Review: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson. New York: Crown, 2020.

Summary: A day to day narrative of the first year as prime minister of Winston Churchill, focusing on the circle around him as well as how he inspired a nation fighting alone under the Blitz.

There are a number of biographies of Winston Churchill and studies of his leadership as prime minister during World War 2. What distinguishes this one is that Larson takes us into the intimate circle around Churchill, bringing the great man to life out of the pages of history. We become observers on the edge of an intimate circle rather than removed readers of history from eighty years ago during Churchill’s first year as prime minister.

We are with Churchill as he speaks in parliament or over radio broadcasts, not so much giving the people courage as helping them summon the courage and resolve that was in them. They would need it. Almost at once the bombings began, taking a frightful toll. We walk with Churchill among the ruins as people try to recover and go about their lives.

We get to know Churchill with his closest leadership, particularly the asthmatic but effective Max Beaverbrook who takes over aircraft production and doubles it. Beaverbrook had a genius for cutting through red tape and making enemies, but he got things done–between his resignations, which Churchill refused. The wisdom of Churchill was having someone so close who never told Churchill what he wanted to hear, but only the unvarnished truth, with no reverence for any institutions.

Larson takes us into the family circle: the reserved and opinionated Clementine, the dissolute Randolph, constantly mired in debt and affairs, to the distress of young Pamela, wife and mother, and Mary, the spirited youngest daughter discovering the world, love, and living with courage amid the restraints of her parents. She ends up heading up an anti-aircraft battery and recognizing her parents wisdom in rejecting her first love. John Colville rounds out the circle as Churchill’s secretary. His “intended” doesn’t return his affection, he wants to enter the air corps, but apart from a few sorties, serves with Churchill, in the process keeping a diary that is a treasure trove for historians like Larson.

We are acquainted with the ever-present dangers of the bombing, almost always at night, rendering the RAF ineffective, except in its own nighttime bombing of Germany. We learn of underground shelters for 10 Downing Street, the special hideaway of Churchill at Ditchley, rather than Checquers on the nights around the full moon. We glimpse the tragedy of the bombing of a nightclub that would have been Mary’s next stop on a night out. And we walk with and observe with Churchill, oblivious to dangers to his own person.

Another theme is Churchill’s clear perception of the vital importance the United States would play, and his vital role in maintaining the spirits and fight of the nation until it became politically possible for the U.S. to fully join the fight. As a career politician, he grasped Roosevelt’s challenges, working incrementally through the exchange of bases for materials and the passage of Lend-Lease. Of great fortune was the recall of Joseph Kennedy and the presence of Harry Hopkins and later Averill Harriman, both of whom Churchill welcomed into his inner circle and who became Churchill’s advocates with Roosevelt in consequence. It would cost Randolph’s marriage, already on the rocks, when Harriman and Pamela take up an affair.

Through it all is Churchill himself. I don’t think it is possible to write a bad book about Churchill because he is so interesting, even if sometimes exasperating! Larson gives us the man in full, from his demand to bathe twice daily wherever he went, dictating letters in bath and bed, to his prodigious alcohol consumption, the cigar which made him incomprehensible to his inspiring speeches and presence that made it clear to both his own country and Germany, that unlike the countries of the European mainland, there would be no surrender. This, too, was critical to the hoped for alliance with America.

What Larson has done is not just given us another biography or war history. He has helped us imagine being with Churchill during this first year from May 1940 to May 1941. Perhaps this is a good book for our time, when we are fighting a different, but it appears, no less protracted, combat. When life cannot be normal, we see what it is to live with day to day courage, resolve, and determination without losing heart.

Review: The Planter of Modern Life

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, Stephen Heyman. New York: W.W. Norton, 2020.

Summary: A biography of novelist, screenwriter, and sustainable farming pioneer Louis Bromfield.

This happened to be a serendipitous find as I was shopping at an online book site. I was unaware of this recently released biography of Louis Bromfield. I will forgive you if you are wondering Louis who? Stephen Heyman, his biographer, acknowledges that this is not an uncommon reaction:

If Bromfield ever appears in a book today, he is shoved into parentheses or buried without ceremony in a footnote. If we remember him at all, it is only as a character in somebody else’s story. As Humphrey Bogart’s best man, say, or Doris Duke’s lover. As Gertrude Stein’s protege or Edith Wharton’s gardening guru. As Ernest Hemingway’s enemy or Eleanor Roosevelt’s pain in the ass. What is surprising is not that he has his own story to tell, but that, six decades after his death, that story suddenly feels important (pp. 2-3).

Louis Bromfield’s life began and ended in the Mansfield, Ohio area, and so he is well-familiar to this lover of all things Ohio. I’ve toured Malabar Farm and the Big House where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were married. I’ve learned about his farming ideas and even camped at the farm with my son’s Boy Scout troop (a story in itself!). I’ve read some of his farm writings, Pleasant Valley and Malabar Farm. Much of what Heyman mentions in the quote above had nothing or little to do with this part of Bromfield’s life.

It turns out that this part of the story of Bromfield is what Heyman believes to be important in our day. He does not rush to make this point but sets what he thinks Bromfield’s most significant contribution in the context of his whole life. He renders the story in two parts. The first centered around Paris, his very successful novels, the Lost Generation set of which he was part, and his gardens at Senlis. The second focused around his childhood home of Mansfield, and Malabar Farm in Pleasant Valley, where his work and revolutionary thinking about the soil and farming practices began a movement that continues to this day.

The first part picks up with his ambulance corps work during World War I where his love of France was born. After a few years back in New York working in the publishing trade, he published his own first works, to immediate success. Both The Green Bay Tree and Possession featured strong, modern, American women. And he married Mary, the antithesis of these women. Heyman traces his longing to return to France, realized in 1925. He fell in with the literary set, befriended by Gertrude Stein while Hemingway resented his success, including his Pulitzer Prize. Even amid the success, the glitter, and the parties, Bromfield loved the soil, creating a beautiful garden home along a stream in Senlis, which became a gathering place for his friends, including Edith Wharton, a fellow gardener. We also learn about the beginnings of his association with George Hawkins, his personal secretary, discretely gay, and responsible for at least some of his success in Hollywood.

With the rise of Nazism, the response of appeasement, and increasing longings for home, Bromfield organized a rescue and repatriation effort for the American Lincoln Brigade, fighting in Spain. Through his connections, he mobilized the means to get over one thousand sent home, winning the French Legion of Honor. But Munich closed the door on Europe, and in 1938, he moved back to the States.

The second half of the book describes his purchase of a worn out farm in the Pleasant Valley area outside Mansfield, and his work with agricultural efforts to restore the farm through green crops, contour plowing, and limited use of fertilizers and chemical interventions, crop rotation, and shunning the monocultural farming of so much of Ohio. I learned that he was one of the first to sound the alarm as to the dangers of DDT. Heyman captures the sheer joy Bromfield derived from this work in his chapter “Four Seasons at Malabar.” He offers a nuanced treatment of these years, highlighting the reality that Bromfield’s Hollywood earnings sustained the farm–and really didn’t do that, especially after Hawkins death. He was controlling and didn’t let his two daughters, who loved farming, take a share in the work. They and their husbands went elsewhere, Ellen to Brazil, where she and her husband far more successfully realized Bromfield’s vision.

While Bromfield’s own careless business practices, mistaken ideas, and endless experiments led to mounting debts, his books and lecturing inspired future generations of agricultural writers, and the organic food movement, all of which have challenged America’s business-agricultural complex. Heyman traces the lineage of writers and activists influenced by him including Wendell Berry and Robert Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine and the organic food movement.

Heyman captures Bromfield’s essential message, that ‘{m}ost of our citizens do not realize what is going on under their very feet.’ Bromfield recognized the danger of not caring for the top soil, one of America’s great assets and that chemical fertilizers could never substitute for good soil management. Perhaps the time in France and seeing farms that had been owned for generations had something to do with it.

I welcome this work. Perhaps it is just Ohio pride, but I do believe Bromfield deserves to be better known as an important influence on our contemporary movement for sustainable agriculture and healthy food. His other writing work is another matter and I suspect the author’s inferences to its lack of enduring value are on the mark, though I still want to read more Bromfield. Bromfield was one of the first to practice and preach good soil management, testify before Congress on the dangers of pesticides, and attempt to return to sustainable practices. He also left a tangible monument to his work in Malabar Farm, a working farm where people can learn about his ideas and tour the Big House. The farm doesn’t fully realize his dream of a research center nor display all his farming practices, given its tourism focus as a state park, but one can learn about his life, and see the land he saw, and perhaps something of his vision, which Heyman captures in his biography.

Review: A Burning in My Bones

A Burning in My Bones, Winn Collier. New York: WaterBrook, 2021.

Summary: The authorized biography of pastor-theologian and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.

He pastored a congregation for nearly thirty years. He preached thousands of sermons, wrote dozens of books, translated the Bible into vernacular English, welcomed hundreds, if not thousands into his and Jan’s home, including Bono. He never sought popularity or engaged in the polemics that roiled American evangelicalism. In the end, what mattered most was contemplating the wonders of God in the words of scripture and the beauty outside his Montana home, loving Jan and his children. That was Eugene Peterson.

I have roughly two feet of his books on my shelves. I cull many books. These remain. Why? Because, unlike many others, these seem to speak from a place beyond my generation. How did he come to write such works? Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson begins to give me some clues. Collier enjoyed access not only to Peterson during the last years of his life, but also to his papers. He is now the director of the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary. He offers a rendering of Peterson’s life that probes the formative influences of his life, the decisions he came to about pastoral integrity in his own ministry, the continued quest for congruence in his life, and the beautiful soul he became, amid both his flaws and longings.

We begin with his Montana upbringing, his boyhood in the beautiful country, his Pentecostal preacher mother and distant butcher father. We learn of his running career at Seattle Pacific that eventually culminated in a Boston Marathon and the beginnings of his writing career. After an aborted effort to plant a Pentecostal church, he headed off to seminary at Biblical Seminary in New York, and really discovered scripture as a narrative in which we encounter the living God, not a sourcebook for talking points. Then on to Maryland, studies with William Albright, where he would not only encounter biblical languages and archaeology, but Jan Stubbs, who would become his wife.

It appeared Peterson was headed toward an academic career when he turned down the chance to study at Yale with Brevard Childs to begin a church in Bel Air, a suburb outside Baltimore. The next choices of pastoral integrity came as he dealt with the conflict between his biblically informed intuitions of the work of a pastor and how he was being taught to “run the damn church” as he expressed it in his frustrations that came to a head when he uttered these words in a session meeting. In the end, the elders agreed to run the church, while he prayed, studied scripture, and cared for souls–and finally began to take the time he needed to with Jan and his children.

Collier doesn’t engage in hagiography. He discusses the trouble Eric, Peterson’s eldest had with knowing his father’s love, a consequence of Peterson’s absence in his early childhood. Peterson saw glimpses of his own struggles with his father but struggled to heal this wound. Then we learn of an incident in Peterson’s late fifties when a relationship with a spiritual directee in his church became emotionally if not physically intimate. Jan recognized this with some of the hardest conversations in their marriage to follow. Peterson broke off the relationship. Even the best of marriages are flawed and tested, as this one was.

He had the wisdom to recognize when the good thing of his pastoral ministry was coming to an end, even as his passion for writing was growing. His growing restlessness led to his resignation in 1991 and the beginnings of what became The Message. Collier goes into Peterson’s growing conviction that a translation in vernacular English that captured the unvarnished unsanitized language of scripture. As he did so, he moved on to teach at Regent College. Collier describes his unconventional teaching style, the raspy voice, the long silences, and his growing notoriety.

Once more, congruence called, and the retreat to the family cabin they named Selah House that became a kind of monastery. As Peterson’s fame grew with the completion of The Message (along with controversy about the translation), Peterson felt and inward and upward call. It was a call to cherish Jan and family, while still welcoming many, including Bono who made their way to his door. More and more he felt he was getting ready to die.

There is beauty and pathos in this story. Contemplation of the lake and the mountains, a final camping trip, reflections on the Psalms, writing that slowly came to a trickle after his five books of spiritual theology. He suffered a fall and head injury from which he was never quite the same. His valedictory book, As Kingfishers Catch Fire was marred by the controversial end to his interview with Jonathan Merritt where he confessed some of his personal struggles with the issue of homosexuality and if approached as a pastor, that he would perform a same sex marriage, only to subsequently retract this statement. At this point, Peterson’s vascular dementia was already advancing and Collier’s assessment was that “Eugene should never have been doing interviews at all.”

His end came a few years later. It was a good end that I won’t spoil because Collier’s telling is so rich and poignant. At one point in the book, the observation came up that Peterson only had one sermon. I only heard Peterson speak once, and what he said was indeed congruent with his books. He spoke to InterVarsity’s national staff after one of our largest Urbana conventions. He warned of the danger of success and the temptations that come with it and the quiet path of integrity, the “long obedience in the same direction” for which he was known. Collier captures all of this and a life lived with that deep congruity of love for God that loved both words fitly spoken or written and the silence that allowed others to let down and become themselves. Even as was the case with the things Peterson said and wrote, I will carry this biography in my mind and my heart for a long time as a precious gift.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mother of Modern Evangelicalism

Mother of Modern Evangelicalism: The Life and Legacy of Henrietta Mears, Arlin C. Migliazzo, Foreword by Kristen Kobes Du Mez. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Summary: The first comprehensive biography on Henrietta Mears that focuses on her early life, her Christian Education ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, and her national impact on a nascent evangelical network of leaders, on Christian publishing and retreat ministry.

She had been dead for almost a decade when I received a copy of What the Bible is All About. I was a young Christian, still in high school, trying to read the Bible. The book started me on a lifelong habit of reading scripture through its clear explanations of the layout of the Bible, the world of the Bible, and the central figure of scripture, the Lord Jesus. In a small way at least, I was one more person in whose life Henrietta Mears had an impact. I had no notion of the breadth of impact the grandmotherly woman on the back cover had during her life on American evangelicalism.

The edition of What the Bible is All About that helped me begin reading the Bible.

Mears established the largest Sunday School in the country and headed up the National Sunday School Association, raising the standards of Christian education throughout the country. She hosted a ministry to some of the leading men and women in Hollywood during the 1950’s. She was a catalyst in the ministries of Bill Bright, Dawson Trotman, and Billy Graham as well as many others. The need for Christ-centered and biblically sound Sunday School materials led to establish Gospel Light Publishing, which she headed up for many years. She purchased a Christian conference center, Forest Home. Her college class turned out a generation of leaders who became pastors, missionaries, and leaders in a number of professions across the country, creating a network that served for the expansion of a theologically conservative but culturally engaging evangelicalism.

All this in spite of a very obvious fact. Mears was a woman in an era where gender roles were very well defined and men preached and led. She never challenged this gender framework. She simply led with excellence and expected that of those around her. She sought out men especially for her college ministry who would be leaders, mentored them, sometimes in demanding terms. She poured herself into others with a kind of tough and yet utterly supportive love that led to their blossoming.

Working at the intersection of the entertainment industry and a center of education, she both hued to theological orthodoxy and adopted an open and generous stance to the intellectual and entertainment world of her day, establishing a model for a culturally winsome evangelicalism that contrasted with the fortress mentality of some fundamentalists (though not all, as Migliazzo notes).

While the work of Mears between 1928 and her death in 1963 was fairly well known, Arlin Migliazzo draws on various archival materials and interviews to show the depth and breadth of that work. He also introduces us to the young Henrietta Mears, growing up in the upper Midwest. She grew up in a devout Baptist family. Her father traveled extensively for his business and so her mother Margaret played a significant role in her upbringing, imparting her faith, as well as a keen work ethic, and high standards of responsibility.

He also traces her college training in education and early teaching experience, where almost immediately, she was made principal of a small rural Minnesota high school. Returning to Minneapolis, she took up leadership of the Sunday School under leading fundamentalist pastor William Bell Riley. She built a girls ministry called Fidelis that reached over 500 in number. She turned her back on marriage. After almost ten years came the call to Hollywood Presbyterian Church.

She had a husky voice, weak eyes, and was described as “built like a fireplug.” She could be demanding. When she felt betrayed, she could be unforgiving. She liked the finer things, including fur collars. Migliazzo notes her weak record on issues of race. Yet when she began to speak in a class or convention, she commanded attention for the clarity of her teaching and passion for Christ. How else to account for her influence on the likes of Graham, Bright, and others?

Migliazzo’s outstanding biography not only helps us to take the measure of her life in full but also sets her in the larger framework of the emergence of evangelicalism from its fundamentalist roots. She played a vital role in that emergence, and “showed” the capabilities of women given over to Christ in a time when “telling” wasn’t possible.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unstoppable

Unstoppable, Joshua M. Greene. San Rafael, CA: Insight Editions, 2021.

Summary: The biography of Siggi Wilzig, an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor who arrived in the U.S. with $240 and built a fortune in both the oil and banking industries while speaking out against the Holocaust.

His mother immediately went to the gas chamber. His father was beaten to death. In all, he lost 57 extended family members in the Holocaust. He survived by his wits, and he believes, the hand of God. This biography tells the story of Siggi Wilzig, who was not stopped by the brutalities of Auschwitz and a forced march to Mauthausen. Starvation did not stop him. He was not stopped by having only a couple of hundred dollars to his name and sweatshop labor. Nor was he stopped by the anti-Semitic character of both the oil and banking industries through which he made his fortune. He did not let the Fed stop him.

He made three vows. This biography describes how he fulfilled them. He vowed never again to starve. He vowed to raise healthy, productive Jewish children and help his people. And he vowed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.

When he arrived, his first job was to shovel snow in front of a Jewish store front. In the late 40’s and 1950’s he worked in sweatshops and various traveling sales jobs. He figured out how to sell anything. He started investing in stocks, including Wilshire Oil. At a party, he met Sol Diamond, another Wilshire investor, and together they hatched a plan to take over the company with Siggi as president. They eventually acquired a significant enough share to influence the board, which accepted Siggi’s proposals to turn around the company. This began the company’s meteoric rise and a subsequent purchase of an East coast electronics firm. The challenge was to find adequate cash without exorbitant loans to fund the continued growth of the oil company.

The solution that presented itself was to acquire a bank and “upstream” the profits. His chosen target was the Trust Company of New Jersey (TCNJ). It was a small but profitable bank in which Wilshire eventually acquired an 87 percent interest. Some of the most fascinating aspects of this book are the accounts of how Wilzig ran the bank. He personally courted customers alternately wooing and cudgeling them to bring all their business to him. Much was highly unconventional, and woe to the person, even a family member, who crossed him! A portrait develops of a highly driven man relentlessly pursuing success, unwilling to take no for an answer. He eventually built a bank with $100 million in assets to one with $4 billion. When the Fed tells him that Wilshire must divest of the bank, he takes them to court. Forced to divest, he develops a scheme where his daughter runs the oil company with his “advice” and he runs the bank.

This brings us to family, and particularly his three children. Sherry is most like him in business savvy, and at 23 runs the oil company. Ivan, who Siggi wants to become a lawyer for the bank, and heir apparent, wants nothing of it, but submerges his desire for a music career for twenty years in the bank. Eventually he achieves his dream with a Billboard hit and second career on Broadway, finally making his peace with his father. Third son Alan eventually takes over the bank. Naomi never breaks with Siggi, although she is distant from a man married first to his work. What all understand and struggle with is the survivor who is never truly free of Auschwitz, plagued with nightmares and traumatic memories.

Finally, Wilzig was devoted to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. He was the first survivor to speak to West Point Cadets. He was named to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Council during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and helped the Council work through a thicket of issues before the Museum was finally opened in 1993. He spoke forcefully against Reagan’s visit to the SS cemetery at Bitburg and Reagan’s unintended equating of the German soldiers there with the Jews who died in the Holocaust. Dying of multiple myeloma, through the special efforts of Ivan, he records testimony of his Holocaust experience.

Nothing stopped him from keeping his vows. Joshua Greene renders a complex, multi-faceted person. His genuine interest in customers, his ability to crack one liners one minute, only to launch into a tirade the next, his shrewd ability to assess a balance sheet, his love of his children and grandchildren, his loyalty to friends and employees like partner in survival Larry Martel, and his effort to utterly control their destinies, and his undying commitment to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust all combine in this man who was small of stature, with thick, coiffed hair. This is a fascinating biography of a man I’d never heard of who carried the trauma of the Holocaust but was never stopped by it. Greene’s biography also succeeds in doing what Siggi himself sought to do, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust as the survivors pass into blessed memory.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Notorious RBG

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Cardmon & Shana Knizhnik. New York: Dey StreetBooks, 2015.

Summary: A profile of the Supreme Court Justice, centered around her dissenting opinions read from the bench but also tracing her career, her marriage, work out routines and more, liberally illustrated with photos and images.

In the 2012-2013 session of the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read five of her dissents orally from the bench, a record, and perhaps a commentary of sorts on the court’s majority. She attracted the attention of feminists and one of the authors, Shana Knizhnik, whose Tumblr account, named after the deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G., Notorious RBG. This spawned a cottage industry of T-shirts, posters, and memes celebrating the diminutive yet formidable Justice.

The authors chronicle her rise, and contend that it was not always an icon of feminism. Yes, she was a pathbreaker in the legal profession, teaching at Rutgers and Columbia and co-founding the Women’s Rights Project, an analogue to the NAACP’s strategy of making incremental progress through legal precedents. This led to her appointment to the DC District Court of Appeals, and then to the Supreme Court under Bill Clinton. Throughout the time, she and others characterized her as a moderate. Only late in life, through the influence of her clerks, her senior status as a liberal on the court, and the rightward movement of the court did she become a fierce representative of the resistance.

The authors include excerpts from her dissents, striking for their readability, something she believed in. But this is not all work and no play, although RBG had a Herculean work ethic, often working late into the night on opinions. She had a storybook marriage to Marty, who she met at Harvard Law. It was a truly egalitarian marriage and one in which Marty often arranged his work around Ginsburg’s court work. He also happened to be the better cook (there is even a recipe of Marty’s in the appendix).

Then there were her relationships with other Justices, the deep respect she had for Rehnquist, despite their differences, as “the Chief,” the support she gave younger women including Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, and the unusual friendship with Antonin “Nino” Scalia. They shared a love of opera, and there is even a picture of the two riding an elephant together!

Finally, part of her endurance had to do with her physical workout routines. She could do twenty pushups! The book, which ends during the Obama administration, details her determination to keep working, particularly in a brief window of time when she was in a majority and wasn’t making her mark with her dissents. No doubt, there will be many questions about the wisdom of her choice.

What this book makes clear is that there will be no questions about the distinctive character and contribution of Justice Ginsburg on the bench, from her opinions to her jabots! While not a full-fledged biography, and clearly an account by those who liked their subject, this book, liberally illustrated with photographs and illustrations from throughout her life, demonstrate that “notorious” is not a bad word to describe RBG.

Review: J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought

J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought, Alister McGrath. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the theologian’s faith, life, and theological engagement.

J. I. Packer was one of my personal theological heroes. His impact on my life came primarily through the book Knowing God, which I read during my student days. As a young Christian, I discovered that the chief end of our lives as well as the work of theology is that we know, love, and glorify God, and not just know about him. The first time through, I read a few pages at a time, stopped, reflected, and prayed in wonder at the greatness, majesty, holiness, and love of God. It is one of those books I’ve re-read several times. I only heard Packer speak once, giving a series of lectures on revival in Ann Arbor, contrasting Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, along with an exposition of Psalm 85 as a prayer for revival. The talks were marked by precision of thought and warmth of devotion.

Reading this account of the life and thought of Packer by Alister McGrath, I came to understand that the qualities I appreciated in his lectures and his books reflected his central passion for theological education and catechesis for the good of the church. McGrath traces this thread through his books and thought and his career first in Bristol, then Oxford, then briefly again at Bristol, and finally at Regent in Canada. In fact, McGrath alternates chapters on his life with ones on aspects of his theological work.

He recounts Packer’s early life, his spiritual awakening and early embrace of the theology of the fathers and their ancient wisdom. He describes the relationship with D. Martyn Lloyd Jones and the development of the Puritan Studies Conferences, and their later falling out. At Tyndale Hall in Bristol, Packer comes into his own as a “theological educationalist.” This period marked Packer’s early efforts in publishing, centered around the editorial work on the first edition of The New Bible Dictionary and his first book on Fundamentalism and the Word of God. McGrath includes marvelous material here on how Packer’s devotional life fed both his pastoral and theological work.

Packer’s return to Oxford in the 1960’s as Warden of Latimer House came at a time of ferment within Anglican evangelicalism. McGrath features Packer’s marvelous reply to Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God, the crisis in 1966 with Lloyd Jones leading to the cooling of their relationship and the Keele conference of 1967 defining an evangelical presence within Anglicanism. A key focus in Packer’s thought is theology for the life of the church. After this conference, Packer became convinced that it was time to move on from Latimer. He returned to take up the leadership of Tyndale Hall in a time of crisis leading to a merger creating Trinity College, with him no longer as principal. Time for writing led to a series of articles that became Knowing God.

One of the personal highlights of McGrath’s account was reading about James Sire’s visit with Packer and offer to acquire the U.S. rights of the book for InterVarsity Press, through which the book came into the hands of this young college student and many others becoming one of IVP’s all-time best selling works. By the 1977 Nottingham Conference, however, it became apparent that Packer was increasingly out of step with the younger evangelicals in England. This opened the door to Canada, and Regent College, and the opportunities for Packer to more fully pursue his ideas of theological education for the church, which he did as faculty and in retirement until his death in 2020.

One of the fascinating aspects developed by McGrath is Packer’s conservatism with an irenic streak. Packer was committed to the idea “test everything; hold onto the good.” He believe the good traditions of the past could deliver us from the idiosyncrasies of the present, all under the authority of the Bible. Hence his emphasis on the Reformers and Puritan studies. This put him at variance with others, particularly at two points: the ministry of women and his views of eternal punishment. Yet he also join the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative, finding the places of common ground while delineating theological difference with clarity. It strikes me you needed someone like Packer to do this to avoid making a theological hash of the whole affair.

McGrath has given us a wonderful summary of the life and thought of Packer. Indeed, we see how what Packer thought shaped how he lived. Packer believed in theological education as not merely an academic exercise but as existing for the strengthening of the church in the knowledge of God. McGrath helps us see how the whole trajectory of Packer’s life was shaped by these commitments. It also leaves me two questions to ponder. One is, amid a changing world, what must be conserved? The second is, amid the powerful and competing influences of our culture, how might we carry forward Packer’s commitment to catechesis, the formation of Christians in thought, word, and deed?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Finding the Dragon Lady

Finding the Dragon Lady, Monique Brinson Demery. New York: Public Affair, 2013.

Summary: A biography of Madame Nhu, part of the ruling family in Vietnam (1954-1963) based on the author’s personal interactions with Madame Nhu before her death, allowing her to obtain memoirs and a diary of her life.

She grew up in a distinguished Vietnamese family in Hanoi under the French, receiving the typical French education, with the expectation of being married off into another distinguished family. At nineteen Tran Le Xuan married Ngo Dinh Nhu, in the middle of World War 2 as the Vichy French enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Japanese. At the end of the war, the French assumption that they could resume control of the colony was upset by nationalist forces under Ho Chi Min and the Viet Minh. Madame Nhu engages in a harrowing flight with her children, only reunited with her husband later. They take refuge in the mountain retreat of Dalat while war goes on between France and the Viet Minh. The French lose a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, resulting in a division of the country into north and south with Madame Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Diem heading the government with her husband as his right hand man.

At first it seems the model family, buttressed by Diem’s austere integrity. Madame Nhu raises children and leads efforts to help women while the men run the country. Increasingly as dissatisfaction arises and Communist insurgency by the Viet Cong grows, Madame Nhu asserts herself increasingly at points where the two men waver, sometimes courageously against opposition. She becomes known as the Dragon Lady, not to be crossed. When Buddhists use self-immolation to protest government restrictions on their religious freedom, she tells those threatening to go ahead and she would bring the matches. Her efforts to strengthen the government lead to the disaffection of the people, and confounds the US Kennedy administration, now committed to the success of the Republic of South Vietnam. Increasingly the conviction is that the Diem government must go, and the Kennedys and ambassador Lodge conspire for a coup to bring down the government, succeeding at the end of October 1963 when Nhu and Diem both are killed. Madame Nhu, touring the US to drum up support for the government escapes death to live in exile for the rest of her life.

One may find much of this in any history. The unusual element of this book is Monique Brinson Demery’s narrative of her attempts, beginning in 2005, to connect with Madame Nhu to hear her side of the story. After numerous efforts received no response, she got a call one day laying down strict conditions. Then more calls in which Madame Nhu tested her to see if she could be trusted. There were invitations to meet. Madame Nhu never showed up. Meanwhile the author obtained a diary in Madame Nhu’s hand from a serviceman, filling in more of her personal narrative and leading to more questions. Madame Nhu dangled a manuscript of a memoir in front of her in exchange for more favors and more strict conditions. Finally she obtains it, a manuscript in very unfinished form that she must publish as is.

In 2011 Madame Nhu died. The author didn’t publish the manuscript but instead this book of her search for and interactions with Madame Nhu, interleaved with a biography of her life, informed by research and the new materials in Madame Nhu’s hand she received. What emerges is a portrait of a woman in an unhappy marriage longing for so much more who eventually finds it in the cause of the Diem government. We see a mother who loves her children, who acts with courage, but also with ruthlessness, and who pushes the boundaries of what women could do in her society. One also has the sense of a family increasingly isolated from the aspirations of the people, confounding American support, and yet also the first step into the developing American tragedy that was Vietnam. Like Iraq, they were eliminated with no replacement in sight, resulting in a series of weak governments, a growing American involvement propping up that government and the fall of the south to the Communists in 1975.

Demery offers a concise retelling of this tragic history through Madame Nhu’s eyes while remaining objective and able to see her faults, faults that contributed to her family’s downfall and the unraveling of the country. Even in her old age, in her interactions with Demery, we see a woman who uses manipulation to try to tell her story her way, against the grain of reality. She tells the story of a woman alone, fighting to the end to validate her life as meaningful.

Review: Bavinck: A Critical Biography

Bavinck: A Critical Biography, James Eglinton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.

Summary: A biography tracing the origins, significant life events and theological scholarship of Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck.

Interest has grown in recent years in the life and work of Herman Bavinck. In 2008, the four volumes of his Reformed Dogmatics, published in Dutch in 1905 was finally published in English translation. It became more widely apparent that Bavinck was one of the most significant theological minds of the 20th century. The arrival of James Eglinton’s Bavinck: A Critical Biography only enhances our understanding of this key theological figure.

Eglinton begins with Bavinck’s family of origin, so significant in the shape of his career and thought. His father, Jan, was part of the group of those who seceded from the Dutch Reformed Church in 1834, pastoring a seceding churches, facing the opprobrium of the first generation, and preceding Herman in teaching at the Theological School at Kampen.

Yet in the education of Herman, his parents avoided the parochial bubble, a temptation with a group seceding to affirm doctrinal orthodoxy. It began in sending Herman to the gymnasium at Zwolle. Then after a year at Kampen, Herman got permission to study at the much more “modern” Leiden. It reflected an early sense on the part of Herman of wanting to preach and teach a neo-Calvinism at once orthodox and engaging the modern and scientific currents in the wider society. He completed in 1880 his thesis under two of Leiden’s leading lights, Scholten and Kuenen, although still formally recognized as a student at Kampen. Many cast aspersions on Bavinck’s bona fides yet he passed his ordination exams and received a call to a large congregation in Franeker that grew during his year as pastor.

A year later, in 1882 he joined the faculty at Kampen, along with his rival Lucas Lindeboom. Lindeboom challenged his efforts to do reformed theology in a modern context, and his increasing efforts with Abraham Kuyper to realize a Reformed vision in Dutch society. During this period, Bavinck refuses several attempts to recruit him to Kuyper’s Free University. Eglinton explores the tension between Bavinck’s loyalty to the Christian Reformed Church and his scholarly ambitions. Eventually, as Lindeboom’s forces pushed him and a colleague out, he was able to complete his migration to the Free University, succeeding Abraham Kuyper in the chair of theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902.

Even before this, with diminished teaching loads, Bavinck was able to realize his scholarly work of a theological work that reflected his vision, the Reformed Dogmatics, as well as scholarly articles, and an unfinished Reformed Ethics (currently being translated into English). Eglinton also digs into his view of scripture. One one hand he affirmed a high commitment to the divine inspiration and authority of scripture. At the same time, his understanding of this fully divine and fully human document also raised doubts for him that two of his students took further to the detriment of their careers.

The Amsterdam period reflected a broadening out of his influence as he brought theological principles to bear in the spheres of education, psychology, and politics. He served briefly as party leader during Kuyper’s absence and was elected to the first chamber of the Dutch government. In 1908, he is honored in America with a meeting with Teddy Roosevelt and the invitation to give the Stone Lectures. His insights on America both during this and his earlier visits make interesting reading. The text of his account of his first visit is included as an appendix.

One of the interesting aspects of Bavinck’s life was his marriage to Johanna. She was a strong partner who probably both encouraged and extended Bavinck’s efforts to recognize the rights and roles of women in society. Most of her children engaged in resistance against Hitler, a number at the cost of their lives. She wasn’t his first choice. He kept a flame for a number of years for Amelia den Dekker but was refused by her father and rebuffed by her. My sense is that Johanna was the better partner.

This is an outstanding biography. Having read a bit of Bavinck, I wondered about the readability of this work. My wonderings were unfounded. One encounters at once both an extensively researched and flowing narrative of Bavinck’s life. If you are interested in exploring the work of this theologian, Eglinton’s Bavinck is a great place to begin.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved The Monarchy

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, A. N. Wilson. New York: Harper Collins, 2019.

Summary: A full length biography, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, stressing his contributions to cultural and political life in Victorian England, published on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Most of us, at least on “this side of the pond” mostly know of Prince Albert as the subject of a prank beginning with the line “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Actually, in reading this biography, the prank has added irony both in that its subject was a very serious man, and that for one who died so young, he accomplished so much. A. N. Wilson’s biography, published on the two hundredth anniversary of Albert’s birth goes far to redress that unfamiliarity.

Wilson presents Albert as the son of a Coburg Duke (Ernst I), who failed at marriage but was determined to prepare his sons for dynastic greatness. Albert learned not only the lessons that prepared him for this station, but also shaped the strong sense of rectitude he brought to his eventual marriage with Victoria, a Coburg cousin who was in most direct succession to William IV. He also develops the influence of Stockmar, Albert’s mentor from his early teen years through the first decade of his marriage.

Wilson portrays the genuine love affair between Albert and Victoria, initially cool to him but warming to great passion, and the lukewarm reception of Commons, reducing his proposed annual grant. At the same time, Wilson teases out the complicated character of that marriage, of Albert’s quest for control, even influence over royal matters, and how Victoria’s nine pregnancies played into all of that. At very least, the two contributed to the great influence of the House of Coburg in dynastic affairs across Europe through their progeny!

Much of the account explores the struggle Albert had with his position–for most of the time, merely husband of the Queen, and only at the end of his life Prince Consort. His own son was ahead of him in precedence. He aspired to so much more, trying to shape foreign affairs through long missives to foreign secretaries, as well as weighing in on political matters. Over time, he helped shape Victoria’s approach to constitutional monarchy that sustained her popularity, and that of the monarchy long after her death. He shrewdly managed royal finances, allowing for the purchase of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

One of his distinctive contributions was as Chancellor of Cambridge University, overseeing the modernization of the curriculum stressing modern history and the sciences. Another was the Exhibition of 1851 and the develop of the complex of museums in Kensington known as “Albertopolis,” later complimented by Royal Albert Hall, a premier concert venue. Wilson portrays the intensity of Albert’s work ethic for his adopted country, recognized only late in his short life when, finally, he was designated “Prince Consort.”

There is an air of sadness that hovers over this hard-working man of rectitude. He found himself worn by the moods of Victoria, the troubles of Europe, and the evidence of profligacy on the part of his own son Bertie. Sadly, he was a seriously ill man, possibly dying of stomach cancer. Perhaps he pushed himself so hard, knowing his time was so short. It was sad that he could not bask in his considerable contributions to the monarchy and England.

Wilson not only portrays the man, but the various key figures like Peel and Palmerston, and the transformation occurring in England, to which Albert had contributed. Of course, all of this was in the backdrop of Victoria, who went on to reign for four decades after Albert’s death at age 42, in the end showing herself stronger even than Albert. This is an important account of a figure whose impact is still felt two hundred years after his birth.