Thursday, May 10, 2007

Books I've Been Reading

Many apologies that this blog has been rather static of late. Between getting chickenpox, flying to America for a job interview, and then all my children getting chickenpox, I haven’t had much time to write. But I have tried to keep up with my reading. Here are some of the books I've been reading.

Nancy Wilson’s Our Mother Tongue: A Guide to English Grammar. I’ve been working my way through this for nearly the last two years. Being a professional writer but never having had any formal training in grammar, I thought it was time I brushed up on some of the basics. This is the perfect book for doing that. Nancy starts off at the very beginning with the 8 parts of speech, before moving onto sentences and more complex aspects of grammar. This is a textbook, designed to be used in schools, so it has exercises, review lessons, examples and all that good stuff.

One of the great things about this book is that it is well organised and the lessons build on each other systematically. If you have forgotten about something you know right where to go to review, which I have found particularly useful.

I am reading a book by Nancy’s husband, Doug Wilson, called Reforming Marriage. Having been helped so much by Wilson’s parenting book Standing on the Promises, I thought I would give this book on marriage a try.

I would highly recommend that every married person read Reforming Marriage. We have already given away about half a dozen copies and have run out of all our spares. The book is particularly challenging to husbands, since Wilson shows convincingly from scripture that the man is ultimately responsible for the smooth-running of the marriage. The Lord has given Doug a particular ability at being able to show what Biblical principles mean in every day life. Every page has advice that I could spend a lifetime working to put into practice.

I seem to be stuck on books published by Canon Press at the moment, because I am also working my way through Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura. This was one of the books on my ever growing ‘books to read list’ that I would probably never have got round to reading were it not for the fact that Esther read it and then encouraged me to read it because it was so good. I found she was right because the book is absolutely fascinating. Maybe I'm just lazy, but I enjoy reading books by scholars who have already done all the hard ground work, so I can benefit from their labours without having to share in their sweat. Mathison has obviously spent years in research, availing himself of a large corpus of primary and secondary literature.

When I mentioned to a Catholic friend that I was reading a book on the doctrine of sola scriptura, his initial comment was, ‘Oh, that 16th century innovation.’ Well actually, the strength of Mathison’s book is in showing that the doctrine of sola scriptura goes right back to the early church fathers, though of course the doctrine wasn’t called that until the reformation. Contrary to Roman Catholic historiography, where scripture and tradition are believed to have occupied co-equal status right from the onset of the apostolic age, Mathison shows that a key feature of the Apostolic fathers is the doctrine that everything needs to be tested by scripture, which is itself the final yardstick for knowing truth. Here are some examples of what the church fathers said about scripture:

But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.”

- Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215)

Scripture has absolute authority; whatever it teaches is necessarily true, and woe betide [‘befall’] him who accepts doctrines not discoverable in it.”

- Tertullian (AD 155-220)

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside my mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.”

- Cyril of Jerusalem (Approx. AD 315-384

…we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings.”

- Gregory of Nyssa (Approx. 335-394)

Mathison traces how gradually a two-tier view of authority sprang up in the Roman Catholic church, and some of the political reasons for that. He also explores the rise of the papacy. What is interesting was that all the things that we normally associate with the Roman Catholic church, in particularly, the role of the pope and the magisterium, were innovations in the late middle ages and were not introduced without being strongly contested by Roman Catholics themselves. He shows that the reformation was truly a reformation and not a revolution, returning to doctrines that were systematically worked out and advocated in the primitive church.

Another benefit of the book is undermining certain false Protestant formulations of sola scriptura, where tradition is sidestepped completely for a just-me-and-the-Bible kind of individualism.

I’ve been dipping in and out of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy recently. I find I need a good dose of Chesterton every once in a while just to keep myself sane. Here are some of my favourite quotes from chapter 7:

“…mere resignation has neither the gigantic levity of pleasure nor the superb intolerance of pain. There is a vital objection to the advice merely to grin and bear it. The objection is that if you merely bear it, you do not grin.”

Had [Nietzsche] faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense.”

Managed I in a modern style the emancipation of the slave’s mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave.”

Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother.”

It is conceivable that we are going more and more to keep our hands off things: not to drive horses; not to pick flowers. We may eventually be bound not to disturb a man’s mind even by argument; not to disturb the sleep of birds even by coughing.”

It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before.”

It will not be necessary for any one to fight again against the proposal of a censorship of the press. We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.”

Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness…. Seriousness is not a virtue…. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do…. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

As a family we’re reading Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. It makes a good follow-on from our last book, Men of Iron by Howard Pyle. Both books are very good for helping children learn the virtues of courage, chivalry, manhood and womanhood.

While we're on the subject of the Medieval period, I have nearly finished Doug Jones and Doug Wilson's book Angels in the Architecture. Wow! What a glorious vision they present, which is in fact the Biblical vision which has been lost by the flattening-out process of Modernity. In an attempt to recover a medieval vision for the church, the essays touch on everything from aesthetics to sex, from food to a theology of celebration, and everything else in between: husbandry, government, ecclesiology, creedal affirmation, technology, poetic knowledge - all through the same rich and colourful lens. Definitely a book that C.S. Lewis would have approved of.

Speaking of Lewis, I recently finished re-reading his The Great Divorce. Lewis’s keen insight into human nature shines amazingly in this book, as he describes a bus journey from hell to heaven. As solid people from heaven are sent to greet the ghosts arriving from hell, we see all the reasons people give for preferring hell to heaven. Last month I went to America to discuss this book to a class of 12th graders. I found that the text is a perfect springboard into all the main developments of Western thought: Gnosticism, Postmodernism, Relativism, Empiricism, Romanticism, etc.

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