Category Archives: Book Reviews

Christmas Carol

Review: A Christmas Carol

Rating: ★★★★★

Full Title: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens divided the original story into “staves” (i.e. stanzas), with the title likewise being an analogy to verse or song.

Who: Charles Dickens, the most famous English novelist of the 19th century.

Overview: A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ compelling and imaginative story of the life of a miser reformed by a tour through time in which he is visited by Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. In all three tenses, Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth that he had been missing about his own life, the life of his employee, and the effects of his miserable—pun intended—lifestyle on others.

Meat: This story, which many learned growing up from various adaptations such as those of Disney, is much more than a children’s tale. Like the story that follows it, it has elements of horror and fantasy woven into a simple story. And Scrooge is reformed by the vision of the results of his selfishness; in that sense, the story parallels a Christian conversion, and this is clearer in the original book.

Quotes:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

“For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”

“Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.”

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

You can read A Christmas Carol for free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, or listen on LibriVox.

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James Gilmour of Mongolia review

Review: James Gilmour of Mongolia

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: James Gilmour, pioneer missionary in China and Mongolia.

Richard Lovett arranged these memoirs using Gilmour’s journals in the year after Gilmour’s death.

When: Gilmour was active in the mission field from 1870 until his death in China in 1891.

Where: Gilmour spends much of the book training and equipping in northern China before making various excursions into Mongolia.

Overview: A few pioneers had translated the Bible for the Buryat people (a Mongol people group) in Russia in the early 1800s with permission from the Russian Emperor, but they had been sent home after many years by the same. At the time Gilmour began work among them, the Mongols were an extensive and widespread people group with no church and no missionary.

Mongolia at the time was so wholly untouched by Western influence that Gilmour could say, after just a few years of excursions, that he knew more of Mongolia than any European he was aware of. This is the unromantic record of a very difficult missionary life on a pioneer field.

Meat: Gilmour’s writings here on the missionary call (quoted below) are very well known. He ate, slept, and travelled as a low-class Mongolian; he experienced bereavement on the mission field and nearly drowned in flash floods; but he wrote that all this was merely obedience to the Great Commission.

Gilmour deals pretty extensively with grief, depression, and disappointment on the mission field, and this is reflected much better in this firsthand account than in modern retellings. Lovett writes, “The most constant force acting in the direction of mental depression was what appeared to him like the want of immediate success.” (p. 225)

Bones: The original edition has some repetitive letters and journal entries that could easily be abridged. In spite of this, it is very inspiring to read his own words, rather than some romantic modern summary of his life.

Quotes: “I feel quite ready to go anywhere if only He goes with me.” (p. 177)

“Where is now the Lord God of Elijah? He is waiting for Elijah to call on Him.” (p. 59-60)

“I go out as a missionary not that I may follow the dictates of common sense, but that I may obey that command of Christ, ‘Go into all the world and preach.’ He who said ‘preach,’ said also, ‘Go ye into and preach’, and what Christ hath joined together let not man put asunder. This command seems to me to be strictly a missionary injunction, and, as far as I can see, those to whom it was first delivered regarded it in that light, so that, apart altogether from choice and other lower reasons, my going forth is a matter of obedience to a plain command; and in place of seeking to assign a reason for going abroad, I would prefer to say that I have failed to discover any reason why I should stay at home.” (p. 42-43)

On missionary depression:

“In the shape of converts I have seen no result. I have not, as far as I am aware, seen anyone who even wanted to be a Christian.” (p. 97)

“In terrible darkness and tears for two days. Light broke over me at my stand to-day in the thought that Jesus was tempted forty days of the devil after His baptism, and that He felt forsaken on the cross.” (May 9. 1888; p. 224-225)

“The only trouble that haunted him was that the results of his long journeys and of his various missionary enterprises had been apparently so few.”

Related: Among the Mongols, More about the Mongols.

This biography is available for free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, and the Internet Archive.

Review: Whyte’s Bible Characters

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), Scottish preacher and prolific author. He published a variety of sermons and biographies, but his most famous books since his death have been his Bible Characters.

Overview: Each of these sermons is usually a brief and balanced treatments of a biblical character; for some characters—such as Moses or Paul—there are several sermons, dealing with the chapters of Scripture in which that person is found. If the character is controversial, he will weigh the positives and negatives before expressing his conviction and the lesson that he gains from the character’s life.

Meat: Whyte is an excellent writer. Like F. W. Boreham and A. J. Gossip, he drew on the best English and Classical literature, not just to pepper his sermons, but to illustrate biblical truth in the most meaningful way. He held many prestigious positions and was no mean scholar.

Many of these sermons were cited by scholars as authority for many decades after Whyte’s death. If you found a biblical character confounding, it was always a helpful plan to visit Whyte and see, first, what was his opinion of the character, and second, what lesson did he glean from their story. On a controversial character like Jephthah, for instance, he will weigh the interpretations and then pursue a definite course, which you may or may not agree with.

His sermons have value as a pastor’s resource, but they are also great devotional reading. I really enjoy being able to pick it up on a whim and have a solid sermon on almost any prominent Bible character, whether from the Old or the New Testament.

Bones: I enjoyed many of these sermons, but some of them were absolute duds. The sermon on Eve, while it was interesting, seemed to quote line after line of John Milton. While I love Milton, I was much more interested in understanding the basics of Eve’s story. A few were dull and moralistic; the sermon on Esau, for instance, takes on the sin of gluttony—an unexpected turn, to say the least. I will, however, continue to consult this set of sermons when I am studying Bible characters, because it is unmatched in that regard.

Related: Herbert Lockyer has similar works like All the Men of the Bible, All the Women of the Bible, etc. These works are exhaustive in their inclusion of characters. The individual entries are usually brief, but still directed towards a devotional application.

Whyte’s sermons on Bible Characters were originally published in six volumes, but they are now available cheaply in one large volume, or free as an PDF (in separate volumes).

Begin Here review

Review: Begin Here: A Wartime Essay (Sayers)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Dorothy Sayers, 20th-century novelist, linguist, and essayist; Sayers is most famous for her mystery novels, but I will be reviewing her non-fiction. I should add, Sayers is known as an “honorary” Inkling (the club was men-only) and could probably hold her own in an arm-wrestling match with C. S. Lewis.

Overview: Begin Here is a 1940 “wartime essay,” as the British subtitle states, putting World War II in its historical context in terms of how the Brits got there and what attitude they should have towards the war. Although this makes the book sound ephemeral, Sayers is broad enough in her analysis to give her book lasting relevance. Her writing is also impeccable.

The six essays included are “The Serial Drama of History,” “By the Author of ——?”, “Synopsis of Preceding Installments,” “What Happened in the Last Chapter,” “Brief Outline of the Characters,” and “Begin Here.”

Meat: The meat of the book is Sayers’ explanation, in Chapter III, of how our philosophy of man has progressed. She divides it this way, starting from what she calls :

  1. The Whole Man, the image of God — theological man.
  2. The Whole Man, a value in himself, apart from God — humanist man.
  3. Man the embodied Intelligence — rational man.
  4. Homo Sapiens, the intelligent animal — biological man.
  5. Man the member of the herd — sociological man.
  6. Man the response to environment — psychological man.
  7. Man the response to the means of livelihood — economic man. (p. 72)

“The first structure of Western-Mediterranean-Christian civilization which presents itself for our examination was theological. . . . It differs in two ways from any succeeding theory of civilization: it referred all problems to one absolute Authority beyond history and beyond humanity; and as a scheme for the satisfactory fulfillment of the individual and the world-community it was and remains complete and unassailable.” (p. 29-30)

Sayers elaborates one how different understandings of man have successively set up Reason, Life, the State, the individual, and money as absolutes to which all else must bow. None of these had an absolute basis for authority outside itself, and therefore every attempt to substitute an absolute fails.

Likewise, man has languished, she says, in the presence of so much wartime entertainment, all of which is shallow, none of which is devised to capture the reason or imagination of man. Such passive entertainment is derived from an underestimation of man as man. “For man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something.” (p. 15) Attempts to find inner peace in passivity, then, are unfounded, she says; we are like a cyclist on a tightrope over Niagara Falls; the only recourse is to keep going.

We cannot complain of totalitarianism when we have sat in front of the television, hamstrung our reasons, complaining without creating. Germany, she says, succumbed to Hitler because they were crestfallen, restless, and unproductive; and Hitler appealed on a basic level, not as an elite.

Spoiler: As the final suggestion of the book, Sayers suggests the following:

“There are only two ways to move the world: the way of the Gospel and the way of the Law, and if we will not have the one we must submit to the other. Somehow we have got to find the integrating principle for our lives, the creative power that sustains our balance in motion, and we have got to do it quickly. The task is urgent; we must not push it into the future; we must not leave it to others: we must do it ourselves, and we must begin now and here.” (p. 155-156)

Bones: (I almost forgot to put a critical section, I was so fastened by my first Sayers read.) This book shoots over my head sometimes, as it sweeps along through Communism, the medieval era, the rise of Hitler, and occasional details of wartime Britain. But then, Harry Conn would say you should only read books that you don’t fully understand.

Quotes:

“Seeing that these principles, left to function on their own, produced so strange and insoluble an antinomy, the logical mind could come to only one conclusion: without the theology, the principles have no authority. There is no reason whatever why, having abandoned the theology, we should not abandon the principles. We shall then be free to make our own absolute.” (p. 76)

“We keep on thinking that the German state is the old-fashioned Christian kind of sinner that knows what is right but does what it knows to be wrong; we are unable to conceive that more desparate condition of sin that honestly believes the wrong to be right.” (p. 89)

“”We are like a man riding a bicycle on a tight-rope across the Niagara Falls: we cannot go back, we dare not stop, we must go forward and keep our balance if we are not to fall into destruction.”

“There is one foe within his own gates that every tyrant fears, and that is the Rational Man.” (p. 115-116)

“Peace is not a static thing: it is the supreme example of balance in movement.” (p. 135

Review: The Diary of an Old Soul

Rating: ★★★★

Full Title: A Book of Strife in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul.

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: MacDonald arranged this book into 366 daily readings, most of which are devotional and meditative. Each day has a seven-line stanza, many of which are addressed as prayers. (John Keble, an Anglican, had produced the much more popular “Christian Year” about 50 years earlier.)

This is probably MacDonald’s best book of poetry, though he has many. His poetry is a mix of the sentimental (very accessible) and more classical attempts (very inaccessible).

Meat: The stanzas here are simple, devotional thoughts and prayers, many of which can help to express a longing for God. Like the Epistle of James, MacDonald is always stirring his readers to be “doers, and not hearers only.” He speaks from the heart and speaks to the root of the spiritual life.

Bones: MacDonald’s poetry here is simple, and occasionally simplistic. My only other criticism is that MacDonald is so introspective. It can be rather angsty at times.

Quotes:

“When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire,—
Oh, be thou then the first, the one thou art;
Be thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear, boundless desire.”
(January 10)

This book is free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, and on LibriVox.

Review: Phantastes (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: This book is a mixed genre foray into fantasy, written very early in MacDonald’s career. The story is framed as an episodic journey, but it incorporates many sideplots and poems, so that many chapters are only loosely strung to the narrative. This relatively difficult book has some dark themes and is written primarily for an adult audience.

The plots and subplots deal with themes of imagination, bondage and freedom, love and infatuation. Anodos falls in love with a statue, but cannot free her from her pedestal; Anodos is warned about the Ash Tree, which is precisely who he finds himself encountering; and so on.

Meat: This book had great appeal for C. S. Lewis—before his conversion—and wrote in Surprised By Joy that it “baptized [his] imagination.” For my own part, I can say that some of the images and metaphors were profound; others, rather protracted. This is definitely one of MacDonald’s most ambitious works of fiction, and may appeal to more ambitious readers.

Bones: When C. S. Lewis recommends a novel, one expects to see sweeping themes like those of the Space trilogy, or elegant metaphors like those of Narnia; I didn’t find either to be in large number here. The fantasy is more of art for art’s sake, or language for language’s sake; it was costly reading with no payoff.

I am a great fan of George MacDonald, but not a fan of his darker work. (I should add, Lewis has pointed me to other fantasy works that I found disappointing, like those of Charles Williams.)

Quotes: “We receive but what we give.” (loc. 854)

“The waters lay so close to me, they seemed to enter and revive my heart. I rose to the surface, shook the water from my hair, and swam as in a rainbow, amid the coruscations of the gems below seen through the agitation caused by my motion. Then, with open eyes, I dived, and swam beneath the surface. And here was a new wonder. For the basin, thus beheld, appeared to extend on all sides like a sea, with here and there groups as of ocean rocks, hollowed by ceaseless billows into wondrous caves and grotesque pinnacles. Around the caves grew sea-weeds of all hues, and the corals glowed between; while far off, I saw the glimmer of what seemed to be creatures of human form at home in the waters. I thought I had been enchanted; and that when I rose to the surface, I should find myself miles from land, swimming alone upon a heaving sea; but when my eyes emerged from the waters, I saw above me the blue spangled vault, and the red pillars around. I dived again, and found myself once more in the heart of a great sea.” (loc. 1089)

“Hardly knowing what I did, I opened the door. Why had I not done so before? I do not know.” (loc. 2448)

This book is free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, and on LibriVox.

proving the unseen

Review: Proving the Unseen

Rating: ★★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: This book is a rare glimpse into the spoken sermons of George MacDonald. Proving the Unseen was arranged and edited by William J. Petersen from sermons published in Christian World Pulpit in MacDonald’s lifetime. The sermons are reasonably short and have the same subject matter found in most of MacDonald’s books: The Fatherhood of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the obedience of faith.

Meat: This book’s strength is that it is significantly easier to read than Unspoken Sermons, which many—unlike me—find too abstract. MacDonald’s spoken ministry as found here is surprisingly straightforward, and yet, the material has the same depth and spiritual sharpness. I especially enjoyed the titular sermon, “Faith, the Proof of the Unseen,” and “Alone with God.”

Bones: The sermons here are pretty short, so you may get the sense that MacDonald could say a lot more on each topic.

Quotes: “Often the very things that lift us up nearer to God are viewed by us as misfortunes. ‘How sad,’ we say, and console one another on the means that the Father of our spirits is using to cleanse our souls and to make us the very children of his heart.” (p. 61)