Book Reviews

Reading List for February, 2020: Normans, Romans, Anabaptists, and more…

I got to read some really great books this month. Check them out!

1066: The Year that Changed Everything by Jennifer Paxton

First up: everything you wanted to know about the Battle of Hastings, its antecedents, and its outcomes. Shorter than the other “Great Courses” I have listened to, but very informative and enjoyable.

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

“The Emperor’s Soul” is second in Brandon Sanderson’s “Elantris” series, although it deals with Elantris not at all and mentions places and characters of the first Elantris book only in passing. Also, it’s more of a novella than a book – I easily finished it on the bus ride to our mission’s regional conference.

Still, very good. Captivating plot line, well-thought-out backstory, unexpected ending…everything we have come to expect from Sanderson.

Escape from Rome by Walter Scheidel

A few years ago when I had the opportunity to teach a variety of subjects to an outstanding group of high-schoolers, I made the comment that probably one of the best things that happened to Western Civilization was the fall of Rome. This generated no small amount of surprise among my students.

Back then I based this opinion on the works of Rodney Stark, among others. While Stark’s work is well-researched, he is more concerned with poking holes in the Enlightenment narrative of a medieval “Dark Ages” – a worthwhile endeavor, to be sure.

In Escape from Rome, however, Walter Scheidel dedicates an entire study to the idea that we owe our advanced modern society to the fact that Rome did indeed fall and never rose again. His research is meticulous and well-documented. His arguments are convincing, and include at least one Monty Python reference. It is not light reading, but it is well worth the effort.

At the end of his book on the Roman Empire, historian Will Durant expresses a common Enlightenment yearning: “May she rise again.” Schneidel, in contrast, is of a different persuasion:

“In the end, although this may seem perverse to those of us who would prefer to think that progress can be attained in peace and harmony, it was ceaseless struggle that ushered in the most dramatic and exhilaratingly open-ended transformation in the history of our species: the ‘Great Escape.’ Long may it last.”

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin

The world of missiology is brimming over with books on how to address third-world (or “two-thirds world”, as they are now popularly called) cultures with the Gospel. Missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin, however asks – and seeks to answer – the question of how to introduce the Gospel to our own increasingly secularized culture.

There is much to like about “Foolishness to the Greeks”. Newbigin engages Peter Berger on the Church’s role in a secular/pluralist society, and effectively, I think, challenges his conclusions. He also eloquently defends medieval Christianity, countering the popular Enlightenment narrative. Indeed,in his opinion, it is the widespread acceptance of the Enlightenment worldview that makes the West a potential mission field. I tend to agree.

He does lose me a couple places, however. Writing during the Cold War, he tries, unsuccessfully, in my opinion, to establish a moral equivalence between Capitalism and Socialism. Time has not been kind to his analysis of the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. I am also not a fan of his paean to the World Council of Churches.

Overall, this is a worthwhile and stimulating read. I consider it time well-spent.

The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep

A search for material to help my understanding of the Anabaptists and their relationship to Baptists, in preparation for a class I’m going to be giving later this year, led me to “The Anabaptist Story”. In this book, author William R Estep more than met my needs. Estep is sympathetic to the Anabaptist cause, but does not shy away from discussing the fringe aspects of the movement. He demonstrates a profound knowledge of the original literature pertaining to the Anabaptists, and his work is heavily footnoted.

A highly recommended read for anybody interested in this subject.

On a related note, I now need to read up some more on Zwingli, because from the Anabaptist perspective he does not come off very well.

The Pioneers by David McCullough

Before reading “The Pioneers” by David McCullough I had never heard of Marietta, Ohio. Now it’s on my list of places to visit. McCullough has done a superb job of retelling the history of the Ohio Valley settlements. He strikes a masterful balance between highlighting prominent people and telling the giving the sweeping, overall narrative.

I was particularly impressed with how the Puritan faith of many of the key players played a vital role in the development of the region.

An outstanding, informative, and entertaining book.

The Ancient Canaanites, Hittites, and Ancient Israel
by Captivating History (several authors)

I’ve been reading so many good books of late, I was bound to hit a dud sooner or later. I picked up the “Captivating History” series on the Hittites, Canaanites, and Israelites in hopes of increasing my understanding of the ancient civilizations of Bible times. In that respect it wasn’t a total loss.

Whenever it touched on the Biblical texts, however, it was frustratingly one-sided, insisting categorically, for example, that the Israelites arose from among the Canaanites. No explanation is given as to how so distinct a people came to distinguish themselves culturally, historically, and religiously from from their neighbors. Evidence cited of extensive Israelite participation in pagan cults is entirely consistent with apostasy described in the record of the historical books of the Old Testament, and there is no reason that I can see to extrapolate any other explanation. Another “facepalm moment” is when they repeat the revisionist conspiracy theory (by no means original with the authors of this series) that King Josiah extensively revised and/or created out of thin air most of the Pentateuch and the early historical literature of the Old Testament. To my knowledge, there is absolutely no physical evidence to back this up, and any circumstantial evidence is flimsy, at best.

Added to is frustration was the sub-par reading of the audio version. I wanted to scream every time the reader mispronounced some biblical word or other.

All this is not to say that it was a total loss. I learned a lot I didn’t know about the Hittites. And even the sections on the Canaanites and Israelites were informative when it came to describing the daily life of the people of that time. Also, the Kindle version has tons of great illustrations and maps.

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