Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best of 2012

The tradition of the year-end list, especially for reviewers, is an ancient and hoary one which I can hardly overlook on a blog like this. And so I have gone over my Goodreads page with a fine-tooth comb and a squint, looking for those particular gems which will make my end-of-year most-highly-recommended list. 

This year I read a grand total of 89 books, averaging out at nearly two per week and beating last year’s record of 75. However this was something which, I felt, came naturally. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Poem: Down in Yon Forest

I must apologise that, what with one thing and another, I haven't had time to post much in the last month. When I am reading, there's little time for posting, and vice versa!

Still, once the holidays are over, there will be some exciting reviews coming up. Over the last six months I have been slowly reading through Saint Augustine's venerable tome The City of God, which I just finished a couple of days ago. Interesting, engaging and informative, De Civitate Dei (its original title in the Latin) was written as the curtain went up on the decentralisation of Rome and the dawn of Christendom, and was enormously influential on Western civilisation as we know it. It will take some reviewing.

Meanwhile, as usual, I intend to take the next couple of weeks' holiday to read another great epic poem. I couldn't be more excited about this epic, which is one of the greatest artistic works of the Reformation. A thrilling, richly allegorical tale of knights, ladies, dragons, witches, traitors, monsters, handsome princes, damsels in distress, Elves, Satyrs, jousts, perils, epic battles, evil lairs, tangled forests, enchanted castles, and magic weapons, this story is also about sound doctrine, the epic war of good versus evil, the beauty of virtue, and Reformation history.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, and if you're wondering how on earth you might have missed such a gem, then do check back in January for a comprehensive review!

And in the meanwhile, I'd like to post one of my favourite Christmas carols, an old song from Derbyshire:

Down in yon forest there stands a hall:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
It's covered all over with purple and pall
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

In that hall there stands a bed:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
It's covered all over with scarlet so red:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed-side there lies a stone:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Which the sweet Virgin Mary knelt upon:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

Under that bed there runs a flood:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
The one half runs water, the other runs blood:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed's foot there grows a thorn:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Which ever blows blossom since he was born:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

Over that bed the moon shines bright:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Denoting our Saviour was born this night:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

And of course, my favourite recording of this lovely song is the one made by my friend Christina of Baehrly Reading.

Monday, December 10, 2012

All Hallows' Eve by Charles Williams

Like Lewis and Tolkien and many of the other great authors of the last century--Chesterton comes to mind immediately, as do Flannery O'Connor and John Buchan--Charles Williams's work is rooted in the past. While other authors drank stright from the cultural zeitgeist--Tolkien's popularity spawned thousands of equally-huge, superficially-similar, deeply modernist imitators--the great authors of the last century seem almost obsessed with the past; not the trappings of the past (historical fiction still belongs to Scott, Stevenson, Henty, and the like in the 1800s) but the ideas of the past. But these authors were not simply nostalgists, sighing over the ideals of chivalry and Christendom. Instead they declared Christendom to be the cure of the ills of the modern age. Chesterton, Lewis, and above all Williams saw the world in terms of antithesis. They knew they were on the right side; they did not care greatly that they were on the old-fashioned side. And so in all their books lay a challenge to the modernist world.

In Charles Williams's books perhaps more than any. Of all the Inklings, his books are the most inaccessible, making few allowances for folks who aren't sure what "the City" is or what's so important about a "roseal glow". But although they require patience and thought, Williams's books are closely related to the life that we know. They are at once the strangest and the most mundane of the books of the Inklings, and perhaps their strangeness stems from their otherwise mundanity.

All Hallows' Eve is an excellent example of Williams's work and perhaps one of the best places to start reading. At the book's opening, a woman named Lester Furnival  is standing on Westminster Bridge in London waiting for her husband. Around her the City seems empty and quiet; then, it occurs to her that she is dead, killed in a plane crash with her friend Evelyn. As she wanders through the City, Lester realises that she is all alone except for Evelyn, one of the few people she ever had a use for. Evelyn, terrified by the loneliness, whimpers--
"Why are we here like this? I haven't done anything. I haven't; I tell you I haven't. I haven't done anything."
And Lester, realising that she hasn't done anything either, sets out on her journey to redemption:
"Evelyn, let's do something now."
Meanwhile, in the living world, Lester's husband Richard is drawn into his friend Jonathan's strange predicament. Jonathan hopes to marry the domineering Lady Wallingford's daughter Betty (an old school friend of Lester and Evelyn's); but when Lady Wallingford sees the painting Jonathan was commissioned to make of her spiritual mentor Simon LeClerk, she is so offended by it that Jonathan enlists Richard to smooth over the breach. Unexpectedly, Simon himself approves of the painting which shows him dominating insect-people in a wilderness, though he dislikes another recent painting showing the City full of, and possibly even made of, Light. Feeling that Jonathan and Richard may be useful to his plans, Simon decides to initiate them into his group of acolytes, but though he promises to bring back Lester and make Lady Wallingford give up her jealously-guarded daughter, what he has in mind for Betty and Lester is something even more sinister than necromancy.

As Lester and Richard fumble towards salvation, Simon the sorcerer puts the last touches to a plan centuries old. And, unlike another 'sorcerer' years ago--'the son of Joseph', as Simon calls Him--this plan will lead not to death but domination.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

When You Rise Up by RC Sproul Jr

(Re-posted from Goodreads)

My parents started home educating me in the early '90s, when the movement was still in its first generation. We were 'movement' home educators, doing it not as a choice among equally valid choices, but because we knew it could offer us something no school could: high consistency with Biblical commands to parents to teach their own children.

Yet, by my late teens, I had somehow swallowed a certain definition of home education success. Success meant knowing more than the school children. I was already teaching grammar and literature to my peers when they called for assignment help and I simply couldn't imagine living the intellectually-stunted life of the public-schooled. To me, not being able to read Shakespeare easily was like missing a head.

Over the next few years, I began to be really challenged about this rather stuck-up viewpoint. As I and the little home educators I played with grew older, I began to realise that character was better than facts and wisdom better than trivia.

As I look around me today, I still see home educators paranoid that their children should be academically irreproachable. Some of them opt to shoot the moon with a classical education, others feel safer with a school-at-home package. But at the same time I see more and more parents realising that academics is not all there is; that academics is not the chief end of education.

 RC Sproul Jr's book is thus a timely reminder of what academics is for. We have been treating it as an end, but it is really a means. The aim is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever; the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Instead of teaching academics here and a bit of religion there, says Sproul, we should start with the fear of the Lord and go on to knowledge as a means to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The educational commands in Scripture are heavily weighted towards teaching children to know and use the law-word of God. The periodic table doesn't even get a mention.

One might commit the opposite error and say that academics is not important, but this is not what either Scripture or Sproul teaches. Sproul even admits to teaching his children Latin and phonics and buying textbooks. I happen to know that he's written articles for classical-school-curriculum-catalogues. That's not what he's saying.

In Scripture, we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Yet Solomon, the wisest man till Christ, was learned in just about everything one could be learned in--from great literature to natural science. If there had been a periodic table back then, he'd have known it backwards. The fear of the Lord, I am convinced, will ultimately result in a formidable standard of academic excellence.

But, says Sproul, let's not sacrifice the commands of God and our children to the gods of academe. Are you qualified to teach? If you have children, he says, the answer is yes. Just as if you are married, you are qualified to lead. The command to teach one's children is foundational to Christian living. If you have 'em, you teach 'em. Even if you can't hold a pencil and never read a word in your life.

This is a hard thing for us to swallow, after a century of compulsory state schooling. However, side-stepping for a moment the fact that no if any parents in the home-ed world are utterly illiterate, consider this: If God thought you weren't competent to teach your children, He'd have given them to someone else. Like a husband that won't lead, incompetence is not a license to quit trying. It is a command to get whatever it is you need to teach your children. At the very least this would include a Bible and the ability to read it (Christianity has always been a formidable force for literacy, given its emphasis on the Word). And once you can read, you can learn anything.

Learning--of any kind--is a spiritual discipline, argues Donald Whitney in his book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. We have turned it into a way to prove that we can do the school thing at home better than the schools. And it's the wrong aim.

Sproul's thesis is one that needs to be heard by as many home educators as possible. However I do think you need to read the book with the tacit understanding that Sproul does, in fact, value academics. He just doesn't idolise it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Rafael Sabatini is one of the great swashbuckler authors, and I read quite a number of his books as light reading during university. I began with his most well-known works--Captain Blood, Scaramouche, The Sea-Hawk--and found them loads of fun. Unfortunately, some of the more recent reading I've done in Sabatini's works has been a let-down: badly plotted, with uninspiring themes, weak characters, and lazily-drawn settings, all of which detracts from the fun melodrama.

And so it was a pleasant surprise to read Bellarion, one of Sabatini's best.

Bellarion, sometimes called The Fortunate, starts out as a young novice from an Italian monastery who is sent to study in Pavia, the great city of learning near Milan. Then in Casale, the capital of Montferrat, an unexpected adventure sends Bellarion fleeing for his life right into a garden where he finds the Princess Valeria, who, plotting against her evil usurper of an uncle, is in danger of going in over her head. Bellarion, somewhat to his own surprise, immediately puts all his learning, trickery, and boundless cheek at her service, and in the adventures that follow, as he goes on to Milan, is adopted by its governor, and rises quickly to become one of the most cunning and powerful mercenary captains in Italy, the secret he keeps from everyone else is the fact that he is still in Valeria's service.

This was an excellent adventure story. Some failings included Sabatini's secular humanist worldview, which acts condescendingly towards faith and the Church, and his superstitious belief in Fortune--a theme running through all Sabatini's books and in evidence here.

While Bellarion is a sympathetic character and a good deal more honest than many of the other characters, his modus operandi is basically trickery. He speaks about this at the end of the book--
It is not what a man does or says that counts; but what a man intends. I have embraced as a part of my guiding philosophy that teaching of Plato's which discriminates between the lie on the lips and the lie in the heart.
While one can have no sympathy for this philosophy, it was very interesting to hear it explained, especially in the setting of Renaissance Italy. Plato was quite an influence on medieval thinking. St Augustine saw him as the one pagan philosopher closest to Christianity, and therefore chose him as the representative pagan philosopher to refute. It seems that as history went on, Augustine's refutation was forgotten and his endorsement was remembered, so that Plato was taken a good deal too seriously. I knew that Plato thought governments lying to their people was a great idea, and this "lie of the lips/lie of the heart" sophistry shows how he justified it. I suspect that this philosophy lies under a bit more of history than the fictional history of Bellarion, and now I know about it, I'll be looking for it. But I digress.

Although Bellarion, being bold, is favoured by Fortune, the presence of that capricious lady in this book is not allowed to justify laziness in plotting. I was amazed how good this book was. The characters are more nuanced than usual, and Bellarion himself is an interesting character: cunning and unscrupulous, he excels in military strategems as well as negotiations, but is almost physically a coward.

The plot is also well done. Although it contains no big surprises, it does contain the fun of watching Bellarion outwit the villains, along with many military maneuvers, conspiracies, plottings, treacheries, poisonings, et cetera (this is Renaissance Italy, after all). The setting is vividly drawn, all over the geography, history, and politics of Northern Italy, amidst the feuding of Guelphs and Ghibbelines.

Bellarion had a good deal more substance than the usual Sabatini novel, though it should still be read with a grain of salt. I quite enjoyed it.

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