Book Reviews

Reading List for August through December, 2023

The craziness that was our schedule in the second semester of 2023 is evidenced by this rather sparse reading list. Still, there are some worthwhile books to see here. Also, it would appear that Amazon Associates has discontinued the picture links that I used to include just below the book titles. So I have made the titles themselves into affiliate links.

No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions by Matt Rhodes

In his book “No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions” Matt Rhodes lays out the case for a return to a biblical approach to missions. In doing so, he offers a much-needed corrective to new theories of missions (such as the “Church Planting Movement”) that have become in vogue of late.

Rhodes mounts solid, biblical, convincing defenses of such things as long-term missions, theological training of missionaries, heavy investment in language acquisition, and other elements of missionary work that used to be considered basic, but that have recently fallen out of fashion.

Of particular value, I think, is the roadmap he gives for potential missionaries. If I were the pastor of a young person who expressed a desire for missions, I would give them this book then schedule a meeting to talk about it once they had read it.

The Cruel Pedagogy of the Virus by Boaventura de Sousa Santos

It’s that time of year when my reading time is consumed by works assigned to me by teachers. To my great joy, one of my teachers had the class read a book that was only 40 pages long.

The book in question was “A Cruel Pedagogia do Virus” (in English, “The Cruel Pedagogy of the Virus”) by Portuguese author Boaventura de Sousa Santos.

The book was written in the early days of the pandemic, and thus his observations are without the benefit of the three years of hindsight that we have now. This means that some of his observations (like how we should not succumb to “xenophobic” theories that the virus began in China) have not aged well.

On the other hand, he has a clear perspective on how the pandemic would effect such groups as small business owners and people whose livelihoods required them to be outside. In early 2020, he was calling this while many of his leftist coreligionists were still deep into the “stay at home” sloganeering

He rightly calls out the way big business was (is) profiteering off of the pandemic. Yet he has a curious lack of skepticism when it comes to the State’s profiteering off of the same pandemic. “Big business is evil” is a concept that is not new to the left (and one to which I am more and more inclined every time June rolls around). However “the State is as pure as the driven snow” is a radical departure from the leftist stance of the ’60s and ’70s.

One more critique: at one point he gives Evangelical pastors a (very!) backhanded compliment, putting them together with radical Islamists as being able to speak the language of the people – the point being that intellectuals (presumably with their superior ideas) need to be able to do the same thing.

I’ll help out: start by not comparing Evangelical pastors to radical Islamists.

This book is only available in Portuguese, but if any of my lusophone friends are interested, here’s the link.

Utopia by Sir Thomas More

Thomas More’s Utopia was on a long list of books that I have read about, but never read.

“Was”, because I just read it. A few observations:

More’s fictional country is somewhat of an exercise in wishful thinking…as More himself acknowledges in a number of ways. The story is told in the words of a fictional explorer, and More makes a point of saying that there are parts of the Utopian society that he himself does not agree with (although he declines to say which ones). The very name of the imaginary land “Utopia” – “no place” – is a hint as to More’s thoughts on the practicality of his theories. Add to this the loaded closing phrase: “However, there are many things in the commonwealth of Utopia that I rather WISH, than HOPE, (emphasis mine) to see followed in our governments.”

More’s views on money can almost be seen as a proto-Marxism, until you remember that they are told in the voice of the fictional Raphael, and in his own voice More reiterates the biblical principle of “if you will not work, you should not eat.”

If one is familiar at all with the way More himself met death on the scaffold, you will be haunted by his description of how the Utopians met their deaths.

Utopia is a good read…and not that long. Recommended for anybody with an interest in the political ramifications of philosophy and theology.

The Secret World by Christopher Andrew

I picked up The Secret World by Christopher Andrew because I was in the mood for some stories about spies, secret codes, and undercover operations. I got all that, but I also got a comprehensive history of the world of espionage, from literally biblical times all the way through the cold war and into the “war on terror”.

Author Christopher Andrew, a historian who specializes in the world of espionage and intelligence, begins his lengthy (40+ hours on Audible) book with an analysis of the mission of the twelve spies sent to Canaan by Moses. In my opinion he missed out by not covering some of the other biblical examples to be found in Judges and I and II Samuel, but to be fair, it was already a long book.

Andrew’s main thesis is that, throughout the centuries, intelligence agencies and the men who run them have been quite ignorant of the history of intelligence gathering, and that this has forced them to reinvent the wheel – so to speak – when there was really no need.

His own work seeks to correct that historical error. I think I may have mentioned that the book is long, but it did not seem long. The tales of how governments gather information – or fail to gather information – on each other kept me fascinated from beginning to end.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Needing some lite reading to offset some heavier tomes I have been consuming of late, I picked out The Princess Bride and set it on my Audible playlist. It was an enjoyable two hours of listening.

If you are familiar with the movie, the book deviates little from the screenplay – not inconceivable, due to the fact that they were both written by William Goldman. However, if you are expecting the book to be just like the movie, get used to disappointment.

If anything, I would say that this is one of the few cases where the movie is actually somewhat better than the book. If you disagree, well…as you wish.

One detail…the ending of the book is VERY different from the movie. This may cause consternation for some, but as we all know, life is pain, and anyone who says differently is selling something.

On a whole, I would recommend this book, though, if you have to chose between the book and the movie, watch the movie. You won’t regret it, and I mean it.

Anybody want a peanut?

Exploring Metaphysics by David Kyle Johnson (Great Courses)

I downloaded the “Great Courses” class Exploring Metaphysics, taught by David Kyle Johnson so I could get a quick overview to help me with a class I’m taking.

It was a fun ride.

I found Johnson’s narration very engaging, and enjoyed his casual, self-deprecating style of teaching. I also appreciated the opportunity to interact with his ideas.

But none of this should be taken to mean that I agree with his conclusions. Indeed, I found myself disagreeing with him almost from beginning to end, especially in regards to his denial of the existence of the human soul. He claims to have an airtight case, but problems abound, and if you listen closely, you can hear the times when he (in the immortal words of Jerry Seinfeld) “yada yada yada’s past the best part.”

“Science has proved…” It hasn’t.
“Theologians agree…” They most certainly do not.

Perhaps surprisingly, I agree with him (to an extent) with his assertion that the existence of God cannot be proven. It can’t…at least not the way he goes about it, which is to start with nothing and try to work your way back to God. That’s where Descartes and pretty much all of modern philosophy after him went off the rails.

Rather, one must remember that if God exists, He is the most important Being in the Universe. One must start from Him and figure everything else out in relationship to Him. Meaning only exists because God exists. If He doesn’t exist, nothing has meaning, including this paragraph that I am now writing (and including the arguments that Johnson makes to throw doubt on the existence of God).

It’s telling that Johnson treats the existence of God with skepticism, while at the same time positing that it is possible (even probable) that we are living in a computer simulation.

God, no. A cosmic coder? Sure, why not?

If one keeps these things in mind while listening to Johnson’s course, it helps put things into perspective.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy hearing the arguments, and learned some new things about quantum mechanics and black holes.

How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco

When one thinks of philosopher, author and scholar Umberto Eco, one does not automatically bring to mind a book on how to write an academic thesis.

And that’s a shame, because he did really write a book about that, and it’s really good.

“How to Write a Thesis” was recommended to me by a university professor, and I found it to be a very valuable – and surprisingly enjoyable – read. Eco takes a topic that could be very dry and tedious and, with dashes of humor and irony, makes it fun and even entertaining.

Readers under 30 might have difficulty grappling with concepts like “index cards”, “library card catalogues” and “typewriters”. The books was written, after all, in the ’70s. However, the principles of research that are explained transcend the decades.

If it’s not obvious by now, let me state it plainly, I highly recommend this book. I can see myself going back to it on a regular basis. After I finished it I went out and bought three packages of index cards.

Oration on the dignity of Man by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

In the constellation Western Philosophy, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is not one of the better-known stars. Indeed, in a course I’m currently taking on Modern Philosophy, the Renaissance Italian was give barely a footnote.

But then I was assigned to give a seminar to the class on his work “Oration on the Dignity of Man”, so here we are.

Like most Renaissance humanists, Pico della Mirandola is preoccupied with the centrality of man in the universe. It should be noted that the humanism of the Italian Renaissance philosophers was not the agnostic or atheistic humanism of the “Enlightenment”. Rather, it was based firmly on the idea that man represents the apex of God’s creation.

In “Orations” Pico della Mirandola examines man’s position in the Universe, and comes to the conclusion that man, unlike all other creatures, has no place of his own. Rather, he was put into the universe to contemplate the works of God, and given the free will to emulate the creatures of his choosing. One can imitate the beasts by acting according to one’s sensual instincts, or one can imitate the lower orders of heavenly beings by using reason. Obviously, the best creatures to imitate are the cherubim, because they are constantly observing the face of God. This involves not mere reason, but (you guessed it) philosophy.

The author was a very accomplished scholar, extremely well-read, especially for his days, so the references he uses to support his ideas are quite varied.

Of special interest to me was an almost parenthetical insertion where he talks about magic, differentiating between bad magic (of the devil, serving the senses) and good magic, which was the fruit of science and philosophy. I thought of C.S. Lewis as I read that part.

In all a very interesting read.

Taliesin by Stephen R. Lawhead

Someone, I do not recall who, once recommended to me the Pendragon Cycle series by Stephen Lawhead. That recommendation went on the back burner until recently, when I heard that the Daily Wire was planning on making a miniseries out of the books. I decided that, since it was likely I would watch the series at some point, I should probably read the books.

Having read “Taliesin”, the first book in the series, my only regret is that I didn’t read them sooner.

The series is a unique take on the Arthurian legends, placing them (as do a number of historians) in that dark period after the Roman Legions abandoned the British isles, and before the dominance of the Saxons. There is some Atlantis mythology mixed in for good measure.

In Lawhead’s telling, Taliesin (an ancient poet who probably existed in history) marries Charis, a refugee from Atlantis, and their offspring is…well…you’ll have to read it.

One thing I appreciated about the book is that while the Christianity is overt, it is not preachy. Many Christian adventure books stop the action to talk about Christianity, then resume the action. Lawhead has masterfully woven it as an essential thread in the tapestry of the story.

If you like good adventure with a historical/mythical bent, this book (and series, I’m currently on book two) is for you.

Merlin by Stephen R. Lawhead

I finished “Merlin”, the second book in Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, a week or so ago, and am just now getting around to reviewing it here.

In short, outstanding. Lawhead continues where he left off in Taliesin, weaving Atlantean and Arthurian myths together into the historic period of darkness after Rome’s legions abandoned the British Isles.

I really like his portrayal of Merlin, not as a befuddled wizard à la “The Sword in the Stone”, but as a warrior, bard, and (briefly) king who dedicates himself to finding the prophesied one King who will save Britain from the barbarian invaders.

As with the last book, the positive portrayal of Christianity is refreshing.

Arthur by Stephen R. Lawhead

The continuation of the aforementioned series, finally arriving at the Arthur part of the arthurian legend. Lawhead continues his saga, blending history and myth, with his trademark positive view of Christianity.


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And be sure to read the action-packed adventures of Missionary Max: Missionary Max and the Jungle Princess and Missionary Max and the Lost City.

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