Since much of what I do as a student is read, I thought you might be interested in what I’ve had my nose buried in these last 29 days. Although I read a lot of excerpts and articles, I’ll just list here those books that I read from beginning to end. (not those I read from end to beginning, which was none. This month.)
1. Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George Marsden
Mary gave me this one for Christmas, and fortuitously I was able to read it for my class, “The Christian Pastor in Historical Perspective.” I tried to read a different biography of Edwards a few years ago, and I must admit that I got just under halfway through before I was too bored to continue. I thought at the time, “How interesting can reading about a guy’s life possibly be if he spends 13 hours a day in his study?” After reading Marsden’s book, my answer to that question is, “Extremely, if the right person is writing about him.” Marsden does a wonderful job of setting Edwards in his 18th century context: as a Puritan, as an early American, as a revivalist, as a theologian, and as an intellectual with his finger on the pulse of the thinking of his day. While it paints a sympathetic portrait, it is by no means hagiographical. Edwards had faults, but he is worth reading about if for no other reason than to learn about the influence he had on religion in the United States.
2. The Search for Christian America by Marsden, Mark Noll and Nathan Hatch.
This book, by the Super Friends of American Christian historians, was originally written in 1983 and was revised in 1989. I wanted to take a look at it because I am going to write a church history paper on the much-debated topic of the role that Christianity played in the founding of the United States. It was a fun read, because it was an argument directed against Christians who believe that the U.S. was founded as a “Christian nation” that ought to be recovered. Lengthy arguments directed against specific persons and groups are often fun to read – though I should point out that Marsden, Noll and Hatch are not mean-spirited or condescending in the least. Here is a quote:
It is historically inaccurate and anachronistic to confuse, and virtually to equate, the thinking of the Declaration of Independence with a biblical world view, or with Reformation thinking, or with the idea of a Christian nation. In other words it is wrong to call for a return to “Christian America” on two counts: First, for theological reasons – because since the time of Christ there is no such thing as God’s chosen nation; second, for historical reasons, as we have seen – because it is historically incorrect to regard the founding of America and the formulation of the founding documents as being Christian in their origins.
3. Thirsty for God by Bradley P. Holt.
This I read for my Christian Spirit class – a historical overview of Christian spirituality. Overall, I thought it was quite good. My favorite part was that at the end of each chapter, Holt included spiritual practices that were related to the people and movements discussed in the chapter. For example, in a chapter when he talked about medieval Orthodox spirituality and the impact of St. Francis, he gave suggestions about how to pray the Jesus Prayer (important for Orthodox spirituality) and how to practice simplicity (important to Francis) in our own day. One thing that I was surprised by was the fact that Holt inserted his own thoughts and opinions rather a lot, for a book that is meant to be a history. I don’t think that any historian is entirely objective, but some of Holt’s lackings in objectivity made me laugh. Here, for example, is his description of Pope John XXIII: “A fat man who was not ashamed of his body, he exuded goodwill to all.” Wow! Thank you for that!
4. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: From the Reformation to the Present Day by Justo Gonzalez.
This is the textbook for my Church History II class. I don’t envy Gonzalez in his attempt to give an adequate overview of all that has happened in Christianity since the 1500s, but I think he did a good job considering the ground he had to cover. One drawback of the book is that it was published in the mid-80s. So, not only is it missing the last 20-plus years of Christian history, it looks “to the future” by focusing on what was going on in the mid-80s and extending it. He thus misses out on those developments in the last 20-plus years that couldn’t be predicted, but of course he can’t be faulted for that.