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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Sampler

"Some, on the pretext of this freedom {Christian freedom}, shake off all obedience toward God and break out into unbridled license. Others disdain it, thinking that it takes away all moderation, order, and choice of things. What should we do here, hedged about with such perplexities? Shall we say good-by to Christian freedom, thus cutting off occasion for such dangers? But, as we have said, unless this freedom be comprehended, neither Christ nor gospel truth, nor inner peace of soul, can be rightly known." Calvin's Institutes, Book III, Chapter XIX, section 1. This caused me to reflect, as I have so often reflected during the course of reading The Institutes, that Calvin is much more balanced than the caricature of him which is most popular suggests. It also reminded me of what I heard Doug Wilson say many times during my three years in Moscow, Idaho: that there is a ditch on each side of the road.

"Let us labor to grow 'from glory to glory,' though we lose in other ways. What is lost and parted with in the world is well lost if it is for the gain of any grace, because grace is glory. It is a good sickness if it increases patience and humility. It is a good loss if it makes us grow less worldly-minded and more humble. Everything else is vanity in comparison. And that grace that we get by their loss is well gained. Grace is glory; and the more we grow in grace, the more we grow in glory." "Glorious Freedom," Richard Sibbes, p. 161. As Sibbes says elsewhere, "Grace is glory begun; glory is grace perfected."

Friday, July 29, 2011

I Dreamed of Africa, Kuki Gallmann

Kuki Gallmann was born in Italy, but as a child dreamed of living in Africa one day. She made the dream come true when she and her second husband bought a large ranch in Kenya. After several years, her husband died in a car crash. Three years later her teen-aged son died, bitten by a snake whose venom he was trying to milk. Rather than turn from Africa to Italy, as her family and Italian friends tried to persuade her to do, Mrs. Gallmann stayed in Kenya and founded the Gallmann Memorial Foundation, with an environmental/conservation focus.

Mrs. Gallmann wrote her prose poetically. My favorite parts of the book were her lovely descriptions of the wildlife and natural beauty of Kenya. Her ability to write extensive and nuanced pictures of the personalities she met impressed me. The story of her grief over the two tragedies in her life did move me.

I did not, however, find the book compelling as a whole. I disliked the mysticism she displayed when writing about death, especially the death of her husband, when she suggests that the daughter she was carrying when her husband died was the reincarnation of her husband. Her husband and son seemed a bit larger-than-life, and I found myself wondering if they could possibly have been quite as wonderful as she describes. She defends one of the affairs she had (with a married man, lest I be misunderstood) after her husband died as 'pure.' She condemns the influence foreigners have had over Africa and Africans, yet she herself both exercises and seeks influence over the land and the people. I concluded the book thinking that Mrs. Gallmann probably thinks too highly of herself.

I do not regret reading the book, but I do not intend to keep the copy I own, having no desire to read it again, or loan it out, or encourage my children to read it. As capacious as my bookshelves are, I must draw the line somewhere.

I have not seen the movie based on the book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Child's Own Book of Verse, Book One

I've been reading a few poems a day a few days a week out of this sweet little volume to my 4yo daughter. We both enjoyed this book.

Ada M. Skinner and Frances Gillespy Wickes edited it. Maud and Miska Petersham illustrated it. It was originally published in 1917. My copy is a republication by Yesterday's Classics (if you're a parent and you're not yet familiar with Yesterday's Classics, I urge you to become familiar with them). By my count there are 105 poems by 42 different poets and Anonymous (who wrote more than anyone else). There are two succeeding volumes, which my 4yo and I are eager to read.

In my opinion this volume of poetry far excels more modern poems. I don't have a problem with most modern poetry written for children, but I do not think it as high quality as the poems contained in this book.

Here is one of my favorite poems in the book:
"What can I give Him?
Poor as I am?

"If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb.

"If I were a wise man,
I would do my part.

"Yet what can I give Him?
Give my heart."  by Christina G. Rossetti

Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson

In Crazy U, Andrew Ferguson uses his personal story of guiding his son into college to examine the current situation for those heading to college in America. Mr. Ferguson is a very humorous writer, causing me to nearly laugh out loud at several points in the book. The photo of him on the inside back-flap of the dust jacket calls to mind Mark Twain (perhaps simply because of the hair and mustache).

Here Mr. Ferguson discusses the essay: "As we've seen, admissions people tend to be chipper folk, serotonin-soaked and caffeinated from birth, and they assume that every high school senior should be too. In the trade, essay questions are called 'prompts.' It is a revealing term of art. It suggests that the purpose of the question isn't really to draw out information, it's to offer a nudge--to perch the kids at the top of a verbal toboggan run and then give a little push, so they take off yapping and don't stop till they reach the five-hundredth word. Prompts work better for some kids than others; some kids, I mean, are promptable by nature, while some could be tied to the mast and lashed with prompts till the welts rise and yet not give up a syllable."

Here he summarizes Professor Richard Vedder's explanation of why college costs have risen dramatically: "Why are there no incentives to cut costs?...a large portion of the people consuming the services aren't paying for the services out of their own pocket. The costs are picked up by third parties...In the case of higher ed it's the government again, plus subsidized loans and scholarships that pass though the schools themselves. The self-regulating system of supply and demand breaks down...Normally, an increase in price reduces demand, which in turn moderates prices. In higher ed, that doesn't happen. When the prices rise, subsidies increase. With more Pell grants available for low-income students, more scholarships and cheap loans given to the better-off families, the school are free to raise tuition again."

In fact, the explanation sounds alarmingly like the explanation of the sub-prime mortgage bubble. One has to wonder (Mr. Ferguson wonders in the book) whether the financing of higher education is headed for a similar burst. This point reminds me also of a book I read a little over a year ago, DIY U. Higher education is priced unrealistically high; something has to break in the system at some point, but what and when?

In the course of the book Mr. Ferguson examines such issues as the SAT, what it measures, what its importance is, how it has been changed over the years to answer its critics; the application process; the FAFSA; what is college for; growing up enough to let go of one's kids; even how the sexual culture of the college campus has changed since his own student days.

I enjoyed reading the book. I enjoy contemplating the topic of education. I enjoyed the humor of the book. However, I do not think the book will be of much interest to those who are not either in the midst of launching their own children into college, about to begin the process of launching their children into college, or generally interested in the subject of education.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How the West Was Lost, Dambisa Moyo

I have been putting off blogging about this book, because I am rather daunted by it. I did try blogging about it earlier this week, only to be disappointed by what I wrote. I am approaching this attempt to review the book with lowered expectations of my ability to review the book. Which hopefully means I will meet with some level of success this time (waiting to blog about this book is actually slowing my reading of my next book, as I don't want to get too deep into the next book with this review still hanging over my head).

On the whole I would recommend this book. I take but two main exceptions to the message of the book.

First: in the early part of the book Ms. Moyo details the causes of the 2008 subprime mortgage fiasco. In this portion of the book she clearly lays a great deal of blame for the fiasco at the feet of the federal government, which promoted the idea of the mortgage industry loaning to those who really could not afford to borrow. "Despite the opprobrium heaped upon the bankers for their enthusiastic role in the financial wizardry around the sub-prime industry, the responsibility must also lie with well-intentioned policymakers stretching as far back as the post-Second World War period...Well before the sub-prime fiasco, the US government had established Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were precisely mandated to provide easy access to subsidized home loans and mortgages...The mandate came from on high, with an increase in homeownership a stated goal of both the Bush and Clinton administrations (and even that of Jimmy Carter)." p.70

 Later in the book, in a section titled "The Fork in the Road: The Case for State-Led Development," she argues for a state-led capitalist system, and she uses the 2008 financial crisis as the strongest plank in her argument. "The case for a government-led capitalistic approach (and for not allowing the free market to run roughshod) has seen no more compelling evidence than the 2008 credit crisis." p.141. I thought this a bit contradictory.

Second: later in the book Ms. Moyo shows apparent admiration for the way the Rest (the economically-rising non-Western nations, such as China and India) organize the affairs of their citizens. "The Rest have taken a more cynical (but perhaps the more realistic) view of the world in which we live. Their political and economic systems are guided by a dogged belief in the state, and a suspicious apprehension as regards the behaviour and motivations of the individual." p. 145 As a Westerner with a deeply entrenched view that individual civil liberty is a beautiful thing, I find government intrusion into such matters as how many children I have and whom I marry repulsive.

There is, of course, a lot more to this book than these two points I am taking exception to. I do think the book is worth reading.

Sunday Sampler

"Then said Saul unto his armourbearer, Draw thy sword, and thrust me through therewith; lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me. But his armourbearer would not; for he was sore afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it. And when his armourbearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men, that same day together." I Samuel 31:4-6. So much death, all on that same day together. Such a bleak and grim and gory ending for I Samuel.

"Indeed, he states that 'he has chosen us in him' from eternity 'before the foundation of the world,' through no merit of our own 'but according to the purpose of divine good pleasure;' that by his death we are redeemed from the condemnation of death and freed from ruin; that we have been adopted unto him as sons and heirs by our Heavenly Father; that we have been reconciled through his blood; that, given into his protection, we are released from the danger of perishing and falling; that thus ingrafted into him we are already, in a manner, partakers of eternal life, having entered in the Kingdom of God through hope. Yet more: we experience such participation in him that, although we are still foolish in ourselves, he is our wisdom before God; while we are sinners, he is our righteousness; while we are unclean, he is our purity; while we are weak, while we are unarmed and exposed to Satan, yet ours is that power which has been given him in heaven and on earth, by which to crush Satan for us and shatter the gates of hell; while we still bear about with us the body of death, he is yet our life." Calvin's Institutes, Book III, Chapter XV, section 5. What a glorious salvation! What a glorious Savior!

"Of all contemplations under heaven, there is no contemplation so sweet and powerful as to see God in Christ and Christ first abased for us, and to see ourselves abased in Christ, and crucified in Christ, and acquitted in Christ. And then let us raise our thoughts a little higher, to see ourselves made little by little glorious in Christ; to see ourselves in him rising and ascending and sitting at the right hand of God in heavenly places; to see ourselves, by a spirit of faith, in heaven already with Christ. What a glorious sight and contemplation this is! If we first look upon ourselves as we are, we are as branches cut off from the tree, as a river cut off from the spring, that dies immediately. What is in us, except what we have derived from Christ, who is the first, the spring of all grace, the sum of all the beams that shine upon us? We are as branches cut off. Now to see Christ, and ourselves in Christ, transforms us to be like his image. It is the sweetest contemplation that can be." Richard Sibbes, Glorious Freedom

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sunday Sampler {a day late}

"And he changed his behavior before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard." I Samuel 21:13. I have always been fascinated by the idea of David, fleeing for his life from King Saul, taking refuge with the king of Gath, feigning madness so as not to alarm the king of Gath.

"...his free goodness, with which the Father embraces us in Christ when he clothes us with the innocence of Christ and accepts it as ours that by the benefit of it he may hold us as holy, pure, and innocent. For Christ's righteousness, which as it alone is perfect alone can bear the sight of God, must appear in court on our behalf, and stand surety in judgment. Furnished with this righteousness, we obtain continual forgiveness of sins in faith. Covered with this purity, the sordidness and uncleanness of our imperfections are not ascribed to us but are hidden as if buried that they may not come into God's judgment, until the hours arrives when, the old man slain and clearly destroyed in us, the divine goodness will receive us into blessed peace with the new Adam. There let us await the Day of the Lord in which, having received incorruptible bodies, we will be carried into the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom." Calvin's Institutes, Book III, Chapter XIV, section 12. What a glorious Savior we have! He does all the work, and invites us to share in His glory.

"So by the virtue of Christ's resurrection I am conformed more and more to the graces in him. As the power of God's Spirit raised him up when he was at the lowest, after three days in the grave, so the Spirit in every Christian raises him up at the lowest, to comfort, to a further degree of grace, more and more. When Christians are fallen into any sin or any affliction for sin, when they are tripped and undermined by their corruptions, the same power that raised Christ from the grave raises them from their sins daily, that they gather strength against them. And when we are at the lowest, in the grave, the same power will raise us like Christ in every way." Glorious Freedom, Richard Sibbes, p. 118. True believers have the very same Spirit at work in them who raised Christ from the dead. How could God possibly fail to save His own?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

True Grit by Charles Portis

Such is my ignorance that, up until a couple weeks ago, I did not know that True Grit was a book before it was a movie. When we had watched the newer version I looked into the differences between the story told in the older movie and the story told in the newer movie, and thus came to know about the book. I had been happy with the older movie, and scared of what the Coen brothers might do to mess up the newer movie (I especially feared they would find some way to sexualize the story). Now that I've seen the newer one, I'm very impressed by it and, on the whole, prefer it to the older one.

Now I have read the book. I believe the older movie stays closer to some of the details of the working out of the story told in the book, but the newer movie captures more of the true spirit of the book. Both movies are remarkably faithful to the book (something I rarely find myself saying; don't even get me started, for instance, on the terrible and needless change to Faramir's character in The Two Towers).

I liked the book and found it to be a quick read. It is clean enough that I am allowing my 8yo daughter to read it (I'm not sure she'll finish it, but at the moment she's excited to try). Several of the reviews quoted on the copy I read speak of the wide range of ages the book appeals to.

Interestingly, Mattie in the book is an outspoken Presbyterian, right down to directing the reader to look up several passages to prove the doctrine of Election. The movies kind of leave that out. Also, in the new movie the Indian who is hanged towards the beginning is not allowed to speak any last words (in stark contrast to the two white men who are being hanged at the same time). In the book he makes a sort of profession of faith: "I am ready. I have repented my sins and soon I will be in heaven with Christ my savior. Now I must die like a man."

I enjoyed the book enough that I am interested in reading the other books of Charles Portis. I also hope to add True Grit to my personal library. The old-fashioned language used in the book offers one of the chief delights of reading it.