Book Review: Basic Christian

John Stott had gradually slipped off the world stage over the last few years. But when he died at the age of 90 this past July, suddenly he became an object of conversation. He was without peer as an evangelical Christian leader in Britain and the world. It is a testament to his talents as a bridge-builder that tributes to him came from all over the world and all over the spectrum of political and religious belief. There was even a tribute from Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. Reading it, I was reminded that David Brooks had said in the same newspaper in 2004 that “if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose.”

This biography by Roger Steer was written in 2009, and was based in part on conversations with Stott and several of his friends. It traces Stott’s life from his early days as the son of a prominent physician, to his days at Cambridge and his decision to become a pastor, to his time as curate and rector of All Souls in London and his rise to international prominence. It gives details about his many travels, his contributions to the evangelical Christian movement and his friendships with other well-known people.

In it, Stott comes across as a man with a gift for friendship, a sharp mind, a sense of humor and a deep commitment to Jesus as Lord of all of life. The book is not afraid to present Stott “warts and all,” but there really aren’t many warts. Despite his gift for friendship, Stott could be reserved. With his great intelligence and disciplined lifestyle, he could sometimes be impatient with those who were more sloppy in their thinking or less disciplined in their living than he was. However, he was a man who was conscious of his faults and humble enough to admit them.

Stott has long been a hero of mine, and this book did nothing to change that. If anything, it made me miss Stott even more. He was able to remain biblically faithful and speak charitably with those whom he disagreed. The latter characteristic is in especially short supply these days, both in the church and the world. I’d recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Stott’s life, especially those who might be intimidated by Timothy Dudley-Smith’s larger two-volume biography.

Book Review: The Floor of Heaven

Most people who know me know that I spent three summers in Skagway, AK, driving tour buses. During that time, I gained a lot of knowledge about the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, during which Skagway became a boomtown. Even now, many signs in Skagway contain the word “Klondike,” even though the actual Klondike is another 400 miles north (a fact which some tourists in Skagway are quite disappointed to learn).

So when I saw Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush this spring, I decided I had to read it. It tells the stories of three men before, during, and after the gold rush: George Carmack, the man who (along with Skookum Jim and Tagish Charley) discovered gold in the Klondike; Soapy Smith, the con man who was the most powerful man in Skagway during the gold rush; and Charlie Siringo, a cowboy who became a Pinkerton detective. Before reading this book, I knew a lot about the first two, but had never heard of the third.

The story starts well before the gold rush, with each chapter focusing on one of the three men. There are chapters on Carmack’s journey from an AWOL marine to a member of the Tagish Nation, Soapy’s growth from a grifter to the head of an organized crime syndicate in several Colorado towns, and Siringo’s various cases as a “cowboy detective.” As the book progresses, the three men’s lives overlap more and more, as when Siringo meets Carmack in Juneau and Smith tries to steal Carmack’s gold.

Blum has clearly done his research, and has invested a lot of effort in telling a tale that sustains interest, even for someone who has heard part of the story before. There was only one point, late in the book, where it seemed Blum made a mistake. He writes that when Carmack brought his gold out of the Klondike, he and Siringo “crossed the Chilkoot summit and began their descent into American territory.” Two sentences later, he writes that they had left Bonanza Creek (in the Klondike) “earlier on that June morning.” There is no way they could have traveled 400 miles in less than a day. Also, Blum writes that they took a string of packhorses over the Chilkoot. But in all that I have read about the gold rush, the Chilkoot was too steep for pack animals. Something about how Blum tells this part of the story doesn’t make sense.

Aside from that, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read an engaging book about an exciting period in US and Canadian history.

Book Review: Hitchhiker

Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas AdamsHitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams by M.J. Simpson

I’ve enjoyed Douglas Adams’s books for a long time. When I was young, my parents put into my hands all four (at the time) volumes of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and even Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and I devoured them. I have always been impressed with Adams’s humor, intelligence and imagination.

This biography was an informative book, but definitely more for a British audience than for an American one. I knew a few of the big names mentioned in the book (like the members of Monty Python and two members of Pink Floyd, who were just a few of Adams’s many famous friends), but there were many that I didn’t know. There is a name glossary in the back that I referred to from time to time, but despite that I found that the frequent occurrence of names I didn’t know made the text hard to follow in places. A positive point about the book was that the author was able to get to the truth behind several of Adams’s oft-repeated (and slightly inaccurate) anecdotes. A negative is that I felt like I was being dragged through an interminable succession of this-happened-then-this-happened. I would have appreciated being given more insight into Adams’s writing, aside from the fact (well-documented in Hitchhiker) that he persistently and artfully avoided doing it as much as possible.

Book Review: Defiant Joy

I have been a fan of G.K. Chesterton ever since I picked up a copy of Orthodoxy while I was in college. Since then, I’ve read several books by or about him, including The Man Who Was Thursday, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Joseph Pearce’s biography Wisdom and Innocence, Garry Wills’s literary study, and several of the Father Brown stories.

It was with excitement and a little trepidation, then, that I picked up Kevin Belmonte’s book Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton. “After all,” I thought, “What can be said about Chesterton that hasn’t already been said?

The answer I got from this book was: not much. But that isn’t a criticism of the book. The book is intended as an invitation to Chesterton, not an exhaustive biography. If the reader keeps that aim in mind, this book will not disappoint. Belmonte devotes chapters to several of Chesterton’s most famous works (the ones mentioned above, plus several others), quoting extensively from the works themselves as well as reviews. Belmonte seems particularly interested to show how Chesterton was received in the United States, as he quotes from several reviews run by the New York Times.

Belmonte does a good, if unspectacular, job in this overview of and invitation to Chesterton. He makes the case that Chesterton has something to say to our own age of confusion and incivility, not just his own. If this book encourages more people to read Chesterton, Belmonte will have accomplished his task. Personally, I hope that he succeeds beyond his wildest imagination.

Note: Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Book Review: William F. Buckley (Christian Encounters Series)

This is the second book that I have read in the Christian Encounters series from Thomas Nelson, and I must admit that the idea behind the series is a good one: short biographies of well-known people, with an emphasis on their Christian faith. The first book in this series that I read was Peter Leithart’s biography of Jane Austen.

I chose to read Jeremy Lott’s treatment of William F. Buckley because I wanted to know more about Buckley. All I knew was that he was a conservative, a writer, and the founder and editor of National Review. The book certainly did introduce me to Buckley: I learned about his wealthy Catholic upbringing, his time at Yale, his initial writing success, the founding of National Review, his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York and how his TV show Firing Line got its start, among other things.

Though the book did teach me about Buckley, I was put off by Lott’s writing. He alternately gushes about Buckley and criticizes those whom he (Lott) dislikes. He calls the announcement of Buckley’s campaign for mayor of New York “legendary” (70). Legendary to whom, exactly? He says that Buckley’s responses to journalists during the announcement of his candidacy “only fueled their cynicism” (74) – without citing any evidence for this opinion. He never wastes an opportunity to slight Garry Wills, whom he says “ended up endorsing just about any old liberal position you could think of” (47) – again, without citing any evidence.

Now, I expect biographers to have a certain affection for their subjects. And I suppose Lott has lots of reasons for criticizing the people he criticizes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Lott never wastes an opportunity to inject his opinions into Buckley’s story. He never gives his readers the chance to make their own judgments, and I ended up wanting more Buckley and less Lott. I’d read more Buckley in a heartbeat, but I’ll have to think twice before I read anything else by Lott.

Reinhold Niebuhr. Again.

When I started this blog back in September, I didn’t think that I would write two posts on Reinhold Niebuhr in the first five months. I have never even read an entire book by him (though I have read articles). And yet, here is number two (Here is number one):

Over the break, one of the books that I read was a biography of Reinhold Niebuhr by Richard Fox. I got this book for free last year from a pastor in Burnaby, BC who was retiring and giving away much of his library. I read it now because I have heard a lot about Niebuhr in my time as a theology student, but I was still a little foggy about how to classify him. Or even whether or not I agreed with him.

The book, I must say, was a great help. It dealt with the development of his ideas and his actions based on those ideas in a very helpful way, and I’d recommend it to anyone who is interested in “Reinie” (as his friends called him) and is a little bewildered by the sheer amount of what he wrote over his long public career. It only makes sense that people should be bewildered; after all, he did write some seemingly contradictory things. Here is a quote from the epilogue:

In retrospect his centrifugal career tends to fragment into its component parts. Latter-day disciples seize upon the particular Niebuhr they prefer. Neoconservatives flock to the Niebuhr of the late 1940s and 1950s: the vehement opponent of Soviet communism, the persistent adversary of left utopianism. Liberals and left-liberals take heart from the Niebuhr of the 1920s and 1930s: the zealous antagonist of business hegemony, the angry critic of the consumer culture. Theological scholars meanwhile debate his religious works, cut off from the historians and social scientists who analyze his political thought. In life Niebuhr always confounded those who stressed one side of his career or one segment of his standpoint at the expense of another. He confused his comrades as often as his detractors.

– p. 294

In the end, although he did have interesting perspectives as an ethicist, as an evangelical Christian I was taken aback by his theological liberalism (and, though he did criticize liberals a lot over the course of his career, he remained liberal himself throughout his life). Here are a couple of quotes from the book:

…for all its attention to Christ crucified and risen, the book [The Nature and Destiny of Man] offerend only a very abstract Incarnation and scant assurance of the eternal life most believers yearned for. Niebuhr did not want to give ‘comfort to literalists,’ as he wrote to Norman Kemp-Smith. . . . ‘I have not the slightest interest in the empty tomb or physical resurrection.’

– p. 215

For him religion was not doing good, feeling holy, or experiencing the transcendent; it was grasping the evil in one’s efforts to do good, recognizing one’s finitude, realizing that the transcendent was unattainable. . . . His religion, for all of its Biblical allusions and ethical drive – was more like a philosophy of life than a mystical encounter.

– p. 172

I must say that recognizing one’s finitude is a good thing. But in the end, I’ve got deep reservations about Niebuhr because his God simply doesn’t act in history. His God is not the God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth. If his ethics has this belief in the background, I’ve got to take whatever he says with a huge grain of salt. Niebuhr had conflicts with his brother Richard over this very point during the course of their lives, and I think Richard is the more orthodox of the two.