Category Archives: Nonfiction

The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton

Christian apologists come and go with their books of the month, but few 20th Century writers could get to the heart of Christian thinking like G. K. Chesterton. His solid understanding of the world and how it should work provide channels of rationality that have been seeming lost by so much modern rhetoric. In fact, he simply pulls back the curtain on what so many think of as logical facts to reveal that they are, in truth, just crafted suppositions. A book on how to think rightly that ends up pointing to the divinity of Christ might not seem like the next book to put on your shelf, but if you’re a thinker – regardless of viewpoint – it will help you do that better.

In Protestant circles (and without), C.S. Lewis rightfully gets tons of praise as the preeminent apologist for rational Christian thought. However, Chesterton with an equally broad body of work has written some of the most accessible books on the depth of the Christian thought life. His treatise Orthodoxy reveals that truth is always simple and complicated and should not be disentangled. The Everlasting Man at its core is a blueprint for why so much highly touted science is in fact unsupportable by facts. Objective criticism is always needed to make a logical progression, but more and more, thinkers are turning to the subjective whims of thought to provide insight. Chesterton methodically presents why present day thinkers need to return to a true logic to understand our world.

Starting with the caveman, Chesterton reveals how more and more stories are told about the “prehistoric” man – as if the scientists don’t realize that prehistory means that we don’t know the stories. Supposition and conjecture to develop theory is always important in scientific endeavor, but there’s a point where many believe a whole stack of theories equate to reality. Many might believe that Earth resides in the arm of the Milky Way more than they would believe that there’s beautiful gardens in the city. But one you could go and prove, and the other will remain a supposition – even if it is true. While in no way reading like a textbook – it is always engaging – little by little the reader starts to see that there’s purpose behind science. This purpose is not always to reveal truth. You can help make it be though.

I will add that Chesterton does point truth seekers to the fount of Truth. He tries as best he can to show how the divinity of Christ is the logical way to understand the progress of the world. It’s not done in a Josh McDowell-like stacking of facts. He does it by asking you to think objectively and refrain from self-made rhetoric. Whether he ultimately succeeds is your call, but I felt like it was worth reading about.

 

7 stars out of 10

 

Photo credit: Irish Dominican Photographers via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Grand Alliance (The Second World War: Book 3) by Winston Churchill

The third volume in the abridged collection of Churchill’s history of the Second World War (confusingly the third volume in the unabridged series goes by the same title) follows Great Britain out of the time of their isolation in the war. From 1939 until the Germans turned their sights on Russia in 1942, England was the sole force providing continual harassment to Hitler’s swelling dominion. While many other countries were friendly and supportive to the cause, there had yet to be formed an allied front against the Axis countries – except in the Atlantic where the US had already committed to help clear shipping lanes near their own shores. With grit and ferocity of will, England stood the onslaught of the German’s might and lasted. There indomitableness was rewarded when, in 1942, both Russia and the US finally entered the war as full allies. In this, Churchill knew that the war was won.

You will never read a war history quite like Churchill’s retelling of these six, almost seven, long years of struggle. No “man at the top” as it were has written about the minutiae of what it takes from day to day to keep a country focussed toward a common goal. Churchill is both witty and serious about his responsibilities. The reader always feels as if the Prime Minister has a sincere empathy with the men that lay down their lives for freedom’s sake. And yet, Churchill was a shrewd if relatively straightforward politician. He pulls and cajoles the Russians to come to the aid of the Western powers. Stalin is supremely concerned about his own nation, yet this warmhearted Brit maneuvers the cold steely Russian into joint operations. The United States military see themselves as foremost in the world, but Churchill guides them to his points of attack. With an unbelievable aplomb, we get to look in on how a historical giant orders the players of worldwide strategy into a successful defense against Hitler’s schemes.

As a good American schoolboy, I was taught how the US came to save Britain’s bacon when we finally entered the European field. This is true – to an extent. What I never knew was how much had been prepared by the continual strategy of the British Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force. The had the ideas; they needed manpower. And the USA could not provide this at first. It took much longer for the war effort stateside to gear up than one might think. Even though America essentially entered into the war on Pearl Harbor day in 1941. The main focus was toward naval operations against Japan. It was only a small percentage of US troops that made it into the European theater before D-Day in June of 1944. Once the US became an active participant, hardly a defeat was handed to the Allied forces in the west, but this was due to the exceedingly important battle plan developed for years by Great Britain.

My grandfather served in North Africa – where the majority of the action of this book takes place. I don’t know a lot about his service as he passed away in my youth. He was an mechanic in support of air based action. It’s amazing that so many operations of vital importance happened off the continent where the supposed heart of the struggle lay. It’s as if Olympian engineers of war decided to fight somewhere that wouldn’t mess up their civilization. But it did, hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in North Africa. The many battles of Tobruk and Benghazi, the struggle for Egypt, the swift offensive on Tunis. These are magnificent and costly battlefields that most will never walk because they are so far from our cultured world. Churchill does his best to humanize every campaign, but the scars of the war were greater than most perceive. There may not be a finer set of histories for this time, but come knowing it’s not the view that the average man had.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov

Opened Heavens by Jessie Penn-Lewis

In the autumn of 1900, Jessie Penn-Lewis gave a series of addresses at the Quiet Days for Christian Workers gathering in Peekskill, New York. Seven of these talks were collected into the pamphlet Opened Heavens. An additional lecture received its own printing known as Much Fruit. The focus of talks was the need for “Visions of God” to be given to the church to rightly see how one should live. These “visions” were not some height of ecstasy or prophetic dream, but rather they are to be a right understanding of the Scriptures as they pertain to God. In summary, if we rightly perceive the Lord in the Bible, then we will rightly know how to live.

The pamphlet is probably pretty heavy to those who are familiar with the easily accessible Christian writings of today. It starts with a call to the Christian to seek revelation about the persons of the Trinity. It then leads to an urging for a complete denial of self and total service to the will of God. Finally it ends with an exposition on the work of Christ and how the reader should endeavor to partake in it. The language is lofty but the teaching cuts to the quick of an open heart. It has become increasingly harder in a day of instant self-gratification to lay your desires down for others – even more so for a God that calls for your whole life. Penn-Lewis does not ask for a casual faith nor does she want mediocre acknowledgments of the need. Her message is for a total life laid down.

I had the slightly uncanny experience of reading this book on the beach in Puerto Rico during an anniversary trip. Living the high life in the midst of beautiful, rich people gives a perspective to the thrust of this book that was a little unsettling. I was able to relax and get some well-deserved rest, but I was also encouraged by this tract to push deeper in my spiritual life – to get to the point where I could say with Ezekiel, “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezekiel 1:1) A stern but ultimately encouraging read for those looking for a clearer grasp of the Godhood.

5 stars out of 10

Alone (The Second World War: Book 2) by Winston Churchill

The second volume in Winston Churchill’s history of World War II focuses on the time period after France had fallen to the German invasion until the entrance of the United States into the conflict. It was a hard time for the British people. Their nation was the only free European country actively opposing Hitler’s scheme of domination. For this, Germany turned its full strength upon the island and brought Britain to its darkest hour. This volume is a testimony to the unconquerable spirit the British had in the face of a merciless enemy.

In a few short years, Germany had gone from a struggling bankrupt nation into a war machine that controlled nearly half of all Europe. After all the missteps that the European leaders took – which Churchill relates in Milestones to Disaster – the British army finds themselves in Occupied France facing complete destruction. Alone begins with the account of the unbelievable escape accomplished at Dunkirk – the largest marine transportation event in the history of the world at that point. Thousands of ships, many civilian, saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.

After this miraculous feat of logistics and sheer will, Britain is isolated on their little island home. They know that Hitler will come to destroy his final opposition. Churchill, in amazing detail and frankness, reveals how England steeled themselves for the onslaught. Massive defense measures of every town went into action. Every port was mined and patrolled. Every able bodied citizen was assigned a war duty task such as fire watch, food supply, child care. The Royal Air Force was called upon to keep constant vigil in the air while the Royal Navy swept the seas and harbors. At no time has there been a country more single-minded in its effort for defense. The delightful shores of Albion became a bulwark.

Through this and the Battle of Britain to come, Churchill rallied the people with his speeches. Never for a minute was surrender considered an option. Optimism and perseverance was always the tone. The strength of this history is the resolve of the people of Britain to overcome. Hardships came in droves, but they survived. A fictional account would only ring hollow. This true story gives the reader iron in his spirit to face the evil of their own time.

In the end, we know they came through. With dreadful losses, England lasted until the world could rally. Their determination probably saved the future of freedom. You should read of the debt we owe to this brave people whose lives shone in what was “their finest hour.”

7.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov  – London, 1940

Milestones to Disaster (The Second World War: Book 1) by Winston Churchill 

Winston Churchill by any account must be one of the most amazing statesmen of the 20th century. His unparalleled position at the highest levels of government through both World Wars puts him in a unique position to reveal the forces at work in the interregnum between the two. In Milestones to Disaster, he does just that – not as he says as a “history” – but as an eyewitness account to be used by future historians. The fact that he is himself a masterful writer helps one not wait for some future analysis. This work is not only accessible, but it is a very enjoyable if unsettling glimpse into the European political shake-ups of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

I was given Churchill’s six volume history of World War II by my great uncle who had the privilege to meet the then Prime Minister at Harvard. Churchill spoke to the Navy officers that were being barracked there during the U.S.’s initial involvements in the war. This work is actually an abridgment of the first volume of that set The Gathering Storm. Churchill did the trimming himself for this work, but it has been pleasant to peruse the unabridged work to see what has been removed. Mainly it is coordinating documents that help to strengthen the assertions made by the author. It also contains several appendices that contain correspondence between Churchill and other world leaders and politicians. Both the full length and edited versions are readily accessible online and make worthy additions to any library.

In Milestones, the period after the Treaty of Versailles is examined with a brutal eye to all the failings made by the then world powers to keep Germany in check. One misstep after another is frighteningly unfolded for the reader. Even though, we all know where this story leads, it gives one a knot in the gut to see how it all may have been avoided. Churchill reveals how, to his thinking, the overwhelming liberal policies of socialism and disarmament weakened the victorious nations to a point where the defeated Germany could rise under Hitler’s cult of personality. By backing off in the critical moments again and again and capitulating to appease the Führer, the European governments doomed the world to repeat on a larger scale the slaughter of the first World War.

Mr. Churchill is definitely not afraid to point out the mistakes of others. While I’m sure that the facts that are being recorded are all trustworthy, he has gone a fair way to frame them to cast a better light on his position during this time. Churchill was consistently sounding the warning of Germany’s re-armament, and he takes great pride in his un-involvement of the policies that allowed this to happen. He doesn’t sweep his own personal misjudgments under the rug, but he shines a hard light on the British administrations that he sees as failing to protect the world from the German threat. He believes the playing out of Hitler’s conquest of central Europe is a vindication of his viewpoints, and he perceives his rise as an appointment of destiny.

If you’re not familiar with how Germany came a mere twenty years after being completely despoiled to conquering the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Holland with virtually no resistance, this is the book to read. It’s a tragic tale, but one that needs to be understood if but for the hope that it will not be repeated. Churchill truly is one of the great twentieth century writers, and you will not be disappointed by his recollection.

7 stars out of 10

Lords of the Earth by Don Richardson

Lords of the Earth is a gripping account of Christian missionaries, Stanley Dale and Bruno de Leeuw, and their first contact with the Yali tribes-people of the high mountains of Irian Jaya (Dutch New Guinea). The Yali were a hard-edged warrior dominated society that eked out a primitive existence in the steep walled valleys that protected them from civilization. These occasional cannibals had their world and cosmology utter shaken by the appearance of the two RBMU (Regions Beyond Missionary Union) missionaries and native guides that trekked into their valleys in 1961. Over the next decade, these people saw their warring sectarianism replaced by a loving peace taught by the Christian gospel.

Stan Dale is the main protagonist of this hard-to-believe true story. Starting from very humble beginnings in Australia, he fought his way into becoming a smart, strong, but often equally brash soldier. His conversion to Christianity was followed shortly by a call to the mission fields of Papua New Guinea. However, his sternness and treatment of others led him to being let go from not one but two different missionary societies. But when in his third stint on the island he went to the Yali people, he finally found the field God had prepared him for.

This account is filled with some absolutely cringe-filled moments as Stan charges into situations that he had no understanding of the underlying context. The greatest lesson this book imparts is that God can use anyone and their foibles for His work. Richardson’s portrayal of him – drawn from many firsthand accounts and his own acquaintance – paint a fair picture of the man. Sometimes this is to his detriment, but also the reader sees how he was uniquely suited for this challenging assignment. His supporting cast of missionaries and native tribesmen are impressive in their resolve to break the power of spirit worship. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it truly is amazing from where it starts to where it ends.

The thing I loved most was the view into this primitive people’s lives. Their beliefs, their thoughts, the way the villages are arranged appeal deeply to my anthropological curiosities. These black pygmy cliff dwellers reveal their humanity even in the most uncivilized ways. The reader feels drawn to them in the same way the missionaries were.

The book on a whole isn’t as strong as Richardson’s autobiographical account in his book Peace Child, but those who love to read compelling stories of Christ’s work will enjoy this. The events in this story are barely fifty years old. They should be an inspiration to many.

7 stars out of 10

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Continuing in a nonfiction frame of mind, my latest read is a remarkable true story of a young Australian’s journey across the Outback alone save for her four camels. Ms. Davidson’s story took place over thirty year ago and this book has been in print since then. Somehow, even though I have read plenty of solo travel stories, I missed out on this one until I saw the trailer for the new movie of the same name. 

The story is not a story of adventure but one of becoming. Initially Robyn rails against the racism and misogyny of 1970’s Australia, but she continually reveals her own hypocrisy in her jaded treatment of others. She pushes everyone away and is unlikeable. Yet what draws the reader forward is her direct honesty and perspective of her situations. Few memoirs I have read have been able to capture such a level of understanding – even in hindsight. She sees her faults and is able to progress past. Not to never repeat them, but with a constant struggle to best her faults. An admirable pursuit and one that says, “Anyone can overcome with effort.” 

Davidson spends years learning the camel trade even though she had no prior experience. She draws together resources and equipment while being flat broke. She allows herself to be followed by National Geographic even though she is a commited loner. These are barriers to be conquered head on. While there is no real peril in the book, even during her walk through the desert, the consistent effort she exerts is a force that makes nature submit to her will. She may say that she submitted to nature’s will. 

The animals are worth a mention. They are the underlying heart of the story. Recalcitrant, imposing, yet reliable and faithful, the four camels are the real muscle and sinew that make the walk possible. They are fascinating – whether because they’re portrayed as human or because of their idiosyncrasies. They make an American glad to have horses yet envious of their imperviousness to wearing down. Diggity, Robyn’s dog, is presented as the heart of the tale, but this rings a little untrue. She may be Robyn’s heart, but she plays a key foil of devotion to Robyn’s exclusion. 

It seems almost not right to reveal much about the aboriginal characters in the story except to say that they possess a humanity that one aches for. 

The film, based on the National Geographic pictures that accompanied the initial article, is a visual delight. Unlike many films, it did not drum up adventures to make it more appealing. It left the story unvarnished. Even if it didn’t capture the essence of Ms. Davidson’s writing, it is beautiful. 

Check out the trailer here: Tracks (trailer)

7.5 out of 10 stars