Ten or twelve life-changing books: #9

9. 1982. Robert Louis Dabney. Defense of Virginia

There is simply no way to summarize the devastating impact of this book. It took everything I thought I knew about American history, politics, and common sense, put each element systematically through the wood chipper, then reconstructed the totality from the ground up. I still haven’t recovered, really. Just to give one trivial example: before Dabney: Lincoln the greatest hero ever. After Dabney: Lincoln the greatest war criminal in Christendom to his day. Yet Dabney rarely or never mentions Lincoln. It is a sustained argument, a course in how to think.

All of Dabney’s work — covering an astonishing breadth of topics, even poetry — are worthy of study. His solitary defect is that shared by all the American theologians of the 19th century — a well-intended but ultimately self-destructive neutrality-stance in basic epistemology. Fortunately, across the pond, Bavinck was working away at a much better version. We can read the Prolegomena of the nineteenth-century Americans with a sigh, or a smile, and a shake of the head. Post-prolegomena, Dabney sparkles even in Systematics. But it is social theory where Dabney glows. For a child of our era, the Defense is the most transformative. As Dabney himself predicted, no refutations have been forthcoming; mere murmuring is occasionally heard.  The recent sneaky, back-stabbing effort by that wretched spaniel Sean Lucas will have to be dealt with in its place.  Save it; let us not now dwell in that muck.

What is great about Dabney is, yes, the passion-fueled logic, but in addition, he is an example of the universal particular. No man was more a loyal child of his time and place than Dabney: yet the defense here of his “murdered mother Virginia,” as concrete and historical as it comes, rises up to insights that completely transcend that and all times: what it means to be human, and what it means to hear the Word of God louder than the word of man.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #8

8. 1981. Cornelius van Til. Introduction to Systematic Theology

Van Til is doubtless the single most important thinker in my life, unless he is tied with Dabney. For philosophy and theological introduction, it is definitely van Til. Yet it is hard to point to very many of his works that are exemplary and pointed — of a kind to pass on to a friend for consideration — and without crotchets and flaws. Part of it is that the Dutch are nothing if not in-fighters, and some of the obscure pugilistics often leave one bewildered, especially with the passage of time, as the opponent fades even deeper into obscurity.

Like all great thinkers, it is the way of thinking that must be captured, and this is often in despite of the husk of presentation. This particular work that I list, however, is one of the great ones. It is dizzying. At times I re-read passages and again come under the feeling that I am observing the very first motions of thought itself — in that sense it is like reading Hegel’s Phenomenology.

I will not try to go further here. In a sense everything I do or write is an attempt to grasp and continue van Til’s insight, so there is no need to tarry here just now.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #7

7. 1980. Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson

Honorable mentions:

Gary North, Christian Economics, and The Dominion Mandate

Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History

I had strong libertarian proclivities von Haus aus. But these three fellows clarified it and drove it deeply into my soul. Indeed, the greatest part of my subsequent life has been the gradual overcoming of the libertarian illusion, which went so deep. So though these books did not so much change my life as pour concrete around it, the subsequent twenty year struggle that led to breaking the concrete off and taking wings makes it so that it must be listed as one of the life milestones.

Gary North is the most brilliant of the three, and, I believe, the only Christian. I list Hazlitt first mainly because he is the most accessible and limpid of the expounders. He shows in a very simple way the absurdity of the Keynesian idea that mere “aggregate demand” is what we need.  He shows this via an extended parable of vandals breaking a window, which “stimulates the economy” and thus supposedly should add to aggregate wealth. The image, and Hazlitt’s relentless deconstruction of it, sticks. Even now, post-libertarian, I can say that there is a great deal of truth to the argument. The reasons one can profit from much of the discourse yet not become a libertarian are two-fold: (1) recognition of all that the libertarians leave out of the picture; (2) the valid insights continue even under a different social arrangement than libertarianism: hedged in by other factors, but true as far as they go.

The true basis for economics is folk-agrarian rooted in the law of God. Only after this larger pattern (including the very notion of property rights) is established on a non-libertarian basis, can the kind of market analysis of this triumvirate have its place. (Then again, the valid parts were true even under Communism.) I am amused to see that even over at the Mecca of respectable libertarianism, lewrockwell.com, there is a strong current in favor of Trump. Which shows that even they, in their bones, realize that if the whole third world moves to America, there will not be any “free market” left except that which exists in Moroccan-style neighborhood bazars. “We believe in open borders in principle, but…”

Theory is one thing; watching the world and learning something about human nature is something else.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #5, 6

5. 1979. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law

Lewis had brought me back to an Arminian, though militant, form of Christianity.

Rushdoony was the wedge used by a couple of dear college friends, one male, one female, to break down the Arminian delusion. The actual breach was affected by the joint assault of this book and the next one in the list.

Rushdoony has faded from the center of my thinking, but the impact at this time was… life-changing. People that write him off as “legalist” don’t understand what he accomplished. This was nothing less than a sifting of every stage, every level, every pretension of modern society under the gaze of the word of God. It it a totality-critique. What it did to this Arminian was show that Sovereignty was far more than Predestination. It paved the way to see God as the Source, and the only possible Source, of every meaning, every beauty, every norm, every project. This is the true center of Calvinism.

Oddly enough, the real problem with Rushdoony is not legalism but antinomianism. He wriggled out of the Sabbath with a finesse that would do a PCA candidate proud.  But that is a discussion for another day — even as it was many years before I understood this problem.

6. 1980 Jonathan Edwards. Freedom of the Will (abbreviated title)

When I started this book, sitting in Jefferson’s cloistered gardens in Charlottesville, I was an Arminian; when I finished, I was a Calvinist.

Now that I have studied philosophy formally, I am impressed at the contemporaneity of Edwards. He anticipated, unless (as I suspect) he is simply the unacknowledged precursor, of much of the modern discussion of free will under the rubric of “compatibilism.” What he showed, basically, is the incoherence of the concept that today goes under the name “libertarian free will.” You are free because you do what you want. But how can you want something you don’t want? Peter Van Inwagen as a Christian libertarian is great because he admits he can give no coherent account of his position. It is a leap of faith for him, and he admits it.

So Edwards proved that my Arminian instincts were naive. Later, I came to realize (as Cunningham nicely explains) that Edwards only pushed the mystery back a layer or two. Now the question is, where does the disposition (to freely and inevitably choose evil) come from?

So I don’t say that Edwards answers every question. It is more that by breaking down the Arminian’s first line of defense, he shows the possibility of Calvinism as a moral framework.

Despite the tight, sustained reasoning of the work, Edwards must not be regarded as a Christian rationalist. It is more, using tight reasoning to show (1) the impossibility of reason conceived as autonomous, (2) God as the necessary starting point in every train of reasoning, (3) that revelation enlightens, but does not exhaustively explain, (4) there is no thought without that revelation, and (5) thus, we can embrace mysteries rooted in that revelation without fear. If, in contrast, the path of Christian Rationalism is taken, then one must either remain an Arminian, or become a hyper-nominalist-Calvinist. This is why Gordon Clarkism is, oddly, not very far spiritually from Arminianism. It is also very fragile. One of my dear Clarkian friends is now, in middle age, being tempted by Arminianism. And one of the great promising Clarkians of a decade ago is now chanting Hare Krishna.

Thank you, Jonathan, for rescuing me from these possibilities.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #4

4. 1976 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Throughout the grinding of our souls in the gears of the great Nighttime Institution, when our souls are pulverized and our flesh hangs down in tatters like a beggar’s rags, we suffer too much and are too immersed in our own pain to rivet with penetrating and far-seeing gaze those pale night executioners who torture us. A surfeit of inner grief floods our eyes. Otherwise what historians of our torturers we would be! (Vol 1, chap 4).

I can remember how passages like this made my hair stand on end.

Solzhenitsyn describes the terrors and injustices of the Soviet penal camp system and the politics and mock trials that supported it. A monumental sewage disposal system, is his metaphor. It is chocked full of anecdotes, and Solzhenitsyn, himself an inmate during the time covered in the book, committed them to memory, with astonishing retention of names and details — but never unless the story was confirmed by a second witness.

There is a dark comedic strain that runs through the entirety, that should not be missed. This aspect may be why some of the stories leave a deep mark on the memory that can only be matched by episodes from Dante. There was a party function where a tribute to Stalin was ordered. Instantly, everyone jumped to his feet and began applauding. But no one dared be the first to stop applauding. “For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued.” Who could stop it? Not the functionary who had called for the ovation — he had taken the place of one who’d been arrested. “Six, seven, eight minutes.” When after eleven minutes someone on the stage did stop, everyone else also stopped, instantly, in relief. But that person was rounded up. Ten years.

Surrounded by a reign of terror with no reason to hope it would ever end, Solzhenitsyn nevertheless did hope. He had found God. The exchange of his freedom for God was his life-changing moment. It stamped his soul. He actually thanked his prison cell.

Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.

The man that emerged from the other end of the tunnel became, I believe, the most important prophet of the twentieth century.

In passing, I should mention a subliminal effect this work had on me. Solzhenitsyn’s tacit attitude throughout the grisly narrative was: This too must end; the truth will out and will triumph. Our people will repent and be reformed. This attitude is what set the stage for what I would later call post-millennialism. The a-millennial pilgrim motif is a partial truth, but Solzhenitsyn’s resistance in hope simply cannot emerge from that model, it seems to me. The amillennialist, testicles being crushed in the dungeon interrogation room, says “what do you expect?” Everyone else says, “something other than this.” For me it has little to do with a construction of how world history will turn out. It is far more a matter of the as-if; working in anticipation that doing so makes a difference, and that the truth will out, in history. The people will have an opportunity to repent, to change. It is a possibility always hovering.

Many probably assume that this massive work is obsolete now that the Soviet Union has collapsed. This is not so. First, it is a story about humanity, and its vision into the human heart cannot be obsoleted. But second, the gulag is shaping up quite literally to sally forth, this time under the guidance of our own rulers, in the USA (while Russia has become the only major power that defends Christendom). The divine humor in this great trading of places indicates that not all the possibilities of this basic form of demonism have yet been revealed, and defeated, in history. True, none of us know people that have had the doors kicked down at 2 AM: it is not yet the same in that respect. But there is a pall over our public discourse. We can’t use certain words: yet we can’t explain why. We can’t voice certain opinions, or risk losing our jobs. People turn us in. We lose our jobs, become ostracized, marginalized. Now, we don’t even get the dignity of a show-trial. Indeed, the cunning by which our rulers have brought about much of the same bondage without the need for female testicle-crushers and midnight interrogations may be the story of our half-century.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #3

3. 1976.  G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

I list this particular work because it was helpful at the time, when I was taking the required general courses in college. Chesterton turns the received deliverances upside down. The idea that the “cave men” might just have been some regular guys that went down to their man-caves every so often to get away from the women for a few hours to swap stories and draw pictures — that was a vivid example of inverting the paradigm that was indeed life-changing, and the medicine, delivered while taking an indoctrination course called Anthropology, was particularly timely. Chesterton restores humanity to the study of man.

Like Lewis, through whom reading I discovered him, Chesterton is an excellent companion for a young Christian man. He explodes the shibboleths, and turns the clichés upside down. He teaches a skepticism of nostrums that serves well if learned properly. He is adept at rejecting the regnant paradigm, remodeling with a different set of presuppositions. If you don’t learn this from Chesterton, you might learn it by studying modern Physics, or Wittgenstein. It must be part of one’s training in the hermeneutic of ordinary language and its buried assumptions.

He is something of a one-trick pony, however. A clever young man soon learns how to imitate the shtick left and right. A master of the English language, Chesterton is too clever in its use by half, punning and alliterating so thickly that it destroys the rhythm and renders reading wearisome after a while. There is also a glib tone that can be mistaken for haughtiness. I don’t think haughtiness is quite it though. It is not even finding excessive pleasure in hearing himself talk. I think it is more precisely the thorough enjoyment of hearing a conversation, especially one in which he happens to be taking part. This leads to some rhetorical excesses.

Chesterton was sucked into the British establishment’s mendacious propaganda machine during the Great War, and this points to a deep flaw that needs to be illuminated. He was as hostile to “Prussianism” as to Puritanism. Indeed, his dislike of the two P’s may be of one root, since Prussianism was itself stamped in its character by a Puritan/Pietist hybrid at the crucial time of Friedrich Wilhelm I and his grandfather the Great Elector. So Chesterton’s “Short History of England” became something like an extended argument against the idea that England’s greatness had anything to do with its German ancestry. Instead, its greatness apparently has more to do with imbibing the teaching of Italians — first pagan, then Christian. I would judge that he stands right at the point that the British Progressives were shifting from racial identity to propositionalism — a move already made in our country by Lincoln fifty years earlier in the Gettysburg Address. Still, there are enough references to the traits of Jews and Negroes that one realizes the ethnological was not completely gone. Indeed, being a real human, he is consequently in fact a tribalist innately; but he can’t face the implications, so bends over backwards to rework history according to the idea that accepting or rejecting certain propositions is the key to each twist and turn. Blood still has a place, but usually only in the sense that an occasional injection of new blood is good. He loves Europe, but dislikes the Northern way of thinking, so for him, Italians, assisted by a few French, must be the masters of England’s personality.  Indeed, who can say but that this motif was not the very thing impelling him to embrace popery in 1922. The conversion completely flummoxed his good friend Bernard Shaw, who “was apparently dreadfully upset by Chesterton’s decision because he had thought he and Chesterton shared basic religious assumptions.” (Alzina S. Dale, The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of G. K. Chesteron [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], p. 234).

There are too many conceptual confusions in both theology and politics, and too many prejudices. So he is needful medicine in an early stage of life, but one must get past Chesterton as a central influence sooner rather than later.

Ten or twelve life-changing books

This is an excuse to do shorter book reviews in rapid fire. Each of these books was life-changing for me. Not necessarily for the better — the reader will have to judge that for himself!

The list follows chronology: the dates are of my life-change, not the time of publication.

#1. 1971. Francis Schaeffer: He is there and he is not silent/C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity

The first (earliest) award is a tie; count it as one or two as you please.

I was heavy into both Schaeffer’s and Lewis’ Christian apologetics books in tenth grade, and have a vivid memory of an encounter with a (different) classmate in connection with each one. Yet, by the end of that grade, I had declared as an atheist. What happened?

I’m not sure. I think it is that “evil company corrupts good manners.” All the great arguments in the world cannot prop up an evil, leaky heart; nor by themselves stiffen the unregenerate heart against the vanity of worldly friendship and flattery. Perhaps the important lesson to take home here is that books — neither of the discursive nor imaginative kind — are a guarantor of sanctification. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.

Schaeffer introduced me to the three main problems of philosophy (epistemology, metaphysics, ethics) and these have haunted me ever since. It is odd — I now see Schaeffer as a dilettante if not an outright poseur. See my colleague’s comments as well (and here). The apostasy of his son now seems of a cloth with the old man’s posturing. But in its time, his work was life-changing because of opening up so many vistas and avenues of thought.

Lewis continued as a big factor to bring me back from my atheism another year later. He continued to loom large and larger for many years. But with time, the weaknesses started to become apparent. His winsome style lulls one to sleep. How many conservative Presbyterians have never noticed, for example, that Lewis’ exposition of the atonement is essentially the same as the Auburn Affirmation? Only comparatively recently did I come to “see through” the fraudulent aspects of Lewis. Perhaps more on that subject anon.

#2. 1975. C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Despite the forebodings, Lewis is undoubtedly at his very best in his fiction, and indeed appears already a second time in this list in that capacity.

From the standpoint of literary craftsmanship, this may be the most defective of Lewis’ fiction. He often steps forth from the narrative and offers omniscient comment — “in some ways she was very young” — or excerpts an essay — “this new idea of cure instead of punishment, so humane in seeming, had in fact deprived the criminal of all rights and by taking away the name Punishment made the thing infinite.” One could perhaps excuse him by remembering that he was only unwillingly a twentieth-century man; he never really came to terms with the conventions of literature post-Dante.

With that allowance, what remains is a book chocked full of mythic characters that are all around us. He paints from the palette he knew — that of the academe — but the characters recapitulate in the corporation and on the street.

The story is nominally about a conventional young couple, Mark and Jane. Jane has some endearing qualities, and these become more vivid, not less, the closer to God she comes — a big theme in Lewis. Mark is vain and empty, a proud zero. Yet he is the thread around which is woven this electric tale of demons and angels, bums and magicians, a barren woman called Mother, and men and women good, bad, and indifferent. In the end, one has a vocabulary of persons that adapts to all of life.

I think this book inured me to much of the tom-foolery that passes for modern scholarship. It was the lifeboat that got me through college. After that, it inoculated me against the scientism that my own career could easily have plunged me into.

I have probably read the novel twenty, thirty times. Like Scripture itself, I still find undiscovered gems. Most recently, of Hingest’s funeral taking place while surrounded by cursing, clanging workmen tearing the place up. Worthy of a Verdi opera in its dual-thread.

It took more than twenty years to realize that Lewis was an agrarian:

In between the stations things flitted past, so isolated from their context that each seemed to promise some unearthly happiness if one could but have descended from the train at that very moment to seize it: a house backed with a group of haystacks and wide brown fields about it, two aged horses standing head to tail, a little orchard with washing hanging on a line, and a rabbit starting at the train, whose two eyes looked like the dots, and his ears like the uprights, of a double exclamation mark.

Something strikes me as I re-read this. Our a-millennial critics say we are too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good. But the longing briefly stirred in Jane’s breast as she sees these scenes through the train window is a longing for heaven: or at least, is homomorphic with it. We don’t know in exactly what ways heaven will be greater than earth: we do know it can’t be something less. To desire God is also to desire his heart, and nowhere is this more palpably to be found than his land settled by good peasants, surrounded by their haystacks and happy horses. To be indifferent to all this because “heaven is so much greater” strikes me to be nearly the opposite of the deep piety that it noisily professes of itself.

Little apologetic zingers fly by now and then. This one, with a quick brush-stroke, lands a missile against one of the stock arguments of our modern boy-atheists:

“I am afraid I don’t believe in that sort of thing,” said Jane coldly.
“Your upbringing makes it natural that you should not,” replied Miss Ironwood.

Van Til in parallel developed this theme in his tract, “Why I Believe in God.” It’s amazing to me how atheists think the form of that argument works against religionists, but not them.

But I leave the fireworks for the readers’ own discovery. Much more will need to be said about Lewis and his work. His fiction will endure; the rest perhaps not.

To be continued with entry #3…