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Weekend Reads: Surveys of history and literature

Books

The World of Jesus: Making Sense of the People and Places of Jesus’ Day

By William H. Marty

Have you ever sat down with William Whiston’s translation of the works of first-century Jewish historian Josephus, tried to read it, and decided that it was too difficult? If so, then Moody professor William Marty has written the book for you. The World of Jesus: Making Sense of the People and Places of Jesus’ Day (Bethany House, 2013) presents what is mostly a paraphrase and simplification of Josephus’ narrative of the time between the Exile and the New Testament.

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If you’ve read the Old Testament accounts of Israel and Judah, you know that their political history is complicated. But Kings and Chronicles present the thousand years of history from Moses to Malachi in a deliberately simplified way, because the goals of the Old Testament historians were primarily theological. Marty’s aren’t. Rather, his purpose is almost entirely historical, and his narrative shows it by presenting fact after fact. He traces the motives, the intrigues, the machinations, and the names of everyone who had a hand in ruling Palestine from about 600 B.C. to A.D. 70. For readers not passionately interested in the political history of God’s people in the inter-testamental era, The World of Jesus could be exhausting.

The saga of the Herods is probably the most striking part of the book. Though apparently incapable of doing anything boring, these men were vile. Yet as Marty points out, without Herod the Great, Israel almost certainly would not have survived as any kind of geo-political entity within the Roman Empire. In other words, despite his wickedness, Herod was God’s instrument to preserve His chosen people and make way for the Messiah. It is this theological point that, of course, applies more broadly to the entire period: History, with all its intricate pettiness, exists for the sake of Christ. His coming makes it all worthwhile.

Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature

By Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson

When you get together two pastors and a literature professor and ask them to write a book, you end up with Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Baker Books, 2012). The book is a straightforward survey of some of the best clerical literature, with in-depth treatments of 12 works and short teasers of 58 others. Professor Leland Ryken, his son, pastor Philip Ryken, and pastor Todd Wilson wrote the in-depth treatments, and they cover some fascinating territory.

All of the works are 19th- or 20th-century novels (except The Canterbury Tales). Some, like Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Shusaku Endo’s Silence, are very dark and gritty, with repulsive Judas figures and lurking officials who are quite happy to offer martyrdom to the clerical fugitive. Others seem lighter, like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead set in small-town Iowa in the 1950s—though even there, the darkness of the human heart is clearly manifest.

Many of the stories have quite exotic settings: Japan, Mexico, Sweden, France. Simply because they are stories, they almost all emphasize the grace and power of God. (After all, a story requires incarnation; abstractions don’t live adventures, and neither do perfect humans.) Over and over, inadequate or downright wicked pastors and priests are shown as conduits of the grace of God, which works both through and in spite of them. Sometimes, as in Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God, the pastor is not even a believer when he assumes his duties. Sometimes, he is a complete shyster, as in Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Pastors for whom literature is an escape may not enjoy these books. For the rest of us, though, they provide not only great stories, but also a window into what some consider the most difficult job on earth. 

A Short History of the Twentieth Century

By John Lukacs

Born in Hungary in 1924, John Lukacs managed to flee to the United States just before the World War II. Though (or because) he taught history for many years, his Short History of the Twentieth Century (Belknap Press, 2013) is, perhaps, more an interpretation than a history. But what an interpretation!

To Lukacs, communism and anti-communism were blips on the historical radar. Russia has always been a giant authoritarian despotism, as has China—whether the autocrats of these states call themselves “communist” or not has little to do with overall conditions there. This insistence is the most refreshing aspect of the book—rather than viewing politics as a perpetual crisis, where the existence of life as we know it is threatened with each presidential campaign, Lukacs insists that nations will, generally speaking, continue to keep their fundamental character. Thus, for him, Adolf Hitler is the commanding figure of the century, because Germany had no tradition of genocidal despotism.

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