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.