Here are our favorite books we discovered or rediscovered this past year.
The God Who is There
By Francis Schaeffer
Francis August Schaeffer (1912—1984) was a Presbyterian pastor and a theologian, philosopher and evangelist. Ordained to the pastorate in 1938, he served parishes in Pennsylvania and Missouri before moving to Switzerland. In 1955 he and his wife Edith founded The L’Abri community (“the shelter”) where he ministered to disaffected youths and intellectuals who were interested in Christianity but needed to find reasons to believe. In order better to serve these seekers, Schaeffer immersed himself in studying the influential thinkers of the Western tradition as well as the leading contemporary thinkers and artists. Schaeffer sought to understand the contemporary world, both in its current manifestation and its antecedents, so that he could better communicate the life-giving message of Christ.
The God Who is There was the first of Schaeffer’s books to speak of the general condition of contemporary man and how Christianity supplies what he needs. Many years ago, I read Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? and watched the associated videos, which present a summary of his message, and I saw its importance, but I never got around to reading his other books.
But a few months ago I came across The God Who is There in our church’s library and began reading. Schaeffer’s words still minister to me.
His key message is that contemporary Western man is sunk in despair because he no longer believes in the existence of truth, and he no longer believes in truth because he no longer believes in the God of the Bible. I resonate with this message because I grew to maturity during the last years of Schaeffer’s life (although unaware of him at the time), and I experienced this despair in myself and observed it in others, without being able to understand or counteract it.
But contemporary Western man is somewhat different. The despair of Schaeffer’s day was partly a result of the cultural memory of earlier beliefs juxtaposed with the nihilistic message of meaninglessness being taught by all the advanced thinkers. We feel a loss most acutely when we are aware of the loss. But contemporary Western young people are not aware of the loss, for they have been trained since their youth to regard the ways of their ancestors, including Christendom, as evil.
As a result, contemporary Western man has transformed his despair into rage, and he rages against “racism,” “sexism,” “fundamentalism,” and all of that stuff.
But despite this change, Schaeffer remains relevant, possibly even more than before. In Schaeffer’s days, the evil we see around us was only in its infancy, and only the most perceptive saw the existential threat. Now it has come to a point.
Schaeffer has compassion for contemporary man, diagnoses his problem, and prescribes the cure: Jesus Christ, along with all that Christ gives to mankind. Schaeffer teaches theology and philosophy with the confidence of a scholar, but he delivers this knowledge in ways that minister to ordinary people.
Schaeffer’s two key concepts are antithesis and the line of despair. Antithesis is what we have lost; the classical belief that truth exists and consequently that truth has an opposite that is false. Thesis and antithesis cannot both be true. But beginning with Hegel, says Schaeffer, Western man began to replace antithetical thinking with dialectical thinking, in which thesis and antithesis are brought together into synthesis, meaning that truth in the old-fashioned sense of the opposite of falsehood no longer is possible.
(Professional philosophers may dispute the accuracy of Schaeffer’s theory, but there is no doubt of the ills that he diagnoses.)
I pause to digress on a relevant theory of my own: We live in postmodern times, where I use the word “postmodern” in the following sense:
The adjectives “premodern,” “modern” and “postmodern” describe systems of thought and life. The Premodern acknowledges God or the gods as supreme, the Modern makes man the measure of all things, and the Postmodern recognizes that modernism fails because man is finite and error-prone: If man is the measure of all things then nothing can be measured. But what makes postmodernism is that it refuses the correct path of returning to the Premodern, but instead attempts to make a stand on the impossibility of knowing.
Although Schaeffer did not often use the term, contemporary times are postmodern, and the natural response of mankind is either despair or rage.
(End of digression.)
The line of despair is Schaeffer’s insight that for modern man, religion, morality, the meaning of my life, and all things that distinguish my life from the life of an animal, are no longer in the realm of truth. Truth only exists in the realm of science and history, meaning that man’s higher life is ether impossible or can only be based on a noble lie. We cannot know that Jesus rose from the dead or that man has a mind or an immortal soul. We cannot know these things, we can only make a contentless, irrational leap of faith in the attempt to appropriate them.
“Contentless” is Schaeffer’s word to describe how the postmodern religious man continues to use classical Christian words like “Jesus” or “salvation,” while denying that these words refer to anything specific, let alone have their traditional Christian meanings. They are content-free religious words which are up for grabs.
So by the line of despair, man’s intellectual and spiritual life, which might be summarized as “faith” and “rationality” are to be kept completely separate. Rationality never applies to man’s most human concerns, and faith has nothing to do with clear thinking or intellectually satisfying proof. Thus the perceptive man, the man who sees what is happening but does not reject it, has no choice but despair, for the proper human life is made impossible by the line of despair.
The line of despair remains as airtight as in Schaeffer’s day, but since the most characteristic response nowadays is rage instead of despair, we may rename the line of despair to the line of rage. Whatever its name, this line is the key malaise of our day.
Apologetics is always subjective; arguments and tactics that minister to one person leave another cold. But for my money, Francis Schaeffer’s deep love of Western man, his deep love of the noble parts of the Western tradition, his deep compassion for ordinary and extraordinary people caught in the evil contemporary system, his erudition in the things of God, and his ability to deliver the goods make him the Christian apologist par excellence.
*Postscript: For those who wish to read Schaeffer, I follow his own recommendation that you begin with The Francis Schaeffer Trilogy, consisting of The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent. I have ordered the trilogy, but since it is being delivered from England, I shall have to be patient.
The book you need is not the one you think you need, so may God preserve physical bookstores. Wandering around Bruised Books in Pullman this past year I discovered Ernst Cassirer’s The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy and his Language and Myth. Cassirer is an interesting intellectual historian because, although he adopts the standard teleological view according to which the intellectual development of man culminates in modern scientific thought, he recognizes that modern rationalism is not obvious and differs profoundly from other modes of cognition. For example, the logical-discursive mode strives to connect all particulars into an intelligible global order, but mythical thinking (he thinks) conceives a particular object in isolation, giving it one’s whole mental field of vision. The logical mode distinguishes its object from the subject’s reaction to it and from the tools (names, images) the mind uses to grasp it, but the mythical mode tends to conflate these. Cassirer thinks the logical mode gives us higher religions and mysticisms, but a reader may wonder if something has also been lost. I also owe Cassirer for tipping me off on how great a role the rebellion against Averroes might have played as an impetus to distinctively Renaissance thought.
Everyone tends to think his own role is the most important, which is as it should be, but I think a good case can be made that the intolerance and narrow-mindedness of the current day is distinctively a failure of higher education, so I am glad that this year I finally got around to reading Cardinal Newman’s wise and wide-ranging reflections on the proper goals of a university education, The Idea of a University. A university education, for Newman, fosters the cultivation of intellectual excellence. One aspect of this is what one might call a philosophical enlargement, an appreciation for the validity and proper limits of each discipline. Another is what he sometimes calls discipline of the mind, the habit of precision and systemization. A university should be a sort of institutional embodiment of what he regards as the distinctive act of philosophy: the recognition and peaceful ordering of all the branches of truth. I also benefited from some of the side topics Newman addresses along the way, such as his advice to Catholic scientists on dealing with apparent conflicts between scientific findings and the Faith (or, rather, why we generally shouldn’t concern ourselves about them) and his rather Spenglerian reflections on why the age of classic English literature is probably permanently over.
The discoveries of mathematicians are often crucial for other fields, but mathematicians are seldom very good at explaining themselves to outsiders. This bottleneck in information flow is probably a larger impediment to the advance of knowledge than is generally recognized, so we must be grateful for good math books when we find them. I will therefore express my ardent thanks to A. Zee for his Group Theory in a Nutshell for Physicists, the most gentle introduction to Lie groups and representation theory that I’ve ever found, which has helped me better understand and teach this subject at the heart of physics.
I am ill equipped to perform this task because, truth be told, I nowadays read very few new books. I gather from reading their dust jackets at arms-length that most of them are written by pimps for the Zeitgeist, and that greater intimacy with the Zeitgeist is bound to give me the clap. So I’m nowadays a reader and re-reader of old books. This past year I reread P. G. Wodehouse’s Heavy Weather for what may have been the twenty-seventh time, but I cannot explain why this book remains for me a source of unfailing refreshment. I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of George Frederick Augustus Ruxton, an author safely underground by 1848, and more particularly his engrossing Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains (London: J. Murray, 1847). Ruxton was a swashbuckling English geographer of the old school, who went to Spain at age 17 to fight in the First Carlist War. He then joined a British regiment in western Canada and became fascinated by the life of Indians and mountain men. Ruxton then traveled to Africa and attempted to cross the continent from Namibia to Mozambique on foot. He failed for want of resources, but this was thirty years before Stanley’s successful trek across “the dark continent.” Adventures in Mexico recounts Ruxton’s trip through Mexico and the Western United States from July 1846 to August 1847. The U.S. had declared war on Mexico in May of 1846, and by August the American Army had taken New Mexico, Arizona and California, and was fighting south of the Rio Grande. Ruxton landed at Vera Cruz, took a stage coach to Mexico City, and then rode north on horseback on the Camino Real de Terra Adentro (Royal Road of the Inland Territory) through Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua and El Paso, to Taos, the great rendezvous of his beloved mountain men. From Taos Ruxton crossed the Great Plains and returned to England. One year later he was back in St. Louis on his way to the Rocky Mountains. There, alas, he died, age 27, of internal injuries sustained when he fell off a mule. Shortly before his death Ruxton wrote.
“My movements are uncertain, for I am trying to get up a yacht voyage to Borneo and the Indian Archipelago; have volunteered to Government to explore central Africa; and the Aborigines Protection Society wish me to go out to Canada to organize Indian tribes; whilst, for my own part and inclination, I wish to go to all parts of the world at once.”“The Late George Frederick Ruxton,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine vol. 64 (1848): 591-594.
You see Ruxton’s spirit was unlike that nowadays pimped in so many new books. It was also a spirit unlike that he found among the men of Mexico, whom he described as either tyrannical or timorous. Here is Ruxton’s description of taking his seat in the stage coach to Mexico City, having been warned that the road was infested with bandits:
“One fine morning, therefore, I took my seat in the diligencia, with a formidable battery of a double-barrel rifle, a ditto carbine, two brace of pistols, and a blunderbuss. Blank were the faces of my four fellow-passengers when I entered thus equipped. They protested, they besought—every one’s life would be sacrificed were one of the party to resist. ‘Senores,’ I said, ‘here are arms for you all: better for you to fight than be killed like a rat.’ No, they washed their hands of it—would have nothing to do with gun or pistol.”
My favorite book of 2020 is The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, by Michael S. Heiser. I learned a ton from Dr. Heiser about how the ancient Israelites – and their near neighbours – thought about angels, demons, gods, Nephilim, the afterlife, and so forth. A reader who has had no exposure to this stuff will find it revelatory. I’d been reading on the topic for several years, so for me Heiser was mostly filling in blanks and clarifying lots of topics that I had not realized were muddy to me: i.e., a ton of good stuff!
The book is remarkably thorough both as to breadth and as to depth. Heiser writes as a scholar, with compendious and fascinating footnotes, dense citations to the literature in several languages, and a mastery of ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. But he writes for a popular audience, and is careful to provide context (of scholarly disagreements about this or that matter, for example, or questions of etymology), so one needn’t be an OT scholar to gallop through his text profitably. Heiser’s writing is clear, and accessible; the arguments and topics are organized well, and intuitively.
It should be said also that Heiser is a devout and unironic – and theologically sophisticated – Christian. There is in his book therefore no jot of modernist condescension toward the Biblical authors or their contemporaries. He takes their supernatural world view with deadly seriousness, and treats it as veridical. Finally, he often ties this or that scholarly discovery to points of Christian doctrine, and indeed to the practical part of each Christian in the spiritual war that rages throughout the created order.
There are two sure indices that I have found a book valuable: it is littered with my marginalia, and I have bought another by the same author. Heiser wins on both counts: I now own 6 of his books, and am working my way through the third of them. Unseen Realm is a good high level survey of the domain. Reversing Hermon goes into much greater depth about the War in Heaven and the Mission of Jesus; Demons explains that there were actually 3 angelic rebellions. Fascinating stuff, chock full of fascinating factoids.
Tied for first place is Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, by Paul Griffiths. It is the finest work of speculative theology I have read since Aquinas. By no means do I agree with all of the conclusions Griffiths teases out of Christian scripture, doctrine and tradition about the eschaton for angels, men, demons, animals, human artifacts, the earth (and its environing cosmos), and so forth. But in almost all respects, he does a great job of drawing careful distinctions that adumbrate all sorts of clear implications of the Faith. Along the way, we learn much about the natures of each sort of creature listed above. Decreation is brilliant work.
I cannot too highly recommend this book. There is a third sure index that I have found a book valuable: that I find it exciting. So glad was I at the thought of what I was about to learn from Griffiths that, when I was headed for a session with Decreation, I could feel my pulse begin to race. I swear I am not making this up. The last time that happened for me with a work of technical philosophy was in reading Whitehead.
The Danish novelist Martin A. Hansen (1909 – 1955) regarded Orm og Tyr [Serpent and Bull] (1952) as his masterwork. Orm og Tyr, a non-fiction study of Denmark from prehistoric times to the Fourteenth Century, was at least ten years in the making. To write it, Hansen immersed himself in such topics as archaeology, medieval literature, church-archives, and the folklore of the localities. The book takes its title from a widespread myth of the early-medieval Scandinavians: That a dragon (orm) harassed a village and that the villagers raised up a great bull (tyr) to combat and defeat the dragon. The dragon and the bull furnish an iconography which incorporated itself ornamentally into early Danish church architecture. Hansen argues, particularly for the period from the Fifth to the Thirteenth Century, that Christendom did not so much abolish Heathendom in the Danish lands as absorb it, just as the Norse themselves had absorbed elements of the cultural settlement that preceded them in Scania, Zealand, and Jutland. The ritual sites of the early people became the ritual sites of the Norse and, as elsewhere in Europe, these in turn morphed into churches and monasteries. Orm og Tyr is a big book of nearly 400 pages in large format, with woodcut illustrations by Hansen’s artist-friend, Sven Havsteen-Mikkelsen. Gyldendal published it in a deluxe edition that is today rare and expensive. (I lucked upon my copy in an antiquarian bookstore in Stockholm in the mid-1980s and paid very little for it, considering.) Even in Hansen’s time, archaeology had vindicated many a myth and legend. At Lejre, on the island of Zealand in East Denmark, field-researchers had unearthed what is likely the great mead-hall Heorot of the Beowulf saga. Hrothgar’s kingdom appears to have a basis in reality, and perhaps the details of Beowulf’s story as well. (Beowulf, it is worth remarking, was famously a dragon-fighter although associated with the boar rather than the bull.) Hrothgar himself, known as Hroar in Danish, undoubtedly reflects an historical personage whose political and military activities now appear to have an actual basis. One of Hansen’s feats in Orm og Tyr is to bolster trust in old stories. Hansen turned his skepticism on modern skepticism. Although Orm og Tyr has never been translated into English, readers can access it indirectly through a surprising source. Poul Anderson’s adventure-story of temporal displacement The Corridors of Time (1965), which sends its protagonist back to prehistoric Denmark, draws heavily on Hansen. Anderson’s description of the Neolithic farming-and-fishing culture, in whose milieu the hero finds himself, draws on Hansen’s detailed description of the ancient, Pre-Norse ethos.
I just ran a search under “Martin A. Hansen” at Amazon: Orm og Tyr is not listed; Hansen’s novel The Liar (1950) in an English translation from the 1970s is the only item by that author on offer and will cost the buyer seven hundred and fifty-eight dollars.