Book Reviews

Reading List for July, 2021: Myths, Philosophies, Conspiracies, Histories, and more…

Troy by Stephen Fry

Several months ago I read Homer’s Iliad, and, I must say, I found Stephen Fry’s retelling of the epic story in his latest work, “Troy”, to be much more enjoyable. As with his previous two works, Mythos and Heroes, Fry engagingly brings to life the ancient Greek narratives without sacrificing their mythic essence.

My assumption was that the book would cover the events of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. However, it ends with the sack of Troy. This leads me to believe that there is another one on the way which will deal with the adventures of Odysseus on his way home from the war. I certainly hope this is the case.

I also benefited greatly from the appendix, where Fry deals with the historical vs mythical aspects of Troy epic.

Important note: as with the other books in his series, Fry does not shy away from the more graphic aspects of Homerian legend. Let the reader beware.

History Decoded: The Ten Greatest Conspiracy Theories of All Time by Brad Meltzer

I was looking for some light yet informative listening for our trip from New York to Ohio, and found it in “History Decoded: The Ten Greatest Conspiracies of All Time” by Brad Meltzer

Despite the title, the book is not a wild-eyed ride through crazy-town. Rather, it is a measured look at some of the more popular conspiracy theories throughout American history. In a couple instances the author comes down in favor of the conspiracy, but in others (like the JFK assassination) he gives more credit to the official story.

There were two chapters that surprised and fascinated me. One was where the author makes a convincing case that John Wilkes Booth survived his escape from the Ford’s Theater and lived another 40 years. The other was a deep dive into the D.B. Cooper mystery, with a very plausible identification of the famous hijacker.

Also, the vast legions of Missionary Max fans might be interested in the chapter that deals with the missing Southern gold – a mystery that plays a passing role in Missionary Max and the Lost City.

When Our World Became Christian by Paul Veyne

As I was growing up and cutting my teeth in Church history, common wisdom was that the conversion of Emperor Constantine the Great represented a net loss for Christianity. After all, he elevated the formerly persecuted Church to state religion and began the doctrinal slide that resulted in the medieval darkness which was only pierced by Martin Luther and the other brave reformers…right?

Well…it’s not quite that easy. For example, even in those formative years I found it interesting that people would loudly condemn Constantine and then turn right around and sing the praises of the Council of Nicaea…which was called, financed, and to a certain degree presided over by…you guessed it…Constantine.

This is why I found “When Our World Became Christian” by French historian and archaeologist Paul Veyne to be such an interesting read. Veyne is a self-professed unbeliever who nevertheless has taken it upon himself to defend Constantine from his detractors. Among his assertions: Constantine’s conversion was as real as any religious conversion and couldn’t have been due to mere political pragmatism, Constantine was a good ruler whose conversion brought good things to the Empire, and Christianity itself had many positive effects on the ancient world. The first ten chapters (out of eleven) follow this vein, and have continued the gradual rehabilitation of Constantine in my own thinking.

Then we come to chapter 11, and things fall apart. In a bizarre turnaround, Veyne feels the need to answer the question “Does Europe have Christian roots?” To this end he goes full post-modern deconstructionist. There is no such thing as “roots”, and all of the advances that are attributed to Christianity are the result of other things…and on and on. Claiming that there never was such a thing as Christian Europe is a weird flex for someone who entitled his book “How Our World Became Christian”. For a counterpoint to this odd post script, I recommend Tom Holland’s masterful Dominion and Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity.

There is also an appendix that delves into the nature of ancient Jewish monotheism. This is boilerplate higher criticism that ignores recent textual work by numerous scholars. For treatments of the Hebrew text by people who actually know Hebrew (Veyne readily admits that he does not) I would suggest John H. Sailhammer’s The Pentateuch as Narrative, or even the twitter feed of James Bejon.

Mission Drift by Peter Greer and Chris Horst

Ever notice that some of our most iconic institutions, like Harvard University or the Y, began as overtly Christian organizations? Ever wonder about the process that led to their complete secularization?

Authors Peter Greer and Chris Horst undertook to understand just that. The resulting book, “Mission Drift” is a resource that should be on the required reading list of every pastor, missionary, or anybody involved in any Christian organization – from board member on down to volunteer worker.

The authors’ research is bolstered by the fact that they personally fought mission drift in their own organization. This adds a hopeful aspect to the book – while drift is common, it is by no means unavoidable.

Organizations don’t loose their foundational moorings overnight. Greer and Horst’s painstaking research shows how donor influence, poor hiring practices, and spiritual lukewarmness (among other factors) led once-vibrant Christian organizations to shed all appearance of biblical faith and, in some cases, promote the exact opposite of what the Bible commands.

And if you think it could never happen to your church/organization, take a look around you, think again, and buy this book. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is.

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato Socrates, Aristotle by Robert C. Bartlett (Great Courses)

After taking a couple courses on Greek philosophy, I felt there were some holes that needed to be filled in. Enter “Masters of Greek Thought”, a Great Courses series brilliantly taught by Professor Robert C. Bartlett. Among the helpful things I learned: how Socrates began his career as a “pre-Socratic”, and how the external events and personalities (like Xenophon and Alcibiades) of the Peloponnesian War are an important backdrop for understanding the philosophers.

If you are at all interested in philosophy, I highly recommend this course. If you listen to it on Audible, it comes with a downloadable PDF which is also very good.

The Great Sea by David Abulafia

For an interesting and somewhat uncommon historical perspective, pick up The Great Sea by David Abulafia. Starting in prehistoric times (with the usual evolutionary presuppositions) he looks at history through the lens of the Mediterranean Sea. The narratives of the surrounding peoples and nations are told as they interact with the “Mare Nostrum”. From vital economic hub, to center of world conflict, to popular tourist destination, Abulafia takes the reader on a journey that helps us understand the significant the Mediterranean has played.

Students of church history will be especially interested in his analysis of how it impacted the spread of Christianity. One of my favorite parts was his treatment of the Sea Peoples, which lends support to my theory that the biblical Philistines were either Mycenaean Greeks, or closely related to them.

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