a good thing that Leehan no longer feels rules by the powers of darkness, but for me to endorse this book as a Christian it needs to be reworked so as to explain the role of Christ. Perhaps a second edition would be useful to this end...

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sermons from Acts: Sermon 6

The Setting: Acts 13: 13-15  "From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”
The Sermon Text: Various, but including: Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 55:3; Psalm 16:10; and Habbakuk 1:5; Exodus, Deuteronomy, and several historical books are also mentioned.
The Exposition:  Acts 13: 16-41 "Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years.
   “After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.  Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.  Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed.  When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead,  and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
   “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
   “‘You are my son;
   today I have become your father.’
 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said,
   “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’
    So it is also stated elsewhere:
   “‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’
   “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
   “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.  Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
   “‘Look, you scoffers,
   wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
   that you would never believe,
   even if someone told you.'"
The Result of the Sermon: Acts 13:42-43 "As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Happy Birthday Loeb!

The Loeb Classical Library turn 100 this year. For those who don't know, the Loeb library has set itself the goal of publishing everything from the Classical world written in Greek or Latin into English, providing on the left page the original Greek or Latin text, and on the right the English translation. Greek texts have green covers, Latin one red. Students of both languages owe a great debt to Loeb. I certainly would never have passed any of my upper-level Latin courses if not for the assistance of these tiny red books.
As Adam Kirsch writes:
 For the Loeb classics are the monument of a book culture that now seems on the wane -- a culture that prized the making and owning of physical books, not just for the pleasure of turning the pages, but from a sense that the book was the natural, predestined vessel of every expression of human thought.
Read the rest of his tribute here: The Other Socrates - The Barnes & Noble Review.
By the way: the "other Socrates" books are very much worth the read, especially Aristophanes' The Clouds, which hints that Socrates is really a bit of a bumbling oligarch intent on gaining personal power, but not quite sure how to go about it. The story is that during the play, when Socrates' character walked on stage, the real Socrates stood up and bowed to him (much as Davy Crockett would do when attending plays about his own life).

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Our Enemy, the State by Albert Nock

Our Enemy, the StateOur Enemy, the State by Albert J. Nock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting book, worthy of closer study (I distractedly listened to the audio version). Nock makes several arguments about the nature of the state in general, the nature of the traditional American state, and the planting of the seeds of totalitarianism.

Nock argues that the expansion of state power always comes at the expense of what he calls "social" power. That is, power which exists across the rest of society. For example, before 9-11 (obviously not Nock's example), the need for security on airlines was met by society, sometimes airports themselves, sometimes local communities, sometimes the states, and sometimes private companies. Now, the government does it all, and that social power has been transfered to the state. Nock further argues that:

1) it is in the nature of the state to continually expand its power at the expense of society.

2) it is in the nature of people to allow the state to do so, either out of greed and lust for power (on the part of those in the state working for expansion); or out of laziness (on the part of the rest of us who would rather let it happen, than actively fight the expansion of state power).

(I think Nock misses something here that was true even in his own day: he was using the Fascists and Commies as his model, and applying those lessons to the nascent American welfare state. But, even in the 1930s, the expansion of the American national state was not done out of a lust for power so much as it was done from a misdirected and fuzzy sentimentalism. C.S. Lewis better identified the source of Western liberal tyranny:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
Here at least, I think Nock was off in his analysis.)

The critical stage is the time immediately after the assumption of a new power by the state. This is the point at which civic virtue will either resist the state, or die. In a famous example, Nock discusses the effect of the welfare state on the traditional civic virtue of charity. In the past, he argues, if a man asks you for a quarter, you would give it to him if you could spare it, since it was your duty as a citizen. Once the state has started to tax you in order to support the man, you will no longer give the quarter, considering that you have already given through your taxes, whether you wanted to or not.

From this point, Nock argues that the state will increasingly cement its power first by gradually outlawing the exercise of it by any other institutions (again, re: the TSA). Then it will being to conscript citizens to perform the now "necessary" functions which the state has taken on itself, at which point we are reduced to slavery, in that we are reliant on a service only provided by the state, and simultaneously forced to perform that service.

Nock draws his examples primarily from three places: from the transition of the Ancient Roman Empire from the Enlightened rule of the Antonines to the despotism of the Severan Dynasty, from the rise of the Fascists in Europe, and from the rise of the welfare state in America.

Overall, an interesting read. I'm not sure I disagree with the general outlines (his views of the nature of government and of the nature of people I think are spot on). I merely question his application. Liberals (in the modern sense of the word), are not fascists or communists. There isn't the same lust for pointless destruction that so marked the death camps and the gulag.

Having said that, this book is still worth reading for all interested students of American politics.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011


HT: The Christian Humanist Folks

On the Banning of Books

So, it's "Banned Books Week" again, at least according to the American Library Association, the American Bookseller's Association, and various and sundry other folks. [Update: Okay, so the week is over now, I'm just slow in getting this posted] They say
During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2011 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 24 through October 1. Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.
Some of the banned books, or at least "challenged" books, include Crank, And Tango Makes Three, and classics like Brave New World.
And yet, I suggest that there are at least two very good reasons to endorse the banning of books, at least in a limited measure. Reasons that are built into the very nature of censorship.
When discussing censorship (a word that brings up images of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia), it is important to remember that there are two different kinds of censorship:
-passive censorship: This is the kind of censorship in which all people and institutions engage. We all have a limited resource pool, and decisions have to be made concerning how those resources are used. When I choose to purchase one book over another, I am exercising a kind of censorship, albeit a fairly mild and unoffensive one. So when the library has to choose between buying the newest Stephen King book and the newest Nicholas Sparks schlock, the choice of one is an automatic exclusion of the other, with no more malice behind it than that of an empty wallet.
I would suggest that this is going to be the primary point of book banning that we can engage in publicly, when we direct our libraries to purchase certain kinds of books rather than others.

-active censorship: This is the kind of censorship which involves the explicit banning of individual books or authors, or entire literary categories. Americans instinctively recoil at this sort of censorship, and yet I would maintain that there is a limited legitimacy even to this category of censorship. Were I to publish a book on the best way to break into my neighbor's house and murder him in his sleep, society would be quite right to censor me. Perhaps even punish me.

The difficult comes in establishing a boundary of appropriate censorship, in figuring  out which books are to be banned. Books that actively endorse personal evil are sometimes difficult to distinguish from those books which merely use personal evil as a vehicle to tell a story. The use of unacceptable words in Huckleberry Finn is clearly different from the use of unacceptable words in a threatening tirade directed at named individuals, but exactly where to set the difference in terms of acceptable public speech is something which even the most trained eye struggles to establish.

I make no claims to know where such a line is, I merely suggest that occasions like "banned books week" be used as an opportunity to reflect on this difficult social problem. We have a remarkable freedom to engage in public affairs in this country, and it would be a shame to let this freedom be dominated either the extreme of banning everything with anything offensive in it, or the extreme of banning nothing, however terrible it might be.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Book Review: Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

Pershing: Commander of the Great War (The Generals)Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perry's bio of Pershing is well-written and, so far as I know, fairly thorough given the length of the book. The narrative is roughly at the young adult level, so it's in an excellent tone for what is supposed to be a brief introduction to a complicated life.

There are three main points about Pershing's life the author tries to bring out:

1) Excellence in the details will bring success in the big things. Pershing was a firm believer that if his men had the discipline to maintain small things like their appearance, their posture when standing at attention, and the condition of their equipment, then they could handle larger affairs like winning wars. Neglecting these little things was a sign that the soldiers were not ready for combat.

2) Respect for all people was the foundation of cooperation, whether they were Americans, Mexican bandits, or Muslim Filipino tribesmen.

3) The military (and the nation as a whole) must be flexible enough to fit itself to the changing conditions of modern warfare. Methods that worked in the Civil War and even in the Spanish-American War had no place on the battlefields of World War I, given the existence of the airplane, tank, poison gas, and machine gun.


Perry is an excellent writer and tells in a clear and engaging way the life story of an almost forgotten hero. This book highlights Pershing's strengths without ignoring or glossing over his faults.


I can't speak to the historical accuracy of the book, as this is the first Pershing bio I've read. I can, however, say that Perry skims World War I far too much. This war was easily the worst of the 20th century for those involved in the actual fighting, to the point where those who went through the trenches almost universally refused to talk about it. Not that Perry should have spent an extra hundred pages talking about the horrors of war, just that a clearer picture of what the American army was stepping into would have helped highlighted Pershing's leadership ability (and his faults as well).

I highly recommend this book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

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