THE TEXAS RANGERS (Volume 1)

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The Texas Rangers, Volume One: Wearing the Cinco Peso 1821-1900 by Mike Cox, New York, Forge, 2008, 492pp; finished 4/9/9; rated 10.

Ever since I was a kid I have had a fascination with the Texas Rangers (the law enforcers, not the baseball team). Mike Cox does a wonderful job recounting the story of their establishment by Stephen F. Austin, their role in the Texas republic, and later in the state of Texas. He details, with many well researched and fast paced stories, their role as Indian fighters, quasi-military frontier protectors, and shows how later they morphed into a law enforcement arm of the government who spent most of their time trying to keep the peace (particularly “out west”) and corral the criminals who were making mischief in the developing state.

The book is thoroughly documented and does a splendid job of combining the details of politics and history with many tales of hair-raising shoot outs, battles and bravado. The second volume is slated to be released in August this year (which will cover 1900 to the present), and I am looking forward to reading it too. If you’re interested in Texas history, this is a keeper.

THE TEMPLARS

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The Templars: The Secret History Revealed by Barbara Frale, Arcade, New York, 2004, 232pp; finished 2/20/9; rated 6.

There are a plethora of goofy books on the history of the Templars. This isn’t one of them. It’s written by the Archive Historian of the Vatican Library, and gives a balanced, non-sensational telling of how the Templars began, how they emerged into a monetary/banking powerhouse, how they became a threat to the European city-states, and were ultimately falsely accused of heresy and disbanded by the Pope. If you are interested in medieval history, this is a good read.

CALLED OUT OF DARKNESS

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Called Out Of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession by Anne Rice, New York, Knopf, 2008, 256pp. Finished 3/10/9; rated 9

Say the name Anne Rice and people automatically think of Vampires. Very sexually driven Vampires. Darkness. Anne Rice, the author of The Vampire Chronicles and a host of other bestselling books, was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family in New Orleans. In her college days she had a crisis of faith and became an atheist (her recollection of this moment is one of the most powerful in the book, and full of beauty and pathos). This book is her testimony of coming back to the Church and coming back to Jesus Christ. It is a passionate and achingly beautiful telling of her re-entry into the Christian life.

There are passages in the book that are breathtaking, and Anne’s deep devotion to Jesus is inspiring. One of the intriguing things she talks about is how her faith was pre-literate. She grew into the Christian faith, not based on words or texts, but based on routines and sights and sounds and smells – her early Christian life was very sensual, if you will. I find it interesting that someone that “in touch” with their five senses, and who had such a rich pre-literate life, became a bestselling author whose primary tool is words. Perhaps that is why her writing is so visual and aural.

Toward the close, Anne makes it clear that she now has a vocation – from now on, she tells us, she will write of nothing, save Jesus Christ. I am currently (3/09) reading her Out of Egypt, a novel of Jesus’ early years.

RESTORING THE ANGLICAN MIND

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Restoring the Anglican Mind by Arthur Middleton, Herefordshire, UK, Gracewing, 2008, 122pp; finished 3/22/9; rated 6

Fr. Arthur Middleton here presents a passionate plea for the Anglican Church to recover its memory and be healed of amnesia. Because she has forgotten her past – forgotten who she was – she doesn’t now know who she is, and the only hope of restoration is to return to her roots.

And those roots, argues the author, are threefold: the Scriptures, the Early Church Fathers, and the Anglican Divines (of the 17th century) who wrote their books and lived out their faith in the context of an English application of the Scriptures and the Fathers. “In these Anglican divines, what is being made present in England is the spirit and substance of that Catholic vision of the mystery of Christ which characterizes those early centuries of the Church in East and West…Their aim and purpose was to be representative of the Christian tradition in all its fullness, organic wholeness and unbroken unity” (p. 34). Anglicanism is, in other words, not some kind of bridge between Protestantism and Rome. It is a full expression of what it means to be truly Catholic.

This short book is a good read, with good prescriptions for the healing of the Church. But of course, Fr. Middleton is preaching to the choir.

CHRISTIANITY’S DANGEROUS IDEA

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Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath, HarperOne, New York, 2007, 552pp; finished 3/22/9; rated 9

Subtitled, “The Protestant Revolution – A History From The Sixteenth Century To The Twenty-First”, McGrath has produced a masterpiece of insight into what makes Protestantism tick. Much more than a mere listing of dates, persons and incidents, this book is a careful look inside the mind and heart of Protestantism.

McGrath, who is an Anglican priest and the professor of Historical Theology at the University of Oxford, and who is himself a Protestant, takes a nevertheless dispassionate approach to the subject and dissects the many moments and methods of history with the finesse of a surgeon with a sharp scalpel. While every page offers insight into understanding what makes the Protestant world go round, one particularly interesting contribution from McGrath is the realization that there really is no such thing as Protestantism. Unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism has no head, no central authority, no determinative council. And so the boundaries of Protestantism are not as clearly demarcated as the boundaries of other branches of the Christian Church.

While showing the evolution of the movement over the last 500 years (and while addressing in detail subjects like Protestant views of the Bible, authority, worship, music, organization, arts, missions, politics, and science), perhaps the most significant thing the author shows us is that Protestantism isn’t a movement or an institution at all. It is a method of doing Christianity – method which in its very methodology is evolutionary and consequently always being changed and reapplied to newly emerging places and circumstances.

For example, what the Protestant ethos of missions was in the 18th century is completely different from what it is now, and yet there is a cord of continuity running through andconnecting the two eras. Before the 19th century the Protestant interpretation of Matthew 28.18 (“Go into all the world…and make disciples…”) was seen strictly as a command to the original disciples. Something shifted in the late 18th century and Protestants began reading the text differently – seeing it as spoken to the whole Church, and not just the Apostles. The result was the massive missionary movements of the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries. Protestantism has the ability to recreate itself. The most significant current re-creation is the emergence of Pentecostalism as a major expression of Protestantism, particularly in the global south. Where will it all take us? McGrath is careful to say that we don’t know! This thing is alive and no one can say for sure what comes next.

SEARCHING FOR GOD KNOWS WHAT

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Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller, Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2004, 246pp; finished 3/22/9; rated 7

Sometimes Christianity can get stuffy. Donald Miller is on a kind of one man mission to unstuff it. In a nutshell this book is about cultivating a relationship with God rather than being squashed and unnaturally formed by religion.

Miller asks a lot of thought provoking questions that might leave the more institutionally religious among us a bit uncomfortable, but the questions usually get to the heart of the matter and ultimately ask whether we’ve substituted the formality of religion for a genuine relationship with God (and I’m not talking about formal churches here – Miller himself is from an evangelical background that nearly strangled him). In the midst of all his questions and insights, the author is sometimes drop-dead funny. Here’s an example:

“You would think some of the writers of the Bible would have gone to a Christian writers seminar to learn the magical formulas about how to dangle a carrot in front of a a rabbit, but they didn’t. Instead, the writers of the Bible tell a lot of stories and account for a lot of history and write down a lot of poems and recite a great deal of boring numbers and then conclude with various creepy hallucinations that, in some mysterious way, explain the future, in which, apparently, we all slip into Dungeons and Dragons outfits and fight the giant frog people” (p. 49).

This book is a good preventative for letting your religion get too stuffy. I recommend it.

THE SHACK


The Shack, by William P. Young, 2007, Los Angeles, Windblown Media, 248pp.; finished 6/2/8; rated 2

This book has made the rounds, and I’m impressed by that. In its 7th printing, it can be found in airport bookstores, Sams and Walmart, and practically anywhere books are sold. People keep asking me, “Have you read The Shack.” Well, I have now. I read it over two days of flying from North Carolina to Dallas to Portland to San Diego to Dallas.

Two things up front: (1) I didn’t like the book; having said that, (2) I get what the author was communicating, and agree with him: relationship is what God really wants with us, and the author has a good grasp on grace.

I didn’t like the book for a bunch of reasons, I’ll give just a few in this review. First, the author chooses to use the imagery of two women and a man as representations of the Holy Trinity. All through the book, God the Father is portrayed as an old black woman – an Aunt Jemima type. Now, I love old black women, but I have trouble with God being portrayed as such. “But it’s just a story,” someone will say, or someone else will tell me, “It’s a literary device to get across the point that we can’t put God in a box.” I know, I know. I get it. But I also get that God himself (if you take the Bible to be His work, which I do), never used such a literary device, and in fact, for the whole of Christian history (until the recent liberal and bizarre and heretical antics of the Episcopal Church) God is portrayed in the masculine. If we are faithful to Scripture and to history, we don’t have permission to monkey with this image, and to do so invites danger. “But it’s only imagery”, someone might reply. So it is. But imagery is important (because ALL communication is imagery – symbol) and bad imagery is bad (because it communicates the wrong idea). Does God contain masculinity and femininity? Of course. But he reveals himself in the masculine, and if anything, his creation is imaged as the feminine (including his particular creation, the Church), and to confuse the two is to bring confusion between the two – hence nature worship and goddess worship go hand in hand.

Second, the author doesn’t understand the Trinity (not that anyone does, but this author really doesn’t). He presents the Holy Trinity as God-the-Three-Individuals-Who-Share-One-Mind. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity is closer to the Star Trek collective society, the Borg, than to the biblically revealed Trinity, in whom the Father is unseen and unknowable and is seen and known only through the Son. To be more biblically faithful, Young would have written this book with only one “seen” member of the Trinity – the Son. To further complicate things, on page 145 the Father is submitted to the Son, and on 122 the Spirit tells Mack, “we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity,” contra St. Paul in 1 Co. 15.24-28.

Third, the author steps dangerously close to (and probably over) the line of patripassionism – the early heresy that God the Father died in the crucifixion. On page 103 he has Mack saying to the Father, “I’m so sorry that you, that Jesus, had to die”. The Father (who is a woman, remember), doesn’t correct him, but simply tells him that she isn’t sorry, it was worth it.

Fourth, on page 179 and the few pages following, the author portrays Jesus as being anti-religious, making it that organized or institutional religion isn’t God’s idea at all, and simply something that he has to deal with due to the frailty of humanity. Oddly, at the same time, he embraces the authority of the Bible, which comes to us through that very institution he tends to reject. Then, going a step further, while he has Jesus dismissing organized religion in general (and saying, “I don’t create institutions, never have, never will”), he also has him saying that he has followers who are Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, and “I have no desire to make them Christians…” (p. 182). So much for Matthew 28.18 and the Great Commission.

Fifth, and finally, the book can be pretty sappy. For example, on page 107 God the Father, that is, Papa, who is, remember, an old black woman, suggests they all pause for devotions. While Mack is expecting Jesus to pull out a Bible, “Instead, Jesus reached across the table and took Papa’s hands in his, scars now clearly visible on his wrists. Mack sat transfixed as he watched Jesus kiss his father’s hands and then look deep into his father’s eyes and finally say, ‘Papa, I loved watching you today, as you made yourself fully available to take Mack’s pain into yourself, and then giving him space to choose his own timing. You honored him, and you honored me. To listen to you whisper love and calm into his heart was truly incredible. What a joy to watch! I love being your son.’”

While there are witty moments (like God cooking dinner “from scratch” and Mack not being exactly sure what that meant), and while I get that the author is trying to draw people into an experiential relationship with God and not just a formal religious life devoid of true spirituality, I found the negatives far outweighing the positives in this book. Trying to portray the Trinity in a work of fiction is nigh on impossible, and should be attempted, if ever, only by someone who has a very solid grasp on the historical doctrine itself. Otherwise, it paints the wrong picture, and wrong pictures can create wrong concepts and beliefs.