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Mortimer J. Adler on The Great Ideas

The Late Mortimer J. Adler on “The Great Ideas.” If you’ve never read his book titled, well, “How to Read a Book” you should.  And if you have kids who are in high school, maybe even middle school, you should go through it with them.


Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics – Part 1(Intro)

Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses….When a politician promises that his policies will increase the supply of some desirable goods or services, the question to be asked is: At the cost of less of what other goods and services? ~Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics

For a long time I viewed economics as an impenetrable subject. (I also thought it was boring, though I don’t know how I could know that AND find it impenetrable.) One can’t get away from the topic of economics, and the fact is no matter what a person’s level of understanding is, they probably have an opinion on it. A strong opinion. We’re fed strong opinions (and promises) from politicians and entertainment and news and just about any other source of media we consume. We’re promised that a vote for X will change Y about our economy.  At some point I figured it would be a good idea to get a grasp on the basics of economics.

Enter Thomas Sowell’s aptly titled book, Basic Economics. Though not light reading, it’s very accessible and written for the lay person to understand. It’s also long measuring in at 654 pages, but very organized and thorough beginning with an answer to the most simple question :What is economics?

Although the word “economics” suggests money to some people, for a society as a whole money is just an artificial device to get real things done. Otherwise, the government could make us all rich by simply printing more money. It is not money but the volume of goods and services which determines whether a county is poverty stricken of prosperous.

At a time in our county’s history where the solution to economic problems has been trying to “stimulate” the economy through “quantitative easing”–the latest version of which being simply printing more money– learning, or relearning, the basics isn’t a bad idea. Sowell points out that economics is about the management and allocation of resources from one area to another, not simply about money. In the end a study of economics for the average person should be about helping make better informed decisions when the promises start flying.

I’ll be writing a series in coming months, mostly for my own benefit, as a way to help internalize what I’m working through and maybe help someone else see that the basics aren’t so daunting at all.


Calvin on the (lack of) rhetoric in scripture

Why read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion? For gems like this:

In vain were the authority of Scripture fortified by argument, or supported by the consent of the Church, or confirmed by any other helps, if unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human judgement can give. Till this better foundation has been laid, the authority of Scripture remains in suspense. On the other hand, when recognising its exemption from the common rule, we receive it reverently, and according to its dignity, those proofs which were not so strong as to produce and rivet a full conviction in our minds, become most appropriate helps. For it is wonderful how much we are confirmed in our belief, when we more attentively consider how admirably the system of divine wisdom contained in itis arranged – how perfectly free the doctrine is from every thing that savours of earth – how beautifully it harmonises in all its parts – and how rich it is in all the other qualities which give an air of majesty to composition. Our hearts are still more firmly assured when we reflect that our admiration is elicited more by the dignity of the matter than by the graces of style. For it was not without an admirable arrangement of Providence, that the sublime mysteries of the kingdom of heaven have for the greater part been delivered with a contemptible meanness of words. Had they been adorned with a more splendid eloquence, the wicked might have cavilled, and alleged that this constituted all their force. But now, when an unpolished simplicity, almost bordering on rudeness, makes a deeper impression than the loftiest flights of oratory, what does it indicate if not that the Holy Scriptures are too mighty in the power of truth to need the rhetorician’s art?

G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy – Part 1

Chesterton’s Orthodoxy was not an easy read the first time around.  Reading it on an airplane may not have helped my comprehension.

I’m now on my third reading, and each time the door opens wider and more and more rays of brilliance shine through.  I also read Heretics this year, which may have helped me in coming back to this work since it is a follow-up of sorts.  After wielding his devestating intellect and wit against various philosophies of his day (many of which are making the round again) he was challenged to state what he does believe in.

He begins by comparing his own journey to a man who left England, sailed around what he thought was the entire ocean, only to set foot again in that ancient home of the Brits.  Like this man Chesterton says:

I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

It may be that somebody will be entertained by the account of this happy fiasco.  It might amuse a friend or an enemy to read how I gradually learnt from the truth of some stray legend or from the falsehood of some dominant philosophy, things that I might have learnt from my catechism–if I had ever learnt it.

At the outset the book is admittedly autobiographical.  But before we attempt a post-modern “this is just his story” spin to it, we are hit with the logic of his journey.   Reason and common sense are the winds in his sails, and as a result his story ends up a powerful defense for the Christian faith.  And that faith is defined by Chesterton at the outset:

When the word orthodoxy is used here it means the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.

If truth stands the the test of time, then this “slovenly autobiography” certainly has the ring of truth.  The passages, though written in an early 20th century, British flavour (see what I did there?) one might think he somehow had a special insight into the 21st century.

Or then, maybe he just saw the logical progression of the nonsense that defined his day.

Next time: The Maniac



The Diary of C.S. Lewis

I’m in the middle of reading All My Road Before Me : The Diary of  C.S. Lewis 1922-1927.  Unlike most of the books by Lewis, this one is a bit different in that 1) these are his diary entries from his student days and 2) it’s a kind of “proto”-Lewis.  It’s Lewis the atheist.  The Lewis that infused the gospel seamlessly into nearly everything he wrote is absent here, as he didn’t become a Christian until he was 30.  Here we find a brilliant young man, laying the academic foundation that he would later utilize to defend the Christian faith.

The daily routine of his comings and goings, money worries, housing situations, literary endeavors, and the like are a fascinating read.  That is, if you’re into this type of thing.  I’m drawn to well-written diaries and this is definitely one of them.

If you want to see a man who has grown over the course of his life, read the diaries and then top it off with The Letters of C.S. Lewis from his latter years.

Thursday with Chesterton: The Heretics and the Lamp-post

Thursday is a good day for Chesterton:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the  monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

-G.K. Chesterton – Heretics

Work and the Doctrine of Vocation

The Doctrine of Vocation is one of the least talked about aspects of the Christian Life.  We usually talk about “calling” referring to pastors and full-time ministry while other occupations are, in a sense, “permitted.”  We have to make a living so God lets us go and get a job.  As if God is saying “Oh well, I guess you’ve got to work at a bank.  But I don’t like it.  Maybe I’ll get you to teach Sunday School or something to make up for the difference.”

Os Guinness in his book, The Call, lays out the history of how Protestants and Catholics both swing between both ends of error.  Either we view “sacred” jobs at the top (being especially pleasing to God) and “secular” jobs a few notches down or vice versa.  I grew up with the first and though it wasn’t taught explicitly, it is the idea I came away with after 22 years in my home church.

For years I wrestled with the fact that I felt both called to serve God and yet not called to be a full-time minister by profession.

Enter the Doctrine of Vocation.

Our concept of vocational calling (which is redundant as vocation means calling, but as our language has evolved we no longer think of it as such) has become muddied at best.  If you’re interested in finding out more I’d recommend this excellent article: The Doctrine of Vocation: How God Hides Himself in Human Work.  I would also recommend the Os guinness book mentioned above.  Even the most menial work, if ordained by God, is dignified, important, and fulfilling.

I should point out that this idea of vocation goes beyond occupation.  It flows into how we interact with our families, our friends, and our communities.  We as Christians have a vocational call to love our wives, husbands, children, neighbors… even our enemies.  Wherever we find ourselves, there we find our calling.

I’m only beginning to get truly acquainted with this idea.  The concept is simple enough, but daily keeping it in mind is a challenge when my upbringing has taught me otherwise.




3 Thoughts on Reading the Old Testament

When I hear someone criticize Christianity based on the violence in the Old Testament (and they’re right in that there are pretty violent things in there) a few thoughts occur to me.

1) There is often a failure on the part of the reader to distinguish between description and prescription. – After reading through Judges, for example, one is struck by the violence related in the accounts.  So does that mean the bible condones these acts?  Or is it merely describing these acts?  In the case of Judges, the main theme is repeated througout “In those days there was no king in Israel and every man did what what right in his own eyes.”  Part of the point is to draw attention to the evil men do.

Even in the case of Israel’s conquering of the region it is a description of how God established a plan of redemption for a (very) wicked world and not a prescription for us to go and do the same.  The Canaanites and the Hittites and the other “ites” were not just innocently minding their own business.  For example, They were too busy burning their own children as sacrifices, among other things.   (For a good treatment on this particular subject I recommend Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan.)

2) There is often a tendency to impose 21st century sensibilities onto the text. – The world is not nearly as bad as it could be.  And even though we have had and continue to have violence episodes, the Ancient Near East was brutality incarnate.  I think some readers have a tendency to read themselves and modern culture into the text in an attempt to relate to it, and then come away indignant.   They balk at the patriarchal society and spend so much time being offended that they fail to understand the significance of the account.  They fail to get themselves out of the way and receive the text.  They engage in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”  Their own time is the measure by which all else should be judged.  (Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism is a good take on different types of readers.)

3) There is often a failure to grasp the context or intent of the author(s) and/or literary genre. – Some assume (and even some Christians, sadly) that the Christian scriptures were merely dictated by God and literary devices don’t matter.  Hyperbole, poems, figurative language and the like either don’t matter or are overlooked on the one hand by those who would like to find inconsistencies in the text.  On the other hand, some Christians overlook those literary devices thinking that if they admit them into the equation then somehow the word of God is compromised.  And after all aren’t we supposed to take the bible “literally?”

If we mean that we’re supposed to take literally what the author meant given literary devices, then yes.  And granted, it’s more work.  It would be easier if it were an instruction manual, but life isn’t straightforward and we’re not machines.  The OT rings true to the human condition and the need to be saved from it, even if you don’t believe it’s inspired.  In addition, we can’t hold an author accountable for not doing something he didn’t try to do.  If it was the custom to round numbers up or to use hyperbole to make a point, then we can’t fault him for not being exact with the former or accuse him of being concrete (or “literal”)  with the latter.  (How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren is an excellent resource on the discipline of reading.)