The Month in Reviews: October 2015

I began October with a review of a book talking about the common ground between the philosophy of Ayn Rand and the Christian faith. I celebrated the work of Ohio novelist and agriculturalist Louis Bromfield, reviewing two of his narratives of his work to restore Malabar Farm in nearby Mansfield, Ohio. Faith and doubt were also themes of the month as I reviewed a book on eight adults who believed and the place of doubt in Christian experience. And I looked at the challenges facing the Western church as it relates to Christians throughout the world and how that changes our paradigms for mission and even how we think about who gets to define Christianity. With that, here are summaries of my reviews with links to my complete reviews:

soul of atlasThe Soul of AtlasMark David Henderson. Lexington: Reason Publishing, 2013. Is there any way to reconcile the thought of Ayn Rand and the Christian faith? Through a personal narrative of dialogues with his two fathers, one a Christian, and one an adherent to Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism) the author explores what possible ground could exist between Objectivists and Christians.

unfinished odysseyThe Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy, David Halberstam. New York, Open Road, 2013 (originally published in 1969). This is a classic account of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign tracing his decision to run, primary campaigns and evolving political vision that ended on the night of his primary victory in California.

Pleasant ValleyPleasant Valley, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1997 (originally published in 1945). The author, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, narrates his return from France to the area he where grew up, his purchase of several worn out farms, and his pioneering efforts in sustainable agriculture that restored the land to fertility, bringing health not only to the land but to those who made it their home.

Overturning TablesOverturning Tables, Scott Bessenecker. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Scott Bessenecker argues that Western missions efforts are often captive to corporate culture and practices inconsistent with efforts to reach across cultures and to the marginal peoples outside the corporate world.

Abusing ScriptureAbusing ScriptureManfred T. Brauch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. The author explores the different ways we misread the Bible and consequently interpret and apply it in ways that abuse both the intent of the text, and sadly, in some cases the people with whom we apply these texts.

Mere BelieversMere BelieversMarc Baer. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013. Can individuals seeking to live faithfully to their calling change history? These profiles of eight British believers demonstrate that “mere believers” can indeed have a transformative influence in matters both of the heart and of the intellect.

To Whom Does Christianty belongTo Whom Does Christianity Belong?, Dyron B. Daughrity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015. This book argues that when one speaks of “Christianity” this must be understood in global terms in all of its diversity of expression and not simply in the forms we Westerners are most accustomed to.

Questioning Your DoubtsQuestioning Your Doubts, Christina M. H. Powell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. This book comes out of the world of academic research and proposes that the process of questioning our doubts as well as our faith builds bridges of understanding deepening both our exercise of reason and confidence in our faith.

Malabar FarmMalabar Farm, Louis Bromfield. Wooster: Wooster Book Company, 1999 (originally published in 1948). Malabar Farm continues the story begun in Pleasant Valley of the author’s efforts of restoring a worn out farm to productivity, covering the years from 1944 to 1947 and going deeper into his philosophy of agriculture and the all-important matter of the soil.

Theology of IsaiahThe Theology of the Book of Isaiah, John Goldingay. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014. Taking the book of Isaiah as a whole and as it would have been read by its first readers, Goldingay both considers the theologies present in each major section of Isaiah, and traces the theological themes emerging from the book as a whole.

Best Book of the Month: I’m going to go with Louis Bromfield’s Pleasant Valley. I loved his descriptions of restoring the land, building the “Big House” and his stories about other farmers. I think Bromfield’s farm books deserve a wider reputation for their path-breaking descriptions of early sustainable agriculture practices. I also deeply appreciated his love of the hill country of north central Ohio, which I also consider among the most beautiful parts of the state.

Best quote: I’m going to go with Bromfield’s description of his neighbor Walter Oakes and his love for “My Ninety Acres”:

“As I watched that big work-worn hand caressing that stalk of corn, I understood suddenly the whole story of Walter and Nellie and the ninety acres. Walter was old now, but he was vigorous and the rough hand that caressed that corn was the hand of a passionate lover. It was the hand that had caressed the body of a woman who had been loved as few women had ever been loved, so passionately and deeply and tenderly that there would never be another woman who could take her place. I felt again a sudden lump in my throat, for I knew that I had understood suddenly, forty years after the woman was dead, one of the most tragic but beautiful of all love stories. I know now what Robert’s strange remark about Nellie and the ninety acres getting all mixed up had meant. Robert himself must once have seen something very like what I had just seen” (p. 154).

Coming Attractions: Look for my review of The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book on the Inklings, which I’m a good way through. I also am currently reading a book suicide from a pastoral counseling perspective, a novel of Frederick Buechner, and a book on Athens and Jerusalem, on philosophy and Christian faith. I’m looking forward to reading a new book on acedia, one of the seven deadly sins and a history of the Great Books movement that arose out of the University of Chicago.

[“The Month in Reviews” serves as a kind of index of all the reviews posted on this blog. By selecting “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar, you can explore a nearly complete list of books reviewed at Bob on Books.]

Review: The Soul of Atlas

soul of atlasThe Soul of AtlasMark David Henderson. Lexington: Reason Publishing, 2013.

Summary: Is there any way to reconcile the thought of Ayn Rand and the Christian faith? Through a personal narrative of dialogues with his two fathers, one a Christian, and one an adherent to Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism) the author explores what possible ground could exist between Objectivists and Christians.

Ayn Rand argued that we ought to pursue that which is of chief value, which is our own selves, validated in productive work. The universe is all there ever was. There is no God. Christians see our chief end as to glorify the creator God who made us in his image. Rand criticized the altruism and self-sacrifice she saw at the center of Christian ethics as weakness. Christians would argue there is no virtue in selfishness. It seems these two worldviews are poles apart and utterly irreconcilable.

Mark David Henderson was stuck with a dilemma. There are two men, both fathers, in his life. One he calls Dad and he is a Christian. The other is John, an adherent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. He deeply respects both men and has experienced the imprint of both men’s worldviews on his life, even though he has finally chosen Christianity over atheism, because as he explains in one place,

“In connecting my fathers’ world views to Meaning it became clear that Dad lives to glorify God and sees Meaning as dependent upon a Supreme Being. John sees existence itself as Reality. Along with Rand, he says that asking for anything else is a futile pursuit. Both men would consider their values objective, that is to say, true for everyone. The turn for me happened here. I found that John’s explanation didn’t satisfy, and while dissatisfaction itself didn’t validate dad’s answer, I felt myself leaning in his direction. I recognized there is plenty we may value in life that is not lasting. It may be meaningful, in a temporal sense, but if it came about by chance and it fades away, there is no ultimate purpose to it. Valued aspects of life may be meaningful, but this is not Meaning” (p. 127).

This gives you a flavor of his writing. I worried as I got into the book that the “two fathers” theme would get schmalzy but it never did. There was both feeling and intellectual grit in the discussion of these two men’s ideas about Sex, Money, Power, Meaning, Joy and more. Along the way he recognizes places of convergence, common grounds of a common humanity between two disparate world views. Neither man nor the beliefs they represented could accept a “hook up culture”. Both recognized the value in productive work and the monetary measures of this although each placed this differently in their values hierarchies. Both agree that the best government is limited government, whether this infringes upon the initiative of productive individuals or because governments are tempted to usurp the place of God.

Perhaps Henderson’s most significant insight, influenced by the writing of John Piper was to recognize convergence around the idea of rational self-interest. In fact, God is the greatest egoist of all, because he rightly puts himself and his glory above all else. What distinguishes the Christian from the egoist is simply the recognition that there is One greater than oneself of ultimate worth and indeed, the greatest Joy one can have in life is to place value in what is of ultimate worth.

What I liked about this book is that Henderson was not writing a work of syncretism–fusing Christianity and Randian Objectivism uncritically. Rather he recognizes that when it comes to some fundamentals, they are irreconcilable. Yet he does something else. He recognizes that we may differ without being utterly different. There are common grounds that may be found between those who differ and things we may deeply admire even in someone we might not agree with. His vision is one that recognizes how important such common agreement is to work in the public square to maintain the rule of law, basic human rights, and constitutional liberties. Most of all, though, I appreciated the insight that if Atlas represents Rand’s highest ideal for humankind, that it is in the gospel that this ideal, this deepest longing in the soul of Atlas finds its realization. And that just may reconcile the irreconcilable.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”