Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of Michael D. Aeschliman’s The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism

While neither Aeschliman, nor the philosophers he quotes, possess Lewis' happy ability to clothe complex philosophical notions in the lingo of common man, nonetheless his defense of Lewis' concern about scientism is well done. Aeschliman describes scientism as a misuse of science that asserts "what is not in principle observable is not in fact in existence."

This is an excellent book for exposing the inherent contradictions in philosophical materialism. Reducing man to an object of study is fatally contradictory, because, as Aeschliman points out, the realm of scientific theory is limited to objects lower than man. But when man the observer of man the object assumes that one is higher and the other lower, it is but a short distance from there to the idea that the proper end of science is the manipulation of some men by others for the sake of maximum utility. Man becomes a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Brute facts having triumphed over values (the former being seen as objective and real, the latter as merely subjective), there is no longer any wisdom (what Aeschliman terms sapientia) to govern the use of technology--it may be as readily employed in eugenics or nuclear war as it is in delivering water to an African village.

“Modern scientistic doctrine," Aeschliman says, "holds all fact to be objective and all value to be subjective. To call it a ‘doctrine’ is to draw attention to the fact that its characteristic assumption that only factual statements have validity is itself nonfactual, speculative, and dogmatic; it is, in fact, a diabolically ironic article of faith” [74].

Note well: the book is not anti-science; rather it is a call for science to once again be the handmaiden of wisdom: the recognition that there are ultimate values that define right and wrong, anchored in God Himself. Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Review of Joseph Ellis, The Quartet

At the close of the Revolutionary War Americans tended to view themselves as citizens of sovereign states that were organized into a loose cooperative, not as citizens of a new nation composed of united states. That understanding was codified into the Articles of Confederation. Any hint of a united nation was anathema to the colonists-turned-revolutionaries: that sort of unity smelled like the monarchy they’d just spent precious blood and treasure to escape. Nationhood was the farthest thing from their mind, something viewed with suspicion, not favor.

It was the prescient knowledge of the “quartet,” the four uniquely talented patriots of whom Ellis writes that foresaw coming disaster if the thirteen states failed to unite firmly into a national government worthy of the name. The Philadelphia Convention of 1787 was called by the Confederation Congress to correct the deficiencies of the Articles that had by this time become glaringly obvious. These four men, with the help of several others, hijacked the Convention and wrote a wholly new constitution. Their action—which went far beyond the commission granted by Congress—was technically illegal and constituted a second American revolution.

This is the thesis of Joseph Ellis’s remarkable book, and using primary sources he builds an airtight case for it. Heavily documented but so engagingly written it reads like a novel, the book traces the upbringing and early careers of the quartet: George Washington, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Ellis manages to explain—very believably, I might add—how their backgrounds influenced these four to think and act as they did. The author points out the flaws in the Articles of Confederation, but also explains the political temperature of the populace so we can understand why the Articles came to have such short-comings. Ellis does a great job tracing the sometimes secretive and circuitous means by which three of the four principals managed to put together a convention that would take the radical step of replacing rather than revising the Articles. Along the way they also faced the difficult task of convincing the fourth, George Washington, to throw his considerable political clout behind the effort.

Ellis treats us to the best of the debates and behind-the-scenes maneuvering as the Convention squabbles its way through the creation of a blueprint for a strong federal government capable of administering the massive continent of North America, while leaving a great deal of sovereignty in the hands of the states.

Having recently read The Federalist Papers, this book greatly added to my understanding of the crucial moments and movements of that important post-war period. In closing I should also say that Ellis boldly resists the modern error infecting much contemporary historiography. He refuses to judge the Founding Fathers by the canon of contemporary post-modern “correct” behavior. Ellis evaluates them by their own times and morals and avoids the trap of turning the Founders into either semi-divine saints or slave-holding devils. He has a refreshing objectivity and offers the reader a much more accurate account of late eighteenth-century America than will the politically-correct pieties of many modern historians. I highly recommend this book.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Review of The City that Does Not Age

Americans cannot identify with a modern city built over top of ruins that reach back to the fifth century BC, and even earlier—in other words, a city continuously inhabited for over 2400 years. But that is the situation of modern-day Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, once known as the ancient Thracian city of Serdonpolis. Bistra Johnson has compiled an interesting and comprehensive record of the history of this remarkable place in her book, The City that Does Not Age.

After a prologue that introduces the reader to the topic, Johnson begins to trace the history of Sofia through Thracian and Roman times. The city figured significantly in the history of the Roman Empire as it sat astride the Via Militaris, the Roman road which stretched from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to Singidunum (modern Belgrade).

As the Roman empire declines through internal assassinations and external threats of the invading Germanic tribes throughout the Middle Ages, Johnson does an excellent job of tracing the volatile fortunes of Sofia, as the welfare of the city rises and falls under different leaders and foreign overlords.

After the crusades the city succumbs to the Ottoman empire, which maintains alternately loose and close control of the city, ultimately resulting in the somewhat peaceful if decidedly tenuous coexistence of local Christians, Muslims and Jews. The level of detail of Johnson’s research and her use of primary and secondary sources pays off as she is able to relate many fascinating accounts of both major and minor events during the period.

The liberation of Sofia from Ottoman domination, and the eventual attaining of Bulgaria’s independence is carefully chronicled. She includes a section on the resurgence of the arts and intelligentsia of the city, as well as its entrance into the modern age. The changing loyalties and fortunes of the city from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the Soviet era complete the story, bringing the reader to Sofia’s present status as the capital of Bulgaria. Johnson includes a bibliography and an excellent index.

One of the notable tasks Johnson has accomplished is giving the reader an understanding of the significance of Sofia to the larger history of Europe. The city’s location on the Balkan peninsula made it a strategic prize, the control of which gave armies and nations a means of projecting power and influence over a much larger area.

There are some negatives. Two difficulties which frequently bedevil independent authors are apparent in this book: the cover is not impressive, nor is the formatting and editing. Every writer needs a good, professional editor and Johnson is no exception. Even so, her writing is solid though a little uneven at the beginning of the book and the very end.

If I was evaluating on the editing alone I would give this book three stars at most. But the excellent historical account and the strength of the research combine to make this book a good read, well worth the effort. All things considered, I’m giving it four stars.
[Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy from the author for the purposes of review.]

Friday, January 5, 2018

Review of David Powlison's Making All Things New

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken” is an outstanding book, suitable for both counselors and counselees, and in all probability needed by both (and for the same reasons). Even if we’ve never crossed the line in sexual sin (possible, but highly unlikely in light of Matthew 5:27-28), we’ve all been tempted to find our comfort in resources other than God Himself. That’s ultimately the issue David Powlison addresses.

Though expressing himself in prose Powlison writes like a poet, with deep empathy and suffused with understanding and hope. The intended audience includes both the victimized and the victimizer, and both men and women. This book is no “bible band aid,” but is a theologically responsible, Christ-centered look at the knotty problem of sexual sin.

Powlison spends Chapter 1 orienting the reader to his approach; it is grounded in the realities of the biblical Christian faith: sexual fidelity is good, sexual sin is wrong, and Christ alone can transform the unfaithful into the faithful. The reader is questioned in Chapter 2 about where he or she stands in relation to the topic of sexual brokenness. Hope wrapped in warm understanding of life’s suffering and difficulty is offered. The road of healing is characterized as “walking toward the light,” a metaphor that disabuses us of the notion of quick fixes, all the while holding forth hope for the future.

In Chapter 3 he explores the wide varieties of behaviors that can turn God’s wondrous gift of sex into tragic darkness. At each turn he reveals how such behaviors fall short of and pervert God’s good intentions, and how God in Christ draws near to offer deliverance and healing to both the victim and the predator.

Chapter 4, Renewal is Lifelong, is outstanding. Though aspects of sanctification are indeed crisis events, and God does sometimes deliver in a single stroke, more frequently the process is a long one involving progress, regress, and sometimes standing still. Both healing and growing in obedience are challenges requiring endurance and patience. For biblical counselors, this is a helpful corrective to some of Jay Adams’ earlier writings. One could get the impression from, say, “ChristianCounselor’s Manual,” that nouthetic counseling fixes problems in a relatively short time. Sometimes it does. But the more frequent experience (and I think Adams would agree) is that progress in overcoming habitual sin issues is often slow, beset with setbacks, and in many cases continues until the end of life. Powlison makes the important point that the crucial issue in sanctification is that we are oriented in the right direction—towards Christ.

In Chapter 5, Powlison pulls the dirty veneer off long-term sexual sin, demonstrating that there is more going on in the heart than simply the fall to lust. In fact, what’s going on in the heart might be even more abominable: a reduction of grace to an inverted retribution theology (“I serve You, but You haven’t given me what I want, therefore I will take revenge by indulging in sexual sin”).

In Chapter 6, Powlison discusses some of the motives that might be at work behind sexual transgression, and some of the motivations that might be behind a victim’s responses.

Chapter 7 is spent peeling back the layers of the onion to show that the battle is not simply against the outward, obvious, “big” sin. There are progressive levels of sin and temptation on which the battle for Christ-glorifying purity will be fought, some of which are so subtle and insidious we can barely detect them except in retrospect.

Powlison reminds the reader in Chapter 8 that the goal is much larger than merely not sinning: it is Christlikeness. God’s words to us, “I am with you,” become the focus of the final chapter, in which Powlison encourages us to “get down to today’s skirmish in the great war.”

David Powlison is a gifted counselor and writer: this book just might be Powlison at his best. Highly recommended.