Stapert, Calvin R. Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People. ChristianAudio, 2010.
Stapert begins this work by tracing the development of the oratorio and the development of Handel as a musician. He also discusses the changes in the performance of Messiah over the years from the smaller choirs and orchestras to massive settings in the nineteenth century and then back toward more authentic performances. The latter part of the book examines the Messiah itself. Stapert examines the organization of texts in the libretto, and he discusses how Handel utilized various musical techniques to wed the text to music that enhances its meaning. This is the most fascinating part of the book as it explains how Handel harnessed both Baroque conventions and elements inherent in sound and music to communicate. The audiobook includes selections from the Messiah after some of the discussions. More selections would have been welcome Negatively, the reader of the book has an affected style of speech that made listening less enjoyable than it could have been. Thankfully, this was more pronounced at the beginning and less pronounced as the book went on.
Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
Sandel does an excellent job of making complex philosophical issues clear and relevant through the many concrete examples that fill this book. His skill as an educator makes this book an enjoyable read. The content makes the book a worthwhile read.
Sandel argues that conceptions of justice are oriented "around three ideas: maximizing welfare, respecting freedom, and promoting virtue. Each of these ideas points to a different way of thinking about justice" (6). Among philosophers, the former two perspectives have proved the most popular, since justice that promotes virtue must judge what is virtuous and what is not—a difficult task in a pluralistic society with no agreed upon moral foundation. Sandel thus begins by examining utilitarianism and libertarianism.
Utilitarianism falls by the wayside in short order. It’s critics charge that it does not give adequate weight to human dignity and individual rights, and that it wrongly reduces everything of moral importance to a single scale of pleasure and pain" (49). John Stuart Mill sought to answer these critics, but Sandel demonstrates that in doing so he "appeals to moral ideals beyond utility—ideals of character and human flourishing" (52). Thus Mill’s attempted defense the "maximizing welfare" approach to justice ends up rooted in a "promoting virtue" approach.
Sandel spends a greater part of the book on the "respecting freedom" conception of justice. He does this with good reason, for while many debates about justice are debates about the three orientations (welfare, freedom, virtue), "some of the most hard-fought political arguments of our time take place between two rival camps within [the freedom group]—the laissez-faire camp and the fairness camp" (20). Since "the philosophies of Kant and Rawls represent the fullest and clearest expression of" the "ambition" to "spare politics and law from becoming embroiled in moral and religious controversies" (243), Sandel devotes a chapter to each. He concludes, however, that their "ambition cannot succeed.” He reasons, “Many of the most hotly contested issues of justice and rights can’t be debated without taking up controversial moral and religious questions. In deciding how to define the rights and duties of citizens, it’s not always possible to set aside competing conceptions of the good life. And even when it’s possible, it may not be desirable. Asking democratic citizens to leave their moral and religious convictions behind when they enter the public realm may seem a way of ensuring toleration and mutual respect. In practice, however, the opposite can be true. Deciding important public questions while pretending to a neutrality that cannot be achieved is a recipe for backlash and resentment. A politics emptied of substantive moral engagement makes for an impoverished civic life" (243).
Thus Aristotle and virtue-ethics come under consideration. This is the view that Sandel himself embraces: "Justice is inescapably judgmental" (261). This view is not a panacea to the conflict of values. Sandel supports abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and extending the definition of marriage to include pairings of the same sex. But he does not take these positions on the grounds that women have the right to choose (for they do not have the right to choose to kill their toddlers) or that it violates a homosexual’s freedom and rights to be denied marriage. Instead, he argues that participants in these discussions must determine the moral issues of whether an embryo or fetus are persons and what the telos of marriage is. The hard work of debating justice in particular instances remain, but Sandel has cleared away problematic general approaches and laid a foundation for those particular discussions to take place.
Keller, Timothy. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. New York: Dutton, 2010.
I started this book with chapter seven since the discussion of justice and Christian involvement in the public square coincided with a research project I was working on. In my estimation, this was the best chapter of the book. Keller mediates the insights of Sandel’s Justice and Steven Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse through his own Christian understanding. In doing so he demonstrates that freedom, and equality, concepts closely related to justice, are "empty concepts." Freedom and equality are not simply good or bad. They are good or bad in relation to something else. In general, freedom to harm others is not good. But what is harm? Moral disagreement over what is or is not harm demonstrates the impossibility of value-neutral justice. To achieve true justice, Christian morality must enter the public square. Keller believes this is possible because secular theories of justice are each partially true due to the natural law that all people know. There is therefore the possibility of Christians and non-Christians working together for justice in the public square. Keller does not, like some natural law theorists, believe that the Bible must be left to one side. He believes that Scripture, including the Old Testament is relevant to current public policy debates (though he also steers clear of theonomy). In my estimation, this is the best chapter of the book.
The remainder of the book is mixed. Positively, Keller demonstrates that poverty is a concern to God. He addressed it in the legislation given to Israel. The prophets addressed injustice directed toward the poor in their denunciation of Israel’s sin, and Jesus maintained the same perspective in his preaching. In his discussions of helping the poor Keller conveys many helpful insights. For instance, he notes that a barrier to the poor receiving the gospel is raised if the poor hear their denounced by preachers but not the sins of those who oppress the poor. He also helpfully distinguishes between three levels of help: relief, development, and social reform. He notes that the church can help in the first and in lower levels of the second, but as development becomes more complex the institutional church should allow other institutions with more expertise to fulfill their roles in addressing those needs (and Christians should work in such institutions for Christian motivations). On the one hand, Keller says churches should "always try to err on the side of being generous" (138) as they consider helping their communities. On the other hand, he rejects the idea that doing justice is doing evangelism: "Evangelism is the most basic and radical ministry possible to a human being. This is true not because the spiritual is more important than the physical, but because the eternal is more important than the temporal" (139).
Negatively, though Keller is right that historically the poor are more often treated unjustly, his exclusive focus on rendering justice to the poor in chapters 1-6 skews the discussion. Keller’s exhortations to generosity are scriptural, but prudential guidelines on how that generosity is practiced is also biblical (1 Tim. 5).
Keller also seems to think that not giving to the poor is an injustice. But the fact that Matt. 6:1-2 teaches that giving to the needy is righteous does not necessarily mean that it is a matter of justice rather than charity. To be a matter of justice means that the individual has a right to my giving to him (based on Wolterstorff’s theory of justice, which Keller builds upon). But in what way does a poor person have a right to my giving to him? Which poor people? How much? Keller would be better off following Wolterstorff on the issue of charity. Charity is not a matter of giving the poor his rights; it is a matter of fulfilling obligations to God.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton University Press, 2008.
Wolterstoff’s premise is that justice is a matter of rendering to people their rights. He defends this thesis against those who argue that the rights focus is the bad fruit of the Enlightenment. To the contrary, says Wolterstorff. In a fascinating historical survey he demonstrates that the theory of rights-grounded justice emerged in the medieval period. He continues to move backward through history to demonstrate that the Bible, though not developing a philosophic theory of justice, implies a rights-based approach.
What do people have rights to? Here Wolterstorff argues against the eudaimonistic approach to ethics (he also rejects the deontological and consequentialist approaches) on the grounds that it is incompatible with a rights-based approach to justice. The Christian, vision, he argues is one not merely a well-lived life but an anticipation of flourishing, or shalom, in all aspects of life. Thus the love command grounds Christian ethics.
What is the grounding for rights? Wolterstorff argues that duties, capacities, and even the image of God in man cannot provide a grounding for natural human rights. He argues that human rights are bestowed by God in that he loves all humans.
In general, I enjoyed following Wolterstoff’s argumentation, and I learned a great deal about philosophy and ethics along the way. I’m open to his thesis about justice being grounded in rights, though I’d like to read some further interaction from scholars who take the other positions. I was not persuaded, however, with his dismissal of the image of God as the basis for natural human rights. His discussion of the image itself was excellent. He seemed to build a fairly good case for the image as the basis of these rights before dismissing the idea with little argumentation. It was a strange turn. Overall, I found the book a very profitable read.
Shaw, Mark. The Kingdom of God in Africa: A Short History of African Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
Shaw provides a good short history of Christianity in Africa from a generally evangelical perspective. He is strongest when simply relating historical events. He is weakest when providing analysis. He is not theologically discriminating enough about the orthodoxy of various forms of Christianity. Nonetheless, this is a recommended read for anyone who wants a basic overview of African Christianity from the first century through the late 1990s.
MacArthur, John. Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ. Nashville: Nelson, 2010. [skimmed]
The sensationalism on the dust jacket and in opening chapters prevented me form paying this book much attention for some time. As even MacArthur’s own comments demonstrate there has been no "fraud" or "cover-up" or anything "purposely hidden" by Bible translators. MacArthur rightly notes that older English translations used the word "servant" because of its connections to the Latin word for slave "servus" and because "slave" in the early modern era meant something different that slavery at that time. It is for this reason that many modern translations opt for an alternative such as "bond-servant" (17-18). Once the sensationalism was cleared away, my skim showed that MacArthur did produce a helpful treatment of what it means for Christians to be bond servants of Christ. MacArthur drew heavily on Murray Harris’s Slave of Christ in the NSBT series. For those looking for a more in-depth treatment of the topic, Harris’s book is the one to turn to.
Gowan, Donald E. Eschatology in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
Gowan helpfully identifies the big categories of Old Testament eschatology: The transformation of human society, the human person, and nature. He also rightly sees Jerusalem at the center of Old Testament eschatology. His development of these themes was, in my estimation, disappointing. He takes a Childs-type approach to the text. Though this leads him to focus on the final form of the text, he nevertheless does so in terms of what he thinks the religious state of Israel was at the time. So, to give only two examples, he denies that bodily resurrection is significant to OT eschatology and he thinks messianic ideas are of little importance. Nonetheless, his insight that Ezekiel 36 contains all the elements of OT eschatology is worth pondering.
The structure of his work along with the Scripture he references is useful:
Transformation of Human Society
Restoration to the Promised Land: Isa. 27:13; 35:10; 51:11; 60:4; 66:20; Jer 3:14; 32:37; Ezek 20:33-44; 37:26; Joel 3:20; Mic 4:6-7, 10; Zeph. 3:20; Zech. 2:7; 8:7-8.
The Righteous King: Isa. 11:9; 44:28; Jer. 33:16; Zech 4:5-10; 6:12-13; 9:9-10.
The Nations (victory over): Isa 34:8; Joel 3:1-21; Obadiah 16; Mic. 4:11-13; Zech. 1:14-15; 12:2-9; 14:1-3, 12-19.
The Nations (peace with): Isa 2:2-4 = Mic. 4:1-4.
The Nations (conversion of): Isa. 66:18-23; Jer. 3:17; Zech. 2:11; 8:20-23.
Transformation of the Human Person
Eschatological Forgiveness: Isa. 33:24; 40:2; Ezek. 20:40-44; 43:7-9; Zech. 13:1; cf. repentance in Isa. 59:20; Jer. 39:10-14; Ezek. 16:59-62.
The means of Re-Creation: Isa. 30:20-21; 59:21; Jer. 32:39-40 (cf. v. 36—city).
The New Person: Isa. 33:24; 35:5-6 (cf. v. 10—Zion); 65:20; Jer. 33:6; 50:5; Ezek. 16:60; Joel 3:17.
Transformation of Nature
Abundant Fertility: Isa. 4:2; Joel 2:23; 3:17-18.
A New Natural Order: Isa. 11:6-9; 65:25.
A New Earth: Isa. 35:1-10; 65:17-18; Ezek. 47:1-12; Zech. 14:4-8, 10.
Wright, Nigel G. Free Church, Free State: The Positive Baptist Vision. Paternoster, 2005.
I found Wright most helpful in arguing for believers baptism and a gathered church ecclesiology. I found him less helpful in his section on government. He leans toward an anabaptist view in which the state is defined in terms of having the monopoly on sanctioned violence. Since, in his view, Christians are committed to following Christ in a path of non-violence, Christians who serve in state capacities place themselves in a difficult position. His ecumenical leanings also show through at various places throughout the book, so a section on religious tolerance in society is followed by a section on tolerance within the church.
Johnson, Julian. Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Johnson argues against the currently popular view that cultures and cultural choices are relative. He argues that far from cultural choices being matters of mere preference, some cultural choices are more valuable than others. More specifically, he argues that classical music has more cultural value than pop music. This is in part because it requires a level of thought and a way of thinking not demanded by pop music. To those who charge Johnson with elitism, he replies that the way to counter elitism is not to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator. The way to counter elitism is to ensure that education (in this case in classical music) is provided to people of every walk of life.
Veenhof, Jan. Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck. Translated by Albert M. Wolters. Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006.
The essence of Bavinck’s view, as explicated by Veenhof is that "Grace does not abolish nature, but affirms and restores it" (17). In expounding this view, Bavinck sets his view apart from both Roman Catholicism and Protestant pietism. According to Bavinck, Roman Catholicism teaches that nature is good, but that it does not reach to the supernatural. Grace is needed to elevate nature to the supernatural. The Protestant conception of grace, Bavinck says, is ethical. The purpose of grace is to remove sin, not to raise man above his nature.
Bavinck’s disagreement with the Pietists rests not on their understanding of the nature of grace but with their understanding of its extent. The danger Bavinck sees in pietism is that the grace, the gospel, and salvation is placed in a personal spiritual sphere and the rest of culture and life is placed an another sphere. But sin has invaded all of life, and man must function in all of life, not just in the spiritual part. The pietist therefore is in danger of aiding and abetting secularism. His critique is not one-sided, however. Bavinck realizes that the pietists have seen the real dangers of "unbridled and unbroken cultural optimism" (29). They also have centered their attention on "the one thing needful"—personal fellowship with God (30). Bavinck appeals to his readers to maintain this as the center of the Christian life while also recognizing that as a human other aspects of life are good, necessary, and in need of grace.
To state Bavinck’s view positively, nature is the good creation of God, but it has been pervasively affected by sin (thus the negative use of "world" in Scripture). This corruption is not something essential to nature, but (in Aristotelian terms), accidental. Thus God’s grace will restore nature (but merely by a return to Eden but in eventually achieving the goal God had for his creation from the beginning).
Jordan, William Chester. Europe in the High Middle Ages. Penguin, 2004.
Jordan’s history of the high middle ages is less detailed than Chris Wickham’s study of the previous era (both are in the Penguin History of Europe). Jordan is much more readable, however. His chapters can be read in a sitting and provide a good overview of the time and place covered. He does a good job of covering both what some historians seem to consider the "core" of Europe: Holy Roman Empire, France, Britain along with what they seem to consider fringes: Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Jordan also covers the Crusader kingdoms in Middle East. Jordan did not cover religion as deeply as Wickham, though he does have brief coverage of both the investiture controversy and the realism/nominalism controversy.
Harmless, William. "Confessions." In Augustine in His Own Words. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010.
Harmless, William. "Augustine the Philosopher." In Augustine in His Own Words. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010.
Harmless does a good job of selecting significant selections that exemplify key aspects of Augustine’s thought and of selecting important excerpts from his major works. Brief commentary places each selection in context.