For many Western Christians, Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ironically, calling Orthodoxy mysterious would be a kind of compliment, for mystery permeates Orthodox theology and practice. As John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* (Yale University Press, 2020; source: publisher), puts it, Orthodoxy “can be summed up in four simple words that can hardly be exegeted: the Mystery of Christ” (32). That this phrase cannot easily “be exegeted” emphasizes the mystery element of Orthodox faith in Christ and makes it all the harder to describe this concept in simple terms. Yet McGuckin does seek to explain the phenomenon of Eastern Orthodoxy in this new book.
The story of the American Indians is an important story. It
is too often neglected—perhaps because we gravitate toward the triumphalism of
American power and progress. It is hard to tell—perhaps because of the death,
sorrow, and injustice that mark it. And it is hard to tell well—perhaps because
the narrative often reflects the values of the age in which it is told more
than the actual story.
Jennifer Graber—Gwyn Shive, Anita Nordan Lindsay, and Joe and Cherry Gray Professor in the History of Christianity at the University of Texas at Austin—has made a contribution to this story through her book The Gods of Indian Country: Religion and the Struggle for the American West* (Oxford University Press, 2018; source: publisher). What makes her book stand out among histories of the American West is its attention to religious elements in the long nineteenth-century narrative of white-Indian encounter, struggle, and settlement.
C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters* (1942), describes how history has been devalued in the modern age. The notorious Screwtape, a master demon writing to his younger protégé Wormwood, says this about the intellectual climate in Western Europe:
Only the learned read old books, and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.”
History is notoriously filled with names and dates—details
that leave some students in tears as they approach exams. These names and
dates, the historian comes to know, serve quite helpful purposes though. Names
identify people and their relationships with other people, and dates locate
events and publications on a continuum. Both lend support in understanding the
meaning of historical events and analyzing trends and the reasons for change.
Another key identifier in the study of history is geographical location. Visualizing where events took place in history and the relationship of people living in one place with those living in another is essential to understanding the flow of history and exploring why some changes occur in one place and not another. One resource that helps students of history visualize the places of church history is Tim Dowley’s Atlas of Christian History* (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), which features the work of cartographer Nick Rowland.
The belief that all people have the right to pursue
happiness is enshrined by the founders of the United States in the annals of American
history and has been embraced as a way of life by their posterity. But
Americans have no corner on the market of pursuing happiness; the belief is
imprinted on the heart of every human. We all naturally seek our own happiness.
Of course, the ideal of happiness looks very different from
one person’s mind to the next, which explains the wide variety of human
experiences in the world. Some believe they will find happiness in indulgence,
others in restraint; some believe they will find happiness in wealth
accumulation, others in vows of poverty. And there are many shades of thinking
To be sure, the pursuit of happiness is no modern invention.
That is not to deny that cultures have differed over who they believe should have
the right to obtain happiness, but that doesn’t negate the inborn human desire
to obtain it. And long before Thomas Jefferson put the words “life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness” to paper, people like Augustine were reflecting
on what it means to be happy.
Augustine explores what happiness looks like in his book On the Happy Life,* translated by Michael P. Foley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019; source: publisher). This is the second book in the four Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students, friends, and family that took place after Augustine’s conversion but before his baptism. I reviewed the first of these dialogues, Against the Academics*, elsewhere on this blog.
When I opened the Amazon app on my phone recently, I ran
across this headline: “All you need to get holiday ready.”
Reading over that statement, my mind immediately moves to
the food, the gifts, the decorations, the home prep. And of course, Amazon has
asserted itself as a provider of all these things. I have benefited from
Amazon’s fast delivery system. I’m a Prime user. And I even have an affiliate
account set up with Amazon, linking to their website from this blog, which is a
good place to point readers to for a resource I discuss here (even as it can potentially
provide some affiliate fees for me). So the benefits of Amazon are not lost on
I do worry about its size and increasing power. And part of
the reason is that its philosophy of life conflicts with that given us by
Christ. In the Age of Amazon, we are hard pressed to escape the philosophy it
offers us—a world in which we can have so much at our fingertips, from
entertainment to unending possessions. And in this we are to find happiness (at
least, most of the people I see on Amazon’s website look happy).
And that brings me back to the holiday headline. Something
subtle lurks in this statement. “Holiday ready” for Amazon revolves around the
material world: I can be holiday ready if I buy enough material items.
When one thinks of the Dutch churchman Abraham Kuyper, one likely thinks of his most cited quotation: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (8). This powerful statement is a challenge to anyone who wants to be in control of some part of his or her life—which, of course, is everyone. It also captures a driving theme in Kuyper’s life: sphere sovereignty. The idea that Jesus is Lord of every sphere reorients humans in all areas of life, and Kuyper untiringly devoted his life to seeing how Christ’s sovereignty could be applied to every sphere of human existence.
Michael R. Wagenman explores these themes in his book Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper* (Lexham, 2019). This is one of the first books in a new series by Lexham Press called Lived Theology. Michael A. G. Haykin, who writes the series preface, is presumably the series editor, though he is not explicitly identified as such. According to Haykin, the series is meant to put flesh and bones on theological convictions, showing how beliefs about the Christian God have led people to live out their faith in diverse contexts. The series seeks to introduce readers to well-known and lesser-known figures in church history through accessible books, all with this goal in mind:
I enjoy reading close studies of particular figures and periods in church history. When well researched and well crafted, they are often rich with illuminating detail. But I also find it valuable to read broad surveys of the Christian story. Such volumes are difficult to pull off because they require enough knowledge of so many different eras for one to select fair and representative figures to show the story’s development. Yet again, when done well, such volumes can provide macrolevel clarity that otherwise gets lost in the proverbial trees.
In this vein, I recently read Martin Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: Modern Library, 2007). I had dipped into parts of it before, but I wanted to read through the whole volume front to back. Marty is a highly respected church historian, and he packs his rendering of Christian history into a remarkably short 236 pages, making it one of the shorter and more accessible books on the full spectrum of church history available today.
Augustine of Hippo is known as one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. His Confessions continues to stand as one of the most influential works in Western culture and literature. It is in The Confessions that we follow Augustine’s remarkable journey seeking meaning, fulfillment, and truth, in which he explores pleasure and the religious ways of the Manichaeans but turns ultimately to the triune God of Christianity.
Augustine would go on to become a key leader in the church
of his day and to bequeath a massive corpus of Christian writings to the church.
Some of his less known and less read volumes are the Cassiciacum dialogues, a
series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students and
friends that were written down for publication. The dialogues took place after
Augustine converted to Christianity yet before he was baptized, and thus, in
the Cassiciacum dialogues, we get a rare glimpse of a thirty-two-year-old Augustine—before
he was “of Hippo,” before he was great, and before he was a professional
Of the sixteenth-century Reformers, John Knox (1514/1515–1572) is known as a fiery soul. Though he called John Calvin’s Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ,” he and Calvin were quite different in terms of dispositions, gifts, and callings. Despite a number of differences, they saw themselves as colaborers in the Reformation, and while Calvin is the better known Reformer, largely owing to his voluminous writings, Knox nonetheless made his own lasting impact on the Reformation as it developed in Scotland and England and beyond.
Jane Dawson offers a critical biography of Knox in her book simply titled John Knox (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015). A professor of Reformation history at the University of Edinburgh, Dawson aims to dispel the notion of Knox as “the dour Scottish Reformer” and reveal, partly through the use of some more recently discovered sources, “the many different shades within Knox’s character that make this complex man such a fascinating subject” (4). Dawson also seeks not only to give a “fresh and more nuanced account of Knox’s life” but also to illuminate readers on the Reformation in Scotland, England, and parts of Europe as it intersected with his journeys. What follows are some key themes and insights from Dawson’s book about Knox.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of working with Doug Sweeney in putting together a new multicontributor volume on Edwards and the Bible, and I’m pleased to say that the book is now available. The volume is titled Jonathan Edwards and Scripture: Biblical Exegesis in British North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), and it includes contributions from a number of Edwards scholars who have helped further the conversation on this important topic.
The book builds on the work that Sweeney, especially, has done over many years in the form of lectures, articles, and books, culminating in his Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2015)—see my review of it here. It also furthers some of my research on Edwards, particularly in my book Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014).
To give you a taste of this new volume, here’s an excerpt from my introduction to the book:
We rightly remember Augustine as a renowned theologian and intellectual genius. He bequeathed to us a corpus that has shaped the foundations of the Western church. Works like The City of God and On the Trinity underscore his brilliance, and of course, his best-known work, Confessions, has resonated with readers in their personal experience for centuries.
It is also important to recall that this same Augustine was not an ivory-tower theologian or isolated writer disconnected from the day-to-day life of the people in Hippo. He was indeed a churchman, a priest who devoted years of his life to serving those under his care. And Augustine’s Instructing Beginners in the Faith (or De catechizandis rudibus) gives us a picture of this Augustine, a man who cared deeply about people coming to faith and doing the work of instruction that God might use to help bring them to that point. I want to highlight three aspects of the book here: the person of Augustine, his instruction in the art of teaching, and his emphasis on salvation history.
When thinking of the colonial period in American history, many commonly known stories and people likely come to mind, from Jamestown and the Pilgrims to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay and the wars with the Indians to the Great Awakening and the colonial resistance to British rule. Yet the American colonial period is rich with all kinds of stories that often fail to get much attention: the West, the backcountry, slaves, women. Thomas Kidd’s American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016) treats readers to a full smorgasbord of early American historical fare, retelling the commonly known stories (with rich details and some corrections) and also enriching our understanding of the colonial period with narratives of the lesser known but equally important people from the time.
Twenty years ago, Jill Lepore wrote a book on King Philip’s War that received the prestigious Bancroft Prize: The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (Vintage Books, 1998). In her volume, Lepore treats this little-remembered but pivotal war in colonial America from the angle of language. The book still has value today, speaking as it does to both the acts and the annals of war, to both the perpetration of war and the perpetuation of its memory. At the same time, it also raises some questions about historical methodology that warrant consideration.
“Portrait of Benjamin Franklin,” by Joseph Duplessis, ca. 1785 (public domain), National Portrait Gallery, Washington
One engaging way to get a taste of eighteenth-century America is to read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (You can buy countless editions on Amazon, or you can read it online for free at the Project Gutenberg website.) The Bostonian-turned-Philadelphia-printer is a classic story of a young working-class man who makes something of himself through hard work and industry.
In the Autobiography, one can discover much about British colonial America, from the dynamics of the economy and the dependence of the colonies on Great Britain to the politics of colonial life and the ongoing threat and reality of war in America. Franklin’s life touched on all kinds of issues in his day, making this primary source a valuable read. As one would expect, it also wades into questions of religion.