In Time for the Olympics — Understanding China

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing will put the nation of China on the world stage as never before in modern times. The government of the People’s Republic of China is intent on making these games a great publicity gain for the nation. Beijing itself has undergone a great architectural transformation, even as the entire nation is in a process of great change.

But China, more clearly than most nations, is captive to its history — and there is no way to understand the China we will see on television in coming days without understanding China’s more recent history. The challenge lies in finding an adequate one-volume history.

Just in time for the Olympic Games, Jonathan Fenby has written Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present (Ecco/HarperCollins). Fenby’s work is the best one-volume work on modern China I have yet found, and it is must reading for anyone who wants to understand China at this crucial moment. Fenby, who writes and explains well, traces China’s history from the Qing dynasty, through decades of war and revolution, to Mao and the rise of Communist China, to the great shifts in Chinese life and culture as China enters a global age.

An excerpt:

This book has argued that, for all the manifestations of modernity, China’s history is not another country. Now, the cumulative effects of the process launched by Deng Xiaoping are leading to a phase that could be plucked right out of imperial dynasties or from the republic. If Mao was the strong, willful dynastic founder and Deng the consolidator who saw a way of renewing the mandate, Hu Jintao can be taken as a successor who holds the keys to power but cannot turn them as his predecessors did. True, there is no organized opposition to confront the Communist dynasty, no Red Army lurking in the backwoods, no political movement marshalling resistance in the countryside. But the regime faces a different kind of risk, which again has its roots in China’s early history. Since the First Emperor in AD 221, rulers have feared losing control of major forces in society, whether they take the form of questioning officials and scholars, military commanders, or, in the last decades of empire, the modernizing gentry. Today, those impelled by the rush to the market and material self-improvement march increasingly to their own drum. Interest groups, individuals and competing power centres proliferate within the overall supposedly unified structure. State -owned enterprises join private firms in playing the stock exchange and using their positions to maximize profits. The result is an authoritarian state which increasingly lacks authority, an empire without an emperor.

Child’s Play? A History

Howard P. Chudacoff has done what someone needed to do — write a history of children’s play.  In Children at Play: An American History, Chudacoff, who teaches at Brown University, traces how play has changed over time.  These changes reflect everything from the development of new technologies to big shifts in the understanding of childhood itself.

The fact is that children will play.  As Chudacoff remarks, “Kids still find ways to be kids.”  In the colonial era, children were more likely to be involved in “roving about” the outdoors and improvising games.  Later generations of parents encouraged more formal play and childhood itself was more celebrated.  Over time, play would be transformed by efforts to keep young boys off the streets, to teach adult roles through gender-specific play, and to free the natural creativity of the child.

More recently, play has been redefined by the development of technologies like computer games, by concerns about gender and child safety, and by changes in family structure and parenting.  The book is thought-provoking and insightful.

This excerpt suggests how changes in family life lead to changes in play — and in the relationships between parents and children:

In the twentieth century, two related forces converged to alter the playtime of preadolescents in significant ways.  Fist, the extension of compulsory schooling filled much of all children’s daytime hours, regardless of social class, incidentally strengthening peer cultures that increasingly socialized young people in play choices.  A partial reduction in a child’s family responsibilities, resulting in part from smaller family size and the spread of labor-saving electric appliances, helped create time after school and in the evening during which youngsters could interact with their peer group or play alone with a new cornucopia of commercial playthings.  And during the first half of the century, at least, this playtime often took place away from adult supervision in private bedrooms and other secluded areas of the home.

A Study Bible Informed by Archaeology

Many Christians want to know more about how archaeology informs and deepens our understanding of the Bible and specific texts.  It helps to know, for example, about Mars Hill, where Paul defended the faith in Acts 17, about the topography of Galilee, and about the setting for so many of the accounts recorded in both the Old and New Testaments.

At the same time, much of what is presented as archaeology is openly hostile to the truthfulness of the Bible, leaving many Christians wanting to know more but unsure of where to turn. The Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture [Zondervan] is the best resource for this need.  Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Duane Garrett of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary served as editors for this project.

One of the great strengths of this project is the placement of such helpful material alongside the biblical text.  References to seals, monuments, places, and cultural artifacts are described and explained, often with full-color photographs.  The Archaeological Study Bible is a great advance and a wonderful addition to the Christian’s bookshelf.

See also my article, “How Should We Think About Archaeology and the Bible?

Sons and Daughters of God — The Wonder of Adoption

The doctrine of adoption is one of the sweetest dimensions of salvation as revealed in Scripture.  Joel R. Beeke has written an inspiring and informative work on the doctrine that looks particularly to the Puritans for guidance.  Heirs with Christ: The Puritans on Adoption [Reformation Heritage Books] will educate and encourage Christians and help believers to understand the wonder of adoption and the comfort and challenge this represents for the Christian life.

An excerpt:

Above all, the Puritans use the truth of adoption to transform God’s needy children through powerful comforts.  Thomas Hooker shows how adoption comforts them in the face of their unworthiness, outward poverty, the contempt of the world, infirmities, afflictions, persecutions, and dangers.  When oppressed with sin, buffeted by Satan, enticed by the world, or alarmed by fears of death, believers are able to take refuge in their precious, heavenly Father, saying with [Samuel] Willard, “Am I not still a child?  And if so, then I am sure, that though he correct me (and I deserve it, nor will I refuse to submit myself patiently unto it) yet he cannot take away his loving kindness from me.”

The Liberals’ Moment

The decade of the 1970s is now a generation behind us, but the cultural and political movements of that pivotal decade set the stage for so much of what we face in our current times.  In terms of national politics, two great developments stand out.  On the Left, the nomination of Sen. George McGovern became the pivotal event of the decade, even as the rise of a reinvigorated conservatism became the great event on the Right.

Author Bruce Miroff of the State University of New York at Albany takes his readers into the heart of the McGovern campaign in The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party [University Press of Kansas, 2007].  There is no way one can make sense of the modern Democratic party without understanding this campaign.  The issues of that campaign still define the Left, as do many of the individuals involved in the campaign (such as Bill Clinton).  The Liberals’ Moment should be read by all who want to understand our current political context — both liberals and conservatives.

An excerpt:

Despite the landslide defeat, the McGovern campaign bequeathed to the Democrats a talented, youthful cadre of strategists, organizers, and wordsmiths who as they aged would largely shape the evolution of the party over the following decades. Every presidential campaign brings new activists into electoral politics, and some stay for the long haul. But for Democrats, the McGovern campaign produced a more distinctive and influential generation of political operatives than any campaign since. We can identify McGovernites–a term I use descriptively, hoping to detach it from the pejorative implications it is often given by right-wing commentators. But we do not speak of Mondaleites, Dukakisites, or Goreites, and even the senior Clintonites were McGovernites further down the political road.

Many liberals would prefer to look back on the McGovern campaign with nostalgia rather than discomfort, as the last time they could feel passionate and honest as they rallied behind one of their own in a presidential election. Certainly, later insurgent liberals, who have never made it past the primaries, have not paid much heed to the electoral vulnerability of liberalism that the McGovern campaign made palpable. Yet any future campaign mounted by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party needs to grapple with these vulnerabilities. Several characteristics of the McGovern campaign that offered plump targets for the Republicans remain of great relevance today, and liberals cannot evade the problems that they pose if they want credibly to renew their claim to the party’s leadership.

The Gospel According to Jesus — 20 Years Later

Back twenty years ago the evangelical world was torn by a controversy over the very nature of salvation — known then as the “lordship controversy.”  Out of the context of that controversy Dr. John MacArthur would write one of the most important books ever to emerge from his ministry.  In The Gospel According to Jesus Dr. MacArthur got right to the heart of the matter.

The urgency?  Dr. MacArthur rightly believes that “nothing matters more than what Scripture says about the good news of salvation.”   His book was a much-needed corrective to dangerous misunderstandings of the Gospel found commonly among some evangelical teachers twenty years ago.  The release of this new edition, updated after two decades, is an alarm that these misrepresentations of the Gospel still threaten today.

I was recently asked to rank the most important evangelical books of the last twenty-five years.  In my judgment, The Gospel According to Jesus belongs in the top ten of that urgent list.

An excerpt:

The gospel in vogue today holds forth a false hope to sinners.  It promises them that they can have eternal life yet continue to live in rebellion against God.  Indeed, it encourages people to claim Jesus as Savior yet defer until later the commitment to obey Him as Lord.  It promises salvation from hell but not necessarily freedom from iniquity.  It offers false security to people who revel in the sins of the flesh and spurn the way of holiness.  By separating faith from faithfulness, it teaches that intellectual assent is as valid as a wholehearted obedience to the truth.

Thus the good news of Christ has given way to the bad news of an insidious easy-believism that makes no moral demands on the lives of sinners.  It is not the same message Jesus proclaimed.

In Defense of the Defenseless — the Human Embryo

The moral status of the human embryo now stands as a central question of our times.  In fact, it has only been in recent times that we have even known much about the human embryo.  Now, with the issues of human embryonic stem cell research, cloning, reproductive technologies, and designer babies before us, the human embryo is now a central character in some of our most heated moral and political debates.

Now, Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen defend the human dignity of the human embryo with vigor and credible argument in Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday).  George and Tollefsen offer a sustained argument against the use and destruction of human embryos in medical experimentation.

Robert P. George is Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Christopher Tollefsen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.  They understand what is at stake in this controversy — the dignity of every single human being.

They make their case that “human embryos are, from the very beginning, human beings, sharing an identity with, though younger than, the older human beings they will grow up to become.”

Embryo is now the essential book on this great moral question.

From the book:

The evidence suggests, then, that at the end of the first week, the same organism that came into being at fertilization has continued to grow and pursue its important biological goals.  It does this by means of an increasingly differentiated division of labor among the cells, but a division whose original plan dates back to the very act of fertilization.  And it pursues its goals, and adjusts for difficulties, by means of communication from cell to cell.  It is, it would seem, a single organism, just like a toddler, adolescent, or adult.

The Family Bin Laden — Understanding the Times

The name of the Bin Laden family is now known throughout the world — a name of infamy.  But long before the events of September 11, 2001, the Bin Laden family was well established in Saudi Arabia and in much of the Arab world.  Journalist Steve Coll, winner of the Pulitzer Prize while at The Washington Post, traces the development of the Bin Ladens in a narrative that is indispensable to understanding the events of 9/11 and the challenge Osama Bin Laden and radical Islamic groups now represent.  The book, The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, is both important and timely.

On of the most important contributions of this book is its tracing of the history of the Bin Laden family against the backdrop of developments in the Middle East and around the world.  Furthermore, he corrects many misunderstandings in the West.  A common rationale offered for the source or motivation for terrorism is poverty — but the Bin Ladens are a family of extreme wealth, royal access, and privilege.

An excerpt:

The family generation to which Osama belonged — twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters — inherited considerable wealth, but had to cope with intense social and cultural changes.  Most of them were born into a poor society where there were no public schools or universities, where social roles were rigid and preordained, where religious texts and rituals dominated public and intellectual life, where slavery was not only legal but openly practiced by the king and his sons.  Yet within two decades, by the time this generation of Bin Ladens became young adults, they found themselves bombarded by Western-influenced ideas about individual choice, by gleaming new shopping malls and international fashion brands, by Hollywood movies and alcohol and changing sexual mores — a dizzying world that was theirs for the taking, since they each received annual dividends that started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  These Bin Ladens, like other privileged Saudis who came of age during the oil shock decade of the 1970s, became Arabian pioneers in the era of globalization.  The Bin Ladens were the first private Saudis to own airplanes, and in business and family life alike, they devoured early on the technologies of global integration.  It is hardly an accident that Osama’s first major tactical innovation as a terrorist involved his creative use of a satellite telephone.  It does not seem irrelevant, either, that shocking airplane crashes involving Americans were a recurrent motif of the family’s experience long before September 11.

The Best Analysis of the “Gospel of Judas”

The controversy surrounding the “Gospel of Judas” raises significant and important questions for intelligent Christians.  How are we to understand this document?  What does this text suggest in terms of theology?  How do we put the entire question into context?

An excellent guide to these questions is Simon Gathercole, a bright young scholar who serves as Lecturer in New Testament Studies at Cambridge University.  In The Gospel of Judas (Oxford University Press) Gathercole offers the best available analysis of the Gospel of Judas and its significance.

The book is scholarly but accessible to any educated reader.  Gathercole addresses all the significant questions head-on and teaches his readers a good bit about the New Testament as he goes along.

His book is a needed corrective to the misleading media hype about the “Gospel of Judas” and his theological focus is greatly appreciated.

From the book:

The four Gospels in the New Testament are the only surviving Gospels which derive from the time period of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry.  Unsurprisingly, as the documents which most closely reflect the time and life-setting of Jesus, they present him as he had really been remembered–as someone who lived and breathed the Old Testament and knew himself to be playing a special role in its fulfillment, rather than as a thoroughly un-Jewish figure: disembodied, detached from the world, offering not hope but knowledge.

Wisdom and Eloquence — Classical Learning for Christians

The Christian Church has always understood learning to be a central priority of faithful discipleship, and Christianity can claim deep reservoirs of learning, scholarship, and education.  Furthermore, the rise of the university and the spread of educational opportunity were driven by Christians and by churches who saw a commitment to learning as necessary to Christian growth, evangelism, and the inculcation of Christian truth in every new generation.

At the same time, modern education has become a seething cauldron of competing fads and ideologies.  Over against this confusion and mediocrity, many Christians have rediscovered the benefit of classical learning — learning that is explicitly grounded in the classical liberal arts in order to train students to think and to apply biblical truth to learning and to life.

Authors Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans offer good counsel in Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning [Crossway].  Littlejohn and Evans have served as heads of school and address these issues from experience.  Parents will be especially interested in their description of a classical education and its benefits.  These authors are not afraid to argue for classical modes of learning, such as memorization.  Wisdom and Eloquence will help parents, professional educators, and anyone involved in education to discern the difference between educational fads and an education that matters.

From the book:

If there is a secret to the success of teaching and learning in the liberal arts tradition, it could be stated as: “Read, read, read, and read some more!”  Nothing in human experience has a more powerful effect on our cognitive, cultural, social, spiritual, and epistemological development than diving headlong into the ocean of ideas contained in the world of literature.  Herein the student gains exposure to the rich genres of lyric, poetry, and epic, of parable, fable, and myth, of monologue, dialogue, and theatrical play, of homily, epistle, and edict, of history and fiction, and of current event and fantasy (which are sometimes hard to distinguish).  Herein is fruit for the picking, ingredients for the delightful exercise of grammatical, dialectical, and rhetorical skills.

Why Classical Music Still Matters

These are the best of times and the worst of times for classical music.  More music is available to more people than ever before.  The digital revolution has made more music available than at any previous time in human history, and available 24/7 at very low cost.  Musical performances silent for decades are now available in new digital editions.

Yet, enrollment in many musical education programs is dropping fast as children and teenagers play video games, spend time on the internet, join soccer leagues, and think of music as something they buy — not something they do.  Music programs in public schools are often cut for budgetary reasons or reduced in size and scope.

Lawrence Kramer, Professor of English and Music at Fordham University in New York City has written a wonderful and informative book intended to make the argument that classical music has a distinctive and much-needed place in our culture and in our individual lives.

In Why Classical Music Still Matters [University of California Press] Kramer acknowledges the problem.  “Classical music has people worried,” he concedes.  “To many it seems on shaky ground in America.  For more then a decade the drumbeat of its funeral march has been steady.”

Kramer provides his readers with ample argument for the importance of classical music.  In so doing, he provides a concise musical education as well.  As a professor of both English and music, he is in a good position to make his case with engaging prose and style.

In the end, most readers of Why Classical Music Still Matters will be those who already believe that classical music still matters.  Still, the book will interest anyone who wants to know more about music and our cultural heritage.

An excerpt:

As I said earlier, classical music developed with a single aim: to be listened to.  Listened to, that is, rather then heard as part of some other activity, usually a social or religious ritual.  As noted earlier, too, this sort of listening involves both focused attention and active involvement.  Its attention is a form of attending; it is not just a hearing but a hearkening.  To practice it is to presuppose that listening is a discrete form of activity, of interest in itself independent of what is heard.  Listening so conceived is capable of sustaining personal, social, and spiritual values depending on how it goes, and when, and for whom.  Such listening quickly develops the ambition to get beyond the quicksilver transitory character of hearing in the moment.  It seeks to embody itself in forms that can endure and so become the “classics” upon which a culture of heightened listening depends.

Two Biographies of Albert Einstein

The year 2007 saw the release of two important biographies of Albert Einstein.  Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson [Simon & Schuster] is my favorite work on Einstein.  Isaacson is CEO of the Aspen Institute and a former executive with CNN and Time.   His biography of Einstein is massive and comprehensive.  It is also well written and well organized.  Isaacson also took advantage of the availability of new Einstein letters and documents in his research.

An excerpt:

His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos.  A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein’s universe, one defined on the macro side by his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.

His fingerprints are all over today’s technologies.  Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and even semi-conductors all trace back to his theories.  He signed the letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atom bomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.

The other major biography is Einstein: A Biography by Juergen Neffe and translated from the German by Shelley Frisch [Farrar, Straus and Giroux].  Neffe, associated with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin,  gives primary attention to Einstein’s early and most productive years and deals more specifically with Einstein’s intellectual development.

An excerpt:

Einstein was one of the most renowned people ever to walk the planet.  Certainly no other scientist has come close to his degree of fame and mythic transfiguration.  His seemingly paradoxical nature — bourgeois and bohemian, superman and scalawag — lent him an air of mystery.  He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction.  Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other.  He was a friend to some, and enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends.

The Defining Moment and the Art of Leadership

As acknowledged by his friends and his foes, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one of the most significant Presidents in the nation’s history.  While debates over his policies, actions, and legacy will surely continue, his leadership gifts continue to impress historians across ideological boundaries.

Roosevelt’s self-understanding as a leader should be of interest to any student of the art and science of leadership.  For that reason, Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope has much to teach about the art of leadership.

Alter, a senior editor at Newsweek, notes that just hours before FDR was sworn into office for his first term, governors in New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania ordered the banks in their states to close.  This meant that 34 of 48 states “now had no economic pulse.”  President Herbert Hoover was “a study in failure” even as he possessed a “brilliant understanding of complex issues.”  What Hoover failed to understand was the crucial role of the President as national leader.  Understanding this was Roosevelt’s great gift.  He knew that the nation needed decisive leadership — and fast.  His first 100 days were filled with a flurry of presidential actions and words.  Roosevelt aimed at hope and exuded optimism.  Hoover had declared a bank “moratorium.”  Roosevelt declared bank “holidays.”  Alter’s analysis in The Defining Moment of Roosevelt’s words and actions during his first 100 days is a great read.

An excerpt:

FDR knew the consequences of failing to seize the day.  A visitor — unidentified in the press — came to him not long after the Inauguration and told him, “Mr. President, if your program succeeds, you’ll be the greatest president in American history.  If it fails, you will be the worst one.”  “If it fails,” the new president replied, “I’ll be the last one.”

This sounds melodramatic to Americans in the 21st century, when freedom is flourishing in so many parts of the world.  But during the 1930s, democracy was on the run, discredited even by subtle minds as a hopelessly cumbersome way to meet the challenges of the modern age.

Restoring Ecclesiology

A particular emphasis upon the nature and structure of the church has been central to the Baptist vision.  In other words, ecclesiology is in many ways the chief contribution and distinctive of the Baptists.  Sadly, you would not learn that by observing many Baptist congregations.  Baptist ecclesiology has been eclipsed by pragmatism and undermined by neglect.

A helpful analysis of what must be recovered comes as Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, edited by Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell, III [Kregel].  The book contains chapters on the major issues that must be addressed if integrity in Baptist congregational life is to be recovered — including regenerate church membership, believers baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline.  Contributors represent a stellar group of Baptist scholars, including, among others, Mark Dever on church membership, Danny Akin on baptism, and Gregory Wills on church discipline.

From the chapter by Gregory A. Wills on church discipline:

Southern Baptists experienced three tectonic shifts that reshaped Baptist identity and rendered church discipline implausible for both conservatives and progressives.  First, they lost confidence that Christ commanded a specific ecclesiology and based church practices on pragmatic concerns, on human standards of effectiveness.  Second, they adopted a new view of Baptist identity that led them to redefine ecclesiology and theology according to human experience, which among other things recast God in humanitarian terms and weakened their sense of the fear of God.  Third, they took guardianship of the social order, which secularized the churches and eroded their commitment to separation from the world.

These commitments so altered Baptist piety that, all things considered, church discipline seemed ill suited to advance the aims of the contemporary church.  It seemed ineffective for church growth and irrelevant for ministry in modern society.  Southern Baptist pastors finally chose relevance over obedience and quieted their consciences over the loss.

1 3 4 5 6 7 13