Atheism on Trial: Refuting the Modern Arguments Against God, by Louis Markos ★★★★★
I had this book on my shelves for a year or two before tackling it. I was mostly interested in the book due to my encounter with Louis Markos with a Teaching Company series on literary criticism/post-modernism, which is probably the best refutation of post-modernism available, that is also comprehensible to the non-philosopher layman. Indeed, Markos has a peculiar knack for making very complex ideas simple and understandable to the man on the street. After reading, I realized that this book is a gem, tackling complex issues without using the philosopher’s jargon.
Marcos counters the atheist with four approaches, by addressing the nature of the universe, epistemological concerns, the nature of God, and the nature of man. All of these approaches demonstrate the failures of the atheist mindset. Marcos tackles a number of very touchy subjects, such as the problem of pain (and evil) in the world, which he shows to prove rather than disprove God. He also used a term that I thought I had coined, but apparently not, in speaking of science-of-the-gaps, which is a more legitimate argument than the God-of-the-gaps argument used by atheists.
Marcos’s most relevant arguments entailed his ability to recount historical thinking from the ancient Greeks and since then. Indeed, his introduction to the book was titled “nothing new under the sun”, and Marcos was quite capable of showing how modern atheistic arguments have been around for well over 2000 years. What the atheist presents as new thinking is everything but that.
This book was awesome. I recommend this strongly to anybody interested in presenting the Christian faith to a faithless world. I also recently reviewed a book on witnessing the faith titled Tactics, which had interesting information, but really presented nothing more than cliché-ridden arguments for the faith. Marcos presented a vastly more insightful discussion on how to challenge those who question your faith in God. Get it and read it!
I have read this book many years ago and decided on a refresher course in early Christian thought. JND Kelly writes a wonderful text detailing the systematic development of the most relevant doctrines of Christianity, including the formation of the canon of Scripture, the nature of Christ, the Trinity, and the nature of man, as well as the origin of the current practice of the Sacraments, and development of the doctrine of Mary. It is a delightful book to read and should be within the knowledge of every mature Christian man and woman. I will not go over the details of the text. Needless to say, doctrine was developed in response to heresy, and those heresies, such as Arianism, Sabellianism, etc., etc., still exist and often unknowingly in the theological constructs of many otherwise orthodox Christian people. My greatest complaint with the book is that it assumes that one is already quite familiar with the Patristic saints. Summary charts or illustrations could have been used to better clarify competing doctrines. Even still, it is the best text out there for gaining a grasp as to why our theology emerged the way it did.
Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions, by Gregory Koukl ★★★
This book was highly recommended to me by friends. Evidently, it has been around a while, now existing in the 10th anniversary edition. The focus of the book was in detailing how one can encounter the unbeliever in the public square. He offers sage advice, such as to avoid being argumentative, to be kind, to ask questions in order to focus the contact person toward discovering the logical inconsistencies of their thinking. Koukl owes a deep debt to Francis Schaeffer, who he quotes frequently. Koukl talks a lot about abortion issues and intelligent design issues.
The strength of this book is in reminding Christians to witness, and that their witness needs to be as ambassadors for Christ, while behaving always in a Christ-like manner. The weakness is that the tactics are presenting in a cutesy “Columbo” style, which was a little annoying. This approach is great for a teenager but not for a more mature adult, in that it reminded me of the pop books of yesterday, like Fritz Ridenour’s books or Josh McDowell’s Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door. It’s easy to get hung up on tactics when one just needs to “do it”. Witnessing should come as natural as breathing.
I purchased a second book by Gregory Koukl Street Smarts, which looks like it is more of the same thing. I’ll probably skim the book and then offer a second Koukl review.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) was originally conceived in the 1930s, though it took an act of congress to form the official Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail (now the Pacific Crest Trail) in 1968. A Pacific Trail Congress was formed in 1977 to offer some oversight of the trail, and in 1992, it became the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA). In 1993, the PCTA formed a written memorandum with the National Forest Service, having the PCTA serve a major role in the supervision and maintenance of the trail. Since the 1990s, the PCTA has been quite active at promoting and maintaining the trail, as well as acquiring land from private landowners in order to make the trail truly a national heritage. Over time, the PCTA has been instrumental in developing use-restriction permits to prevent overuse of the trail. With time and the acquisition of increased control of the trail, the PCTA has done what so many agencies do, which is to lose sight of its original mission, which was to promote, maintain, and protect the PCT.
The PCTA is quite duplicious with trail promotion. They want people to support the PCTA, but they would rather that you NOT hike the PCT. It is a trail that they claim is overused. The PCTA seems hell-bent on keeping people off of the trail, usually citing hiker safety concerns, the Wuhan virus, or mating problems in yellow-legged frogs as the issue. I’d be happy if they worked as hard to keep people on the trail.
Safety is a trail issue since we live in a country ruled by lawyers, and any incident experienced on the trail would generate liability issues with the state. We can no longer accept that a tree may fall on a person, or snake unwarily attacks an innocent victim. Hikers will tend to do very stupid things, often in challenging themselves to set some sort of trail record, such as doing the fastest known time (fkt) hiking the entire trail. Some real safety policies, like expecting (demanding) that everyone on the trail carry personal locator beacons (plbs), would offer safety as well as provide information as to how many and where people are on the trail. One in a billion worries like the risk of transmitting the Wuhan virus from one hiker to another has clouded the judgement of the agency.
For several years, the PCTA had as their poster child the hiker Cheryl Strayed with her book about hiking (maybe) 500 miles of the PCT. One PCT hiker wrote a massive series of posts detailing how nearly everything in the book Wild was false. The reader is welcome to check this out at https://cherylstrayedisaliar.blogspot.com/?zx=44a5c13d2d5ce1d9. Cheryl Strayed in her book, though attempting to alternate between seriousness and funniness, shows how to cast environmental concerns, trail concerns, trail etiquette, and trail honesty to the wind. She shows just about everything one can do wrong on the trail, including poor planning, poor judgement, and misjudging many people that she met on the trail. Why the PCTA decided to use Cheryl Strayed as a poster child was very poor judgement, a trait shared between the PCTA and Cheryl Strayed.
Just a few years ago the PCTA decided that there were too many white folk on the trail, and so engaged in a campaign to get more “colored” folk on the trail, meaning, more black skinned folk. They even developed a system of trail “ambassadors”, i.e., colored folk, whom they would economically finance to hike the trail. Then, the PCTA developed a system whereby those of confused sexuality could find themselves “protected”. Various work crews would consist only of females (don’t dare have the males do an activity that restricts females!). Directly and indirectly, focus was placed on encouraging folk with various sexual perversions to make themselves known on the trail. I tend to be colorblind on the trail and I never ask a person to describe in full their sexual orientation as I’m not interested. I don’t care if your skin is white, black, brown, yellow, red or green. I do care that you maintain common trail courtesies and that your are respectful of the environment. From the PCTA promotion of Cheryl Strayed, it is quite obvious that the PCTA is more worried about the promotion of females on the trail, regardless of their sensitivity to the environment and leaving no trace, a trait that Cheryl lacked and never acquired during her summer sojourn on the trail. This shift can also be found within the board and administrative structure of the PCTA, where it seems they are more concerned about diversity than with finding the most qualified individuals. In essence, the entire organization became Woke!
I have volunteered many times in the past with the PCTA as well as with the Washington Trails Association in order to maintain or construct trails in the Cascades. What I found was the technology of trail construction/maintenance has not changed in the last 100 years. Pity. We spent much time rummaging for rock and dirt to fill in the trail. Steps and other structures were built by locating hemlock trees just off the trail, cutting them down, debarking them, then sawing them into appropriate lengths and using (mostly) rock to stabilize the structures. There’s nothing wrong with all of that, except that it is an environmentally destructive process, and the materials would not be guaranteed to last more than 10-20 years. Thus, a trail needs to be reconstructed about every 10-20 years. Surely there are materials with a much longer expected life span that can be made to appear as natural which could be used for the trail?
I find it amusing that trail technology has not sought for more durable solutions to trail construction or maintenance. The Romans could build roads that were environmentally pleasing and yet lasted for 2000 years. Our trails scarcely last 20 years! I surmise that part of the problem is the Wilderness Act of 1964. This act was seriously needed and yet is deeply flawed in how it was written. It needs to be completely replaced by more nuanced thought about the designation of sundry wilderness areas. The PCTA, like other trail organizations, thrive off of the restrictions placed on wilderness lands by the Wilderness Act. A segment of trail could easily be cleared of blow-downs and encroaching weeds through the use of a chain saw, gas powered weed wacker, and a three man crew. What would take a 3-man powered crew about 3-4 hours to accomplish would take a non-powered crew of 10-14 a week or more. Since large volunteer work crews are best accomplished by the PCTA or other state hiking clubs, keeping a non-automated restriction works to the benefit of the organization.
Yet, one may ask about the environmentally friendlier choice? With a large crew using nothing but handsaws and manual weedwackers, there is a far greater distraction to hikers from large crews on the trail, and the recruitment of crews usually cannot occur expeditiously, so that major blow-downs (logs across the trail) may take months or years to remove, and in the interim, destructive detours are created by hikers wending their way across the trail obstruction. Some hikers may complain about the noise of a chainsaw, yet that noise is brief compared to the noise of a large crew spending many days on the trail, with the noise of axes, hammers and lumber saw blades constantly grinding. I find also that those who complain about trail maintenance NOT being completely “natural” are the least likely to volunteer for trail maintenance. So, the Wilderness Act needs to be rewritten to allow the limited use of powered tools to maintain trails. With the PCTA operating largely in personal survival mode, its servant status is lost and the fallacious arguments regarding environmental concerns that it uses to defent itself is easily countered.
There are several other issues regarding trail maintenance where I think the PCTA has been deficit. First is the issue of campsites. The PCTA in general seems to frown on dispersed camping and for good reason. Yet, simple math tells a different story. A hiker will average 15-25 miles per day. The PCTA permit system allows for 50 people a day starting the trail. Not all permit holders will be starting at their designated time, and for the most part, other hikers will also be on the trail, which means that at peak seasons there will be between 40-80 hikers per day at a time on each 20 mile segment of trail. These 60 or so people will hike roughly 20 miles each day and set up camp. Thus, for each 15-20 miles, there needs to aveage camp sites for roughly 50-60 tents. There are VERY FEW 20 mile stretches of trail that would allow for 50+ tents. Thus, there is either massive amounts of dispersed camping, or perhaps there are far fewer than 50 people per day on the trail? Fact: planned and built campsites are actually much less destructive of the habitat than dispersed camping, and why the PCTA doesn’t see this as a problem and seek a solution is a mystery to me.
Second is the issue of water supply in the desert. There are several places on the trail where a hiker would be in trouble is there wasn’t a cache of water. These stretches of the trail would be nigh to unhikable by conventional means without a cached water supply. Examples include the gate 3 cache, water at Mike’s Place and Mary’s Place, three caches between Lander’s Meadow and Walker Pass, and the cache 22 on the Hat Creek Rim. I am told that perhaps the PCTA helps sponsor these caches? I don’t know. The PCTA is quite critical of people leaving cached water for all comers on the trail. The PCTA needs to be less duplicious on trail water caches. Considering that the water caches are necessary for the bulk of thru-hikers on the trail, why isn’t the PCTA more forthright about it and take seriously that trail safety necessitates the maintenance of at least a few of these water caches? Does the PCTA know the segments of the trail where water supply becomes a true safety issue? What are they doing about it? It’s just another mystery to me.
I’ve noticed that the culture of people who hike the trail has changed. Traditionally, a person would dream about the prospect of thru-hiking the PCT, knowing that it would take up about a half year to do. They would quit or take leave of their occupation, hike the trail, and then return to normal life. Some would do the trail after completing school or other education with the intention of returning to work after the hike is completed. Nowadays, it seems like a greater and increasing proportion of hikers are the permanently unemployed, self-identified hiker trash that spends their life on the trail. Their role-models are people like Heather Anderson, Yogi, and Billy-Goat, whose entire identity is with that of the trail. In addition, social media has allowed for increased communication between hikers and others. Facebook is a prime example, with multiple PCT and trail angel pages. The use (and need) for trail angels has always existed, but has gone up precipitously. I served as a trail angel several years and found it enjoyable though exhausting. My wife and I have developed a number of friends that I first met while on the trail who we were able to act as a trail angel. Now that we live further from the trail, such activity is no longer possible. Yet, I have no problem with trail angels. It’s just that hikers have spent less time planning and organizing their trip, forcing an increased dependency on the outside community including that of trail angels. All in all, the presence of trail angels has been both a blessing and curse for the hiking community. So, what do trail angels have to do with the PCTA organization? The PCTA offers a short web page offering advice for potential trail angels and caution for hikers seeking their assistance. Yet, their advice is moderately displaced. The PCTA realizes how many trail angels have created their own trail culture (Frodo and Scott, Hiker Heaven, Casa del Luna, etc.) though many of these trail angels have become temporary fixtures and when they retire from trail angeling leave serious voids. I would hope that the PCTA realize that trail angeling is a part of their problem and working out a better system would be in order. How does one handle the disappearance of Mary’s place now that she is shutting down? Where does one camp? Where does one get water in that stretch of the trail? Ziggy Bear, the Saufleys (Hiker Heaven), the Andersons (Casa del Luna), Dinsmore’s Retreat and more have all come and gone, while momentarily defining the PCT hiking experience. Meanwhile, the PCTA acts almost as though they never existed. The PCTA webpage discourages trail angels that operate shuttles from charging money for their services, yet their services would not exist if they couldn’t ask even reimbursement for gas. Trail angels being such a vital part of the PCT culture, it is surprising that the PCTA hasn’t expressed more interest in organizing trail angeling into a cohesive group.
Ultimately, the issue with so many organizations is that of a power struggle. When a volunteer/charitable organization becomes heavily financed by the government, the character of that organization usually changes for the worse. Being bound by a governmental agency, the organization ceases to be a volunteer organization and becomes a political monster. As a political agency, true care for the PCT diminishes and political power increases. You are told that it is for your own good, yet the increasingly impersonal approach of the PCTA leaves one seriously wondering.
What do we do about the PCTA? At the present time, it is a necessary evil. If you wish to do hiking that includes PCT in the high Sierra, one has no choice but to apply for a trail permit. The PCTA provides information on trail closures, but rarely offers alternatives for those who wish to complete the full 2650+ miles of the trail. Most trail information I obtained from sources such as www.postholer.com, www.halfwayanywhere.com/blog/ for suggestions on the best trail gear and trail strategies, or Yogi’s guidebook for resupply town information, to name a few. The PCTA does a few things well. They are good at organizing trail maintenance. They are keen on watching for when trail access becomes problematic secondary to private interests. Their PCT Days event is enjoyable. They make a PCT photo book that is good for the coffee table. Sadly, their strengths don’t make up for their weaknesses. Until the PCTA wakes up and realizes that they are just as detrimental as good for the PCT, we may only expect the PCTA to become ever more control oriented, rather than seeking a way to maximize the pleasure of the trail for all.
Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, by GK Beale, with David Campbell ★★★★
By now, I have read many books related to the interpretation of the book of Revelation. The first books were written by Hal Lindsey, and formed my early impressions of the book of Revelation. Lindsey has a framework of Dispensational Premillennialism. I found the dispensational interpretation to be rather far-flung as it seemed to create more interpretative problems than solutions, which explains why Hal needed to offer revised versions every few years. Ultimately, with the help of the “Four Views” books and input from John Gerstner, I tended to lean toward an amillennial stance. The one post-millennial text that I read, When the Man Comes Around by Doug Wilson competed with Hal Lindsey in its weak interpretive base and was about as awful as Hal Lindsey’s colorful books. The book that affected me the most, Hendrickson’s More than Conquerors became my definitive favorite.
This book, based on a much larger commentary of Revelation by Beale and reduced to its essential elements by David Campbell, is an excellent text based on an amillennial perspective. It was still a rather lengthy text of over 500 pages. Its strengths and weaknesses will be discussed.
Strengths 1. Good orientation, showing how the book of Revelation has more quotes and allusions to the Old Testament than the entirety of the remainder of the New Testament. Thus, a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament is mandatory to grasp the many images described in Revelation. 2. Beale reflects on the overall theme of the book of Revelation, which is that Christians faithful to God’s word will eventually come out as the victors, even in death. 3. It does not dwell too heavily in speculations regarding interpretations of the imagery found in Revelation. 4. It is faithful to a solid amillennial (which Beale calls the Redemptive Historical Idealist) view of Revelation. This is probably a good renaming, since even amillennialists believe in the millennium, just not the way in which pre-millennial or post-millennial folk would tend to think. 5. Each short section of the book ends with a segment discussing applications and things to reflect on. After all, the idealist view contends that Revelation is a book that discusses the whole of the Christian era from the advent of Christ to his second coming. There is no dispensational bungee-jumping Jesus who returns to earth a minimum of three times. If Revelation is talking about the present age, then it would be exceedingly applicable, which is probably why John includes blessings to those who read and hear the book.
Weaknesses 1. Beale seems to be quite aggressive in interpreting all of the imagery in Revelation as being allegorical. I’m not sure that’s safe. It is possible that many images are real but interpreted by John’s best ability to describe the image in terms of what was known in AD 96. Perhaps the imagery has both a real and allegorical face to it. I don’t know. Safety suggests caution in assigning selective passages to be allegorical and other passages as literal based on one’s preconceived notion of Revelation’s interpretation. 2. Beale is great at pointing out the trees but weak at pointing out the forest, in that he spends minimal time rendering a big picture to Revelation. For that, Hendrickson’s text is much better. Any commentary on Revelation needs to focus on both aspects of the book. Where is John going with the text of the book? How do you put together the repeated narratives of the whole of the Christian era (according to Hendrickson, seven repeats!)? 3. Beale is very restrictive at discussing alternate views of interpretation. 4. Though Beale notes 13 other commentaries on Revelation that he used in his studies, about the only other text that he quotes is that of Richard Bauckham (actually, two books that he wrote) and rarely refers to other Christian texts that maintain an idealist (amillennial) scheme of interpretation. Perhaps his full commentary addressed some of my criticisms, though I will not be reading his magnum opus on Revelation (life is too short for me).
This is a text that I thoroughly enjoyed reading, even with the noted weaknesses.
Leisure: The Basis of Culture (Including The Philosophical Act), by Josef Pieper ★★★★★
This book was a gift from an old friend, Dane Waterman. We had been discussing how Carlo Lancellotti had translated into English and made the English-speaking world aware of the writings and thought of Del Noce. Pieper, writing from Germany and somewhat contemporary to Del Noce, reflects similar thoughts. Their thesis relates to demonstration as to how Marxism and liberal thinking is presenting an alternative “gospel”. This is especially poignant as Pieper and Del Noce, both being Roman Catholic, passed away before a truly Marxist pope (the current pope) was installed.
The text is divided into two sections, the first being the topic of leisure, and the second section is a discussion of the philosophical act. The two lectures are complementary. In the first section, leisure is defined and developed as an essential part of society. Clearly, leisure is not “labor” to speak of, but is also is NOT laziness or idleness. Leisure (in Pieper’s sphere) is not the act of going on vacation or of watching a good movie. Leisure entails the act of contemplation, meditation, silence, and reflective conversations. Such activity is vital for a society that wishes to sell itself as a free and open society, but is also contrary to the ideology of Marxism. A phrase that I was taught as a child “Arbeit macht das Leben suß” (work makes life sweet) is prevalent in German culture, yet even there, the rise of poets, philosophers, and theologians more than answers how a Christian-based society grasps the need for leisure.
The second section of the book addresses the issue of philosophers. Why do we need them? What do they do? What does it mean to be a philosopher? All of these questions are answered in an oblique style fitting for a philosopher. Is this nothing but an example of Pieper in the act of self-justification? I don’t think so. This section was a bit muddier and not an easy task for me to read, though the final pages demonstrated a wonderful ending. The ultimate end of philosophy is that of identification with Scripture, which allows us the ability to know. Perhaps it might be said that all theologians are philosophers, though their focus is different. It might also be said that all people are philosophers, as we all develop and maintain a personal Weltanschauung, which affects the totality of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors.
I have one concern regarding this book, and would have loved to engage Josef Pieper in a challenge. He begins with the challenge of the great Greek philosophers from Thales to Aristotle. I certainly enjoy reading the classics of philosophy. Yet, Clement of Alexandria and other 2nd century Christian writers were quick to note that that the Greeks were plagiarists, and reflected thinking that existed well before their time, in the writings of Moses and the Old Testament. Thus, as Cornelius VanTil has repeatedly argued, and philosophical starting point of necessity must be Scripture. You cannot get to Scripture by pure reason starting with a tabula rasa. Pieper’s argument could have been much stronger by having his arguments originate in Scripture, rather than by originating through reason in the human mind and ending up in Scripture. This mistake is plentiful not just with the Roman Catholics, but also with the Protestants and Orthodox brands of the Christian faith.
Why read the Roman Catholics? Simply stated, because many of them are Christians just like the Protestants and Orthodox folk out there. It was John Zmirak (see his website at https://stream.org), a devout Catholic, who noted that he was praying for Pope Francis’ salvation. I could say the same thing for many well-known Protestants out there, such as with Tim Keller, Francis Collins, etc. About 30 years ago, an old teacher of mine, JI Packer, was dismissed from the Ligonier Ministry conferences by RC Sproul since he signed a statement encouraging Evangelicals and Catholics to engage in discussion. I totally agree with Packer, and feel that Protestantism is at a loss for not seeing how others think about philosophical and biblical issues from a slightly different slant. My personal denomination (the PCA, of which RC Sproul was a member) is diminished through failure to communicate with the entire body of the Christian church. Packer did not find that rapport with the RC community diminished his theology or message. Neither should we.
So, even with my disagreements with Pieper, I was able to find many gems in this small tome. A great book is not necessarily a book you totally agree with, but with a book that is able to stir your thoughts and to force you into that delightful activity that we call leisure. And my thanks to Dane and Bernadette for giving me this book.
Lessons from the Upper Room: The Heart of the Savior, by Sinclair Ferguson ★★★
This book being used for the Saturday morning men’s book reading group at church. I’ve been unable to make a number of the meetings, so decided to finish reading the book and going on from there.
Sinclair Ferguson provides an expositional devotional to the upper room discourse of Jesus, as found in John 13 to 17. The book is broken up into 13 chapters, each chapter offering a vignette of the upper room discourse. Ferguson is most capable of pointing out gems that may be found in these five chapters. As a devotional book, it is a wonderful text to read.
The Origin of Paul’s Religion: A Classic Defense of Supernatural Christianity, by J. Gresham Machen ★★★★★
JG Machen was a seminal individual in conservative Presbyterian circles defending against the progressive liberalization of the church. This text is one of his arguments against attempts to turn the apostle Paul into a fabricated character of the liberal scholar. Liberal scholarship in the late 19th century and 20th century, mostly from Germany, have attempted to remove the miraculous from the life of Paul, and turn him into a product of various political and religious influences. This book originated as a series of talks given by Machen.
Machen first introduces the problem. Attempts have been made to explain away the phenomenon of Paul, his conversion, and his ministry. A lengthy introduction describes the problem at hand. Machen then discusses the early life of Paul. Notably, Paul was born and grew up in the dispersion (Tarsus), but claims that he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, suggesting that even though he probably learned Greek early in life, his life and language were Hebrew. Being a strict Pharisaical Jew, he clearly would have been adverse to the pagan and liberal influences strongly present at the time of his childhood. In the chapter titled “The Triumph of Gentile Freedom”, Machen explores Paul’s interactions with the church leadership in Jerusalem. Machen notes that while liberal theologians would love to paint a scene of severe disagreements between Paul and the 11 apostles as well as with James and other Jerusalem church leadership, close examination shows that such was not the case, and that there tended to be mutual appreciation for the theologies of Paul and the Jerusalem church. The chapter that follows, “Paul and Jesus” looks further into the congruence between Paul’s theology and that as found in the words of Jesus. The point is that Paul, though he probably never met Jesus face-to-face, was able to obtain detailed information about Christ’s life, even beyond what is found in the four gospels.
Machen then takes on challenges from the liberals who attempted to reduce Paul to a product of either Jewish sources or pagan sources. In the course of three chapters, Machen is able to demonstrate adequately that such suggestions are completely out of touch with what we know about Judaism and paganism in the 1st century of the church. Finally, Machen addresses the issue of Jesus being called “Lord”, which in ancient times was synonymous with calling Jesus God.
This book was a delightful tome to read. I enjoy Machen’s thought processes and how he is able to cut down the liberal arguments with simply logic and presentation of the facts. It is a pity that more theologians today are not defending the historic faith as Machen did; they seem to desire more the ability to maintain “status” among the academic liberals rather than to fearlessly fight for the truth. The Origin of Paul’s Religion is not a book meant for anybody to read. Those who enjoy a first-class theological discussion of the defense of historic Christianity will be amply served with this book.
Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam, by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera ★★★★
This book consists of simultaneous lectures given in Rome by Joseph Ratzinger (soon after changing his name to Pope Benedict XVI) and Marcello Pera, president of the senate of Italy and philosophy professor. This is followed by a commentary letter from Pera to Ratzinger and a return letter from Ratzinger to Pera.
Pera’s speech is given first. In it, he comments on the identity crisis of the west, being faced with relativism from Islam, contextualists, deconstructionists, and even within the church. With the loss of identity and ability to value older Christian tradition, and with the loss of belief in truth, the west has been left without a legitimization for its own existence.
Ratzinger follows. Europe, according to Ratzinger, is entirely a product of Christian civilization, and for which they were intimately intertwined. Christianity essentially defined Europe and its culture, that is, until quite recently.
Pera responds with a letter addressing Ratzinger’s talk, and Ratzinger responds in kind with a letter. Both letters were complementary, and relates to Europe’s abandonment of its Christian roots. Pera focuses on political aspects of Europe, debating why Europe is unable to construct a unified constitution, and exploring the relationship between the secular and Christian Europe. Indeed, as Europe sees Christianity as an expired and judgmental notion, Europe also enters into what Pera terms self-hate, but I think that self-loathing is probably a better description of what is going on in Europe. Pera’s discussion becomes muddied. He describes the continual state of war in Europe (and the world) as normative, and thus to not think of war as intrinsically evil. This is misguided, since many evils are normative in this world. The Catholics do have the doctrine of original sin! Pera advocates for a non-denominational Christian religion. Ratzinger takes the discussion from here, agonizing over the division of Christianity in Europe following the Reformation. He suggested (in 2004 when the book was written) that America was doing a much better job with maintaining Christianity in the public square. If Ratzinger were alive today, I think he would take back most of his remarks. Ratzinger astutely notes “Statistics tell us that the more churches adapt themselves to the standards of secularization, the more followers they lose”. Ratzinger offers reflections on how Christianity could be in a non-denominational manner more present in the public square. This is an issue that will foster debate and discussion in both Europe as well as the now deeply secular United States of America.
I always appreciate reading Ratzinger/Benedict. He had a strong conservative Christian mindset, and displays how the Roman Catholic church still has elements of conservatism, and still has the same battles as the Protestants in fighting against secularism, relativism, invasion of other cultures (esp. Islam), and abandonment of the concept of truth. This exchange between Pera and Ratzinger supports JI Packer’s thesis of the value of maintaining rapport between conservative Catholics and Protestants. Both sides have great thinkers who would serve better if they would engage in talk with each other.
I have only one objection to Ratzinger, which probably is more of a misconception on my part of his thinking. After reading his book describing the lives of the patristic fathers, he comments fairly harshly on Tertullian for his separatist behavior, yet is kind to Origin in spite of his wild speculative theology. This attitude probably affected his thinking of modern separatists (the Reformation Protestant movement) who, like Tertullian, sought to bring corrective measures to the church. Ratzinger ignores the huge influence Tertullian has had on the Roman Catholic (western) church. This sort of thinking will only do harm to his efforts to usher in a “non-denominational” Christianity in Europe, as it paints the Roman church in a hierarchically superior position to Protestantism. Perhaps that is true. Yet, Ratzinger in his writings assiduously avoids mentioning the sins and faults of the Roman church, including its current idolatries, heterogeneity, and secularism that pervades much of the church. This thinking does damage to the thesis of an otherwise quite remarkable person.
Without Roots can be read in several evenings. Protestants need to accept that many in the Catholic church are probably closer to their thinking than fellow liberal Protestants which promote the elevation of the self to god-like status. Without Roots was a worthwhile read, though I’d be selective with whom I’d also recommend the book.
The Christian View of Man, by J. Gresham Machen ★★★★★
This book was published posthumously, representing a series of radio talks that JG Machen gave before his untimely death. It was originally published in 1937, and this is a Banner of Truth reprint obtained from Amazon.
JG Machen is a true giant of the faith. As a scholar, he studied in Germany under the liberal theologians of the time, later leading the charge against the liberalism that was destroying the Presbyterian church. The warnings and cautions issued by Machen in this text are certainly more relevant today than when he gave his talks. He anticipated the degeneration of society and labeled the root cause as that of the public losing faith in God. He anticipated the development of nuclear energy and the destructive uses that might be forthcoming from that. Machen was very prophetic in anticipating the results of casting God out of the schools and out of government.
This text might better be titled Anthropology 101. In this set of 20 radio talks, Machen explores the theology of who man is, God’s providence over man, the creation and fall of man, our response to God as fallen sinners, original sin, and how God saves us. Machen speaks (writes) in a very simple fashion that almost anybody could understand, yet covers some very complex deep topics that could open a wealth of discussion and reflection. This is truly solid, hard-core theology delivered with the intention of having academic theology affect the practical aspects of life. In this, Machen is completely successful.
The book is highly recommended by me for any Christian serious about his faith. This might have been perhaps my second time through the book, having read it 20-30 years ago. I don’t really remember, but then, it’s a book worth reading twice. It can be easily read over the course of 2 or 3 evenings.