By Jonathon Van Maren
A few people have asked me to write a bit more on the books I’m reading lately, and so I figured I’d write a very short article on a few I’ve read lately. I try to read a couple of books a week, and I usually read around five at the same time (different topics and genres) so that if I’m not in the mood for one, I can just switch to a different one before doubling back. I know that strategy doesn’t work for most people, but it works well for me. The result is that there’s books laying around all over the house, which I’ll have to stop doing once my daughter starts crawling and starts chewing on things. In the meantime, here are a few really excellent non-fiction books I read over the past months—besides the many books I’ve already reviewed in this space. I’ve also recently re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, and finished Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities for the first time, but I’ll leave any fiction reviews for a later post.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathanial Philbrick
Philbrick is a great historian—he also wrote In the Heart of the Sea—and he is also scrupulously fair. He traces the journey of the men and women who would become known as the “pilgrims” on their journey from England, to the Netherlands, and back again, and then their final departure for America on the Mayflower. Philbrick takes the religious views of his subjects very seriously—there’s no trace of sneering or mockery as there is with so many other historians these days. The most fascinating figure that emerges is William Bradford, the brilliant and godly governor of the Plymouth Colony, a man who also kept peace between the colonists and the Native Americans for nearly fifty years. Interestingly, tensions were largely avoided and good relations existed until Bradford died and a number of the colonists began to seek expansion and give way to greed, which triggered a series of events that would eventually culminate in Prince Phillip’s War. The second and third generation, who became comfortable and forgot that they had come to America for religious freedom and not for wealth, began to abandon some of the practices that had brought them such an extended peace. At the time, this war was largely perceived as a judgement from God on the colonists for moving away from Him and becoming obsessed with wealth. Bradford probably would have agreed with this. A thoroughly worthwhile book—and if primary sources are your thing, Bradford’s own book (which I picked up at the museum in Plymouth), Plymouth Plantation, is also eminently readable.
George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival by Arnold Dallimore
George Whitefield fundamentally transformed the face of America, but his life and legacy are often forgotten these days. Just prior to the American Revolution, he preached—in churches, open fields, or wherever people would receive him—so extensively in the Colonies that an estimated 80% of the population heard Whitefield preach in person at least once. His preaching resulted in great revivals and a surge of religiosity wherever he went, and his sermons reached thousands of others through the printing press of Whitefield’s friend, Benjamin Franklin. Whitefield’s story is quite exceptional—Dallimore asserts that his voice was so powerful that he reached more people than any other unaided voice in human history—and Dallimore does an excellent job reconstructing Whitefield’s life and his impact on the times he lived in. Dallimore also successfully rescues the great evangelist from the criticisms of devotees of John Wesley, an Arminian revival preacher who often treated Whitefield quite badly, but whose perspective on events has often dominated the narrative. A thoroughly worthwhile read about a man who shaped American history.
House Calls and Hitching Posts: Stories from Dr. Elton Lehman’s Career among the Amish by Dorcas Hoover
I picked this book up simply because Oxford Country, where I live, has many Amish communities. Seeing Amish men forking haystacks onto horse-drawn wagons, buggies trotting down the street, and clusters of little children heading to century-old schoolhouses is pretty normal to see when driving around the county—the Tim Horton’s downtown (which is only two streets) even has a hitching post for Amish horses. The book is billed as a sort of James Herriot-style look at a doctor’s career in Amish country, with heartwarming stories of the people and their lifestyles. The anecdote that stuck out to me, however, came right at the beginning, when the author was attempting to explain why the Amish live the way they do. An Amish historian was giving a lecture at a university, and he asked the 52 scholars who had come to hear him speak how many of them thought that their families would be better off without TV. Slowly but surely, 52 hands crept up. Then, he asked them how many of them, having admitted this, would be getting rid of their TV. Of course, 52 hands crept down again. And that, the Amish historian said, is the difference between the Amish and everyone else—they are actually willing to get rid of anything they think might pose a danger to their community, regardless of how difficult or inconvenient it is. It was food for thought, certainly—with the state of the entertainment industry and rates of Internet porn use soaring over 80%, it’s hard to know which extreme is more rational.
God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark
Stark’s analysis of the Crusades is fascinating because he is attempting not to excuse the brutalities, mass killings, and other horrors that accompanied the various European attempts to repulse the Islamic conquests of the Holy City and surrounding territories. Rather, he is simply attempting to put these events in context, debunking the modern (pseudo-Marxist) idea that our current troubles with various Islamic groups throughout the Middle East are as a result of atrocities perpetrated during the Crusades, and detailing the centuries of Islamic assaults on Christian lands that led up to the Crusades, which Stark characterizes as Christendom striking back. Additionally, he notes that while modern interpretations of the Crusades like to pretend that they were motivated purely by gold and greed, many of the knights and nobles who embarked on these excruciatingly long and difficult journeys willingly went bankrupt to do so. The simple historical fact, says Stark, is that some—if not many–went out of genuine religious devotion. The Crusades have fascinated me since ten years ago, when I spent a day wandering through Crusader fortifications in Acre, through the tunnels and onto the battlements in what is now Israel. It is safe to say that the stories of the Crusades will continue to fascinate many—and Stark’s contribution, which is not a particularly long book, is worth your time.
Lincoln’s Battle with God: A President’s Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America by Stephen Mansfield
I read this book in nearly one sitting, for two reasons. First, Mansfield is an engaging writer and I’ve loved reading his work: The Faith of the American Soldier is a fascinating look at religious convictions on the frontlines of battle, and The Faith of George W. Bush was one of my favorite books on that president. In Lincoln’s Battle with God, Mansfield carefully traces Lincoln’s journey from his upbringing with a harsh father and a godly mother, his early years of skepticism and hostility to religion, brought about by the frontier hucksters he had faced, and his development into the man who would deliver the Second Inaugural Address, which is in my opinion the greatest speech in American history, and often referred to as a “political sermon.” Mansfield movingly examines Lincoln’s depression, and how the deaths of those he loved—his mother, a girl he loved, and two sons—tormented him relentlessly. Visons of rain falling on their graves would give him nightmares and keep him up at night. And it was this man, a man who prayed for hours each morning and who would eventually see his life in the light of divine destiny, who would save the Union. His last words, Mansfield relates, were to his wife—and he was mentioning that he would love to travel to Palestine, and “see those places hallowed by the footsteps of the Saviour.”
Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him by Stephen Mansfield
Mansfield’s latest is an analysis of how Donald Trump, the “pagan brawler,” managed to woo American Christians into voting for him in greater numbers than even the evangelical George W. Bush managed to get. Mansfield delves, fascinatingly, into Trump’s own “prosperity Gospel” beliefs, founded on the preaching of Norman Vincent Peale, his upbringing, and his education. I really came away from the first few chapters with a better sense of who Donald J. Trump actually is, and why he acts the way that he does. Mansfield explains Trump’s worldview of winners and losers, his philosophy of loyalty, and how he sat down with evangelical leaders, listened to their concerns, and made a conscious choice to champion many of their issues. He even relates many stories that I’ve read nowhere else, on how Trump attended churches several times throughout the campaign in order to better understand American Christians of various stripes. This one isn’t a very long read, but it is a very useful read—especially for someone like myself, who had been extremely sceptical of Trump and is pleasantly surprised to see him following through on many of his promises.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here.