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Tim Challies

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biography

6 years 8 months ago
I missed out on the Growing Pains phenomenon. Because my family had no television while I was growing up, the Seaver family largely passed me by. I caught occasional glimpses of the program but little more than that. It was only recently that I learned the show had propelled Leonardo DiCaprio’s illustrious career. The truth is I know more about Cameron’s post-sitcom career than the years he spent as Mike Seaver, one of television’s best known and most loved characters. And it was those years that was my primary interest as I read Still Growing, Cameron’s newly published autobiography.

Of course I couldn’t help but enjoy reading about his early life, and the Growing Pains years in particular. While I may not have known much about Cameron in my younger years, I do know that I would have given just about all I had to trade places with him. What boy wouldn’t want to be the teenage heartthrob whose face graced the cover of dozens of teen magazines? What boy wouldn’t dream of the fame, the fortune and the attention that were Cameron’s? He spent his life in a strange bubble where even adults hustled to grant his every desire and where his whim was the command for countless grown-ups. He received 10,000 fan letters every week and was the center of attention wherever he went.

Here is how he describes his life at the pinnacle of his fame:

I received 10,000 letters per week, mostly from girls who wanted to meet me, touch me, marry me. I had a fan club that sent out a variety of keepsakes—photos, Tshirts, buttons, even a pillowcase with my picture just the right size for girls to kiss my fabric-y likeness as they drifted off to sleep. Weird.

Wherever I went people catered to me. Limousines carted me off to the next gig. Waiters comped my meals. Flight attendants whispered, “Mr. Cameron, why don’t you come with me?” and escorted me to first class. Once off the plane, people laid down a red carpet and greeted me on the tarmac with military-like fanfare.

When I arrived at a party, everyone sat up and took notice. The room buzzed with not-so-quiet whispers: “Isn’t that Kirk Cameron?” The adoration was obvious in the body language, facial expressions and eagerness of those around me. All of it baffled me beyond belief. I was in the midst of a phenomenon I felt I had no hand in creating.

I had everything the rest of the world craved—money, fame, fortune, any girl I wanted. I admit, I liked that part. What 16-year-old guy didn’t want girls to melt when he walked in the room? And I certainly wasn’t complaining when Domino’s Pizza offered me a million bucks to be their ad boy.

If I didn’t have something, it was only because I didn’t want it. I was a devout atheist, livin’ large, hanging out with the beautiful people.

Years later when people asked about that time in my life, I defined it like this: Imagine a world where whatever you want is given to you as quickly as possible. When you walk into a room, all the adults smile at you, talk nicely and say, “What do you want? Okay, I’ll give that to you.”

Everything in your life is carefully placed with the intent to make you happy. If you aren’t happy, no expense is too great in order to fix the situation. As far as you can tell, you are the center of the universe. Everything revolves around you, your schedule, your dreams and wishes. You are more important to adults than other kids are. “Why is that?” your little mind asks. And the only answer you can come up with is that you are very, very unique.

But the reality was far different from the boyhood fantasy. He was noticed everywhere he went, unable to enjoy peace outside of his home; he had to grow accustomed to strangers blurting out that his pimply teenage skin was far worse in real life than on television; he was stalked by a demented pedophile; though girls swooned in his presence, he was lonely and sometimes despaired. Life in the public eye was not the dream it may have seemed.

You know, of course, that Cameron became a Christian. At the age of seventeen he came to know Christ through the family of his first girlfriend (and the only girlfriend he had before meeting his wife, Chelsea, who was a guest actress on the show). Here is how he describes that experience:

A month after my first visit to her church, I dropped my friend off at her acting class in the San Fernando Valley. As I pulled away, something flashed through my mind: I’m part of the ultimate statistic: 10 out of 10 people die. I’m going to die one day. If it were to happen in the next 10 minutes—if I were to get in a car accident and die—what would happen to me? The thought overwhelmed me. I felt smaller than a speck of sand.

I pulled over to the curb and turned off the engine. If there is a God and a heaven, there’s no reason He should let me in, I told myself. I had gotten past the intellectual barrier to God, but I knew there was a bigger stumbling block that stood between me and my Maker. It was not intellectual, but moral.

I knew that because of my prideful attitude and the way I had intentionally ignored—even denied God—especially in light of the good things He had given me, I wouldn’t go to heaven. Instead of loving God, I had mocked the Giver of all that was precious to me. Deep in my gut, I knew my arrogance and selfishness were an offense to God. Without ever having read the Bible, I intuitively knew that I was a walking violation of the first and greatest commandment: I had failed to give the Creator due honor and respect.

I was sure that if I died on Van Nuys Boulevard that day, God would be perfectly justified to exclude me from heaven and instead give me whatever I deserved.

I wanted to pray, but didn’t know how. Closing my eyes—hoping no one was watching—I muttered, “God, if You’re there, will You please show me? If You’re real, I need to know. And would You please forgive me for the things I’ve done that are wrong? I don’t want to join a religious cult or believe in a fairy tale, but if You’re there … I want You to change me into the person You want me to be.”

Cameron now lives in life after the spotlight. He is known as one of those actors who found God, condemned Hollywood, and fled for the hills. The reality, he explains is different. He speaks honestly about the mistakes he made in the weeks and years immediately following his conversion to Christianity—decisions that ultimately threw up a wall of separation between himself and the rest of the cast members and between himself and the producers of Growing Pains. Since he left the show he has returned for two reunion shows and has asked forgiveness from those he wronged.

Life after Growing Pains has been good. Cameron is now the father of six children (four of whom he and his wife adopted) and he hosts a television show on TBN. He has acted in a handful of movies and will star in a forthcoming film by the producers of Facing the Giants. He and Chelsea are actively involved in Camp Firefly, a camp for the families of disabled children. He works closely with Ray Comfort and appears often on the Way of the Master radio program. Though he has a lower profile, he continues to have a full schedule. He has experienced many blessings.

I can’t say it’s likely that Still Growing is destined to become a classic spiritual memoir, yet it should still find an audience beyond people who still wear “I Heart Mike Seaver” t-shirts and treasure their signed glossies. Though I knew little about Cameron before cracking the cover of this biography, I feel as if I know him much better now. This is a personal, intimate look at his life, though not one that is exhibitionist. He maintains that balance of sharing the joys and triumphs of life without delving into gossip and ugly detail. I still don’t heart Mike Seaver, but I’ve certainly come to respect Kirk Cameron. Here’s hoping this is only the first chapter of a life lived for the glory of God.

7 years 5 days ago
Ayaan Harsi Ali is one of Europe’s most controversial political figures, even if she is one who has since relocated to America. One of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Ali is the author of a bestselling biography and the writer of a controversial movie. When her film Submission was screened in Holland, it led to murder of Theo van Gogh, it’s producer. As van Gogh cycled to work one morning, Muhammad Bouyeri shot him several times, then nearly decapitated him and stabbed a five-page letter into his chest. The letter was addressed to Ali. The film and the book have forced her to live in hiding and under constant protection.

Infidel is her story, describing her life from her birth in Somalia to her childhood in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and her eventual escape to Holland. She eventually forsook her faith and now considers herself an atheist. From the time she left her faith her life has been in constant danger and she has been the recipient of many death threats. After immigrating to Holland, Ali was elected to the Dutch parliament and took a daring stance on immigration and the spread of Islam in Holland. She sees Islam as a force that seeks to subjugate all of Europe (and eventually all of the world) and one that will stop at nothing to achieve its ends. A scandal regarding her claim of political asylum led to her removal from the Dutch parliament, but she continues to exert her influence indirectly.

Infidel is a very interesting biography and one that shines light into Islam. Ali describes this religion and many of its most horrific manifestations—female circumcision (more commonly and more rightly known as Female Genital Mutilation), systematic spousal abuse, forced marriage, polygamy, and all manner of social injustice. Through her experiences in Saudi Arabia, at the very heart of the Muslim world, and through her experiences in Somali, one of the epicenters of the harshest, most brutal manifestations, she describes Islam at its worst (which, she would argue, is also its most faithful manifestation). She does this not to write a good or compelling biography, but to share what she feels is a grave international danger and one that is too often overlooked.

There were many aspects of the book that stood out to me. I found it particularly interesting and thought-provoking in its description of Islamic spirituality. The Bible makes it clear that humans were made to know and to treasure God, depending on Him for His grace. Yet, as we feel into sin, this relationship was ruptured and now humans invent all manner of ways to supposedly gain favor with God. In Islam, as with every other man-made religion, this amounts to good works. In her descriptions of Islam’s adherents, I can see their desperation to know some (any!) sense of peace. Yet they live their lives hoping to find some kind of assurance that God can or will accept them. They never do. Instead they continually strive to impress God with their own goodness. Truly grace is a concept foreign to most of the world’s religions.

Though much of what Ali believes about religion and much of what she proposes in politics and social areas would be in opposition to the Bible, I nevertheless found much to think about in this book. I enjoyed reading it and am glad I did. Her perspective is a valuable to the increasing number of voices warning the world to watch out for the rise of the Muslim crescent.

7 years 3 weeks ago
Escape is undoubtedly one of the most bizarre memoirs you are ever likely to read. It is small wonder that it quickly made its mark on the New York Times list of bestsellers. Written by Carolyn Jessop, a woman who was born into the Fundamentalist Lattery Day Saints (FLDS), the book describes what it is like to live as part of this cult which is distinctive primarily for its beliefs about polygamy. The FLDS, which emerged in the 1930s as a fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church, holds that God has ordained polygamy and not only that, but that it is a requirement for anyone who wishes to attain the highest level of heaven. Most men eventually have at least three wives, with more prominent members of the cult holding far more than that. Some of the leaders are believed to have fifty, sixty, or even one hundred wives. Women are generally placed with husbands at the whim of the cult’s leader (who claims to receive divine guidance about which women belong with certain men). There are around 10,000 adherents to this cult living in the United States today.

Jessop was born into a family that eventually had two wives but one that, compared to others in the community, seemed almost normal. When she was just eighteen, though, she was assigned to become the fourth wife of a fifty-five year old man. While she was married to him he added two more wives and later went on to add five or six more. Through fifteen years of marriage, Jessop gave birth to eight children. Through her marriage she suffered constant abuse at the hands of her husband, his other wives, and other members of the community. Though for much of her life she believed the claims of the FLDS religion, she eventually began to see through its hypocrisy and decided that, for the good of herself and her children, she would need to escape from it.

Escape from FLDS is not easy. Their tight-knit communities have immense power and wealth. Even the local police officers are members of the cult and will not support a wife who seeks to emancipate herself or her family. Until Jessop, no woman had managed to escape the clutches of the cult with all of her children. Jessop, though, ran from the cult and fought against it in the courts, eventually winning full custody of her eight children. This was no small victory. In fact, it was worth telling in a book.

While the book is a definite page-turner (as both my wife and I can attest) it is not always easy to read. The descriptions of life in the FLDS are at times horrific. There were several areas that I found particularly interesting.

Jessop is frank (though not vulgar or graphic) in her discussions about sexuality within her plural marriage and well she needs to be, for sex plays a strange but crucial role in these marriages. Though the women generally hate their husbands, they still want to have sex with him—not for the sake of love or intimacy, but because sex is power. The wife who gains sexual favor with her husband is the wife who can use him to further her own desires. Often these desires pit her against the other wives. It is an odd situation where wives who hate their husband seek to have sex (which they hate) with their husband (whom they hate) so they can further their hate-filled plans towards each other. So much, then, for the idealized content of “sister wives” that the cult seeks to portray to the world.

This book and its description of life within plural marriage shows that marriage—marriage as given to us in the Bible—serves as protection for women. When people ignore biblically-ordained marriage, women immediately lose the protection it affords. They quickly become subservient to men. The women always lose out.

Perhaps the most shocking thing to remember while reading the book is that it takes place in twenty-first century America. This is not fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East; this is not the earliest days of Mormonism. This is happening in the very heart of America—women are treated like cattle, used to breed children and bought, sold and traded like so many goods. In America. It is almost unbelievable.

While the FLDS is hardly an accurate representation of average religion and bears little resemblance to Christianity or even to Mormonism, this portrayal is increasingly what people think of when they think about religion. More and more people are becoming convinced that all religion tends towards extremism and a book like this may just fuel those fires. This story is awful to read, but it is written well and is for some reason quite fascinating.

7 years 2 months ago
John Murray, long-time professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, was, until his death in 1975, widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost Reformed theologians. Iain Murray (no relation to John Murray) is regarded as one of the world’s foremost Reformed biographers. And here, in The Life of John Murray, the biographer brings us the life of the theologian.

John Murray was born in 1898 Badbea, in Sutherland county, Scotland. Coming from the long line of Scottish Presbyterianism, Murray was trained from a young age to know and to treasure the Bible and the doctrine it contains. He served in the British Army in the First World War and soon after the war’s end took up studies in theology. He studied first at the University of Glasgow and then at Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied under such notables as J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. In 1929 he was asked to teach systematic theology at Princeton and accepted on the condition that he would only have to teach a single year. His limited agreement was providential, for the next year many of the faculty members, in the face of the theological liberalism polluting Princeton, left to found Westminster Theological Seminary. Murray was soon encouraged to join the faculty at the new school and did so, teaching there until 1966.

He retired to his native Scotland where, at the ripe old age of 69, he married and soon became the father of two children. He died in 1975, leaving a rich legacy of orthodox theology and a life lived for the glory of God.

Originally published to accompany the four volume set of The Collected Writings of John Murray, this biography, weighing in at just over 200 pages, describes Murray’s life, focusing on his contributions to theological discourse, on his impact on his students, and on his relationships with other pastors and theologians. We’d expect nothing less than excellence from the pen of Iain Murray and he does not disappoint. The book deals well and deals fairly with this eminent theologian. It’s an interesting glimpse of a life of singular purpose and particular godliness. I am glad to recommend it.

7 years 2 months ago

Lessons on Earth Joy—From the Man who Spent 90 Minutes in Heaven

Don Piper was relatively unknown for even a couple of years after writing 90 Minutes in Heaven. But something must have happened, because now it seems that the longer his book sits on the shelves, the more it picks up steam. It has now sold well over a million copies and shows few signs of abating anytime soon. It is still sitting at the #2 spot in the softcover non-fiction portion of the New York Times list of bestsellers. Piper has made appearances on countless talk shows and has taken his message to millions. His message is this: heaven is real.

This is a message that should, by rights, make me glad. But there is a small problem. Here is how the book begins: “Heaven is real. I know it because I have been there and back.” 90 Minutes in Heaven described Piper’s supposed death, ascension to heaven, and return to earth. In that book he describes heaven as he experienced it and how he has since built a ministry around it. He now seems to be known as the Minister of Hope and the hope he provides is the hope of heaven through his own experience. Since the publication of 90 Minutes in Heaven he has written a devotional book based on his experiences in heaven and has now returned with Heaven is Real.

Ultimately I couldn’t help but feel that Heaven is Real is a self-focused book rather than a gospel-focused book. Though Piper turns often to his experience of being in heaven, even this experience is often just a bridge to discuss some aspect of his own life. Time and time again he prints letters sent to him from people who read 90 Minutes of Heaven and wished to lavish him with praise. Time and again he shares conversations he had with people who identified with his experience and wanted to thank him for writing it. His motives in sharing all of these stories may be sincere, but it certainly begins to feel after a while that he is heaping praise upon himself. I was left with the distinct impression that this book is not only a follow-up to his previous book, but almost an advertisement for it. It’s long, it’s tedious and it’s really quite difficult to read. This book is described in the subtitle as being “Lessons on Earthly Joy,” and this in instructive. The chapters do seem akin to lessons. The book does not seem to build from the first chapter to the last. Rather, the teaching seems a bit disjointed, disconnected from what has gone before and from what will follow.

“Strike while the iron is hot!”, they say, and heaven is hot at the moment. After reading Heaven is Real I’m not convinced that Piper really had a book in him when he began to write this one. The teaching is simplistic and far too human. It sounds like it would come from the lips of Dr. Phil sooner than from the lips of Jesus. Piper clearly attempts to bring sense from suffering. But in that regard it fails. When I compare it to a title like Polishing God’s Monuments by Jim Andrews, a book that had a similar goal, well, there really is no comparison. While this may be the purpose of the book, it is written almost as a follow-up to 90 Minutes in Heaven—as a way of making sense of the success of that book rather than of making sense of the supposed journey to heaven.

Too long, too boring, too man-centered and too much like an infomercial, this book is a near-complete waste of time. Avoid it.

7 years 3 months ago

Billy Graham in the White House

I‘ll be honest with you—I don’t have the emotional attachment to Billy Graham I sometimes feel I’m supposed to have as a Christian and as a Baptist. I grew up in a tradition that rarely acknowledged him (or much of the outside evangelical world, for that matter) and, to be honest, I knew very little of him until relatively recently. In my younger days I knew him more for his compromises than for his strengths; for his ecumenism, by way of example, more than his evangelism. I saw him preach once at a massive Toronto crusade, but was more interested in the proceedings than in the sermon. So when I received a copy of The Preacher and the Presidents I opened it interested in the history of the book more than in the subject.

Billy Graham must be unique in knowing eleven different Presidents and in sharing genuine friendships with nine (or ten) of them. From the time of Harry Truman all the way until the present day and the presidency of George W. Bush, Graham has been America’s most widely known and widely respected preacher. He has served as pastor to most of the Presidents for almost half a century. This book, authored by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, editors at TIME, tells the story of Billy Graham in the White House—of Billy Graham’s remarkable friendships with these Presidents. I begins with Truman and ends with George W. Bush. Each President receives a chapter or a number of chapters detailing how the life of Billy Graham intersected with his life.

Rather than relay how Graham interacted with each of the Presidents, I thought it might make sense to simply relay a few of the points that I found most interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

  • I found it interesting that several of the Presidents seemed to use Graham for their own purposes. They may well have genuinely appreciated him and counted him as a friend, but they certainly also knew the value of a photo arm-in-arm with America’s most recognized evangelical leader. This was particularly true of Richard Nixon. I had never read before of the length and depth of Graham’s support of this President. Obviously with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see how Nixon used Graham and other people, but it was amazing to see Graham’s lack of discernment in seeing Nixon for who he was. There were few Presidents Graham endorsed with more passion, and none who let him down so greatly. Yet Nixon did seem to genuinely count Graham a friend and their relationship continued until Nixon’s death. People speak of there being two Nixons and from his portrayal in this book it is easy to see why.
  • It surprised me to learn that, of all the Presidents he knew, Graham had the least meaningful relationship with Jimmy Carter, but perhaps this is because they were, in many ways, so similar. Carter was outspoken with his faith and did not need to be associated with Graham in order to extend his credibility and so he avoided him.
  • I was interested to see how much Graham struggled with the lust for power. He is known for his care in ensuring that he did not succumb to the many moral temptations that can befall popular preachers and his efforts to avoid even the appearance of moral sin. From reading this book I could see that throughout his career he struggled with the desire for power. This sometimes led him to be meddlesome and to give unwanted (and unneeded and unheeded) advice. His reflections later in life show that he is aware of this tendency and is even embarrassed as he thinks about it now. It seems that it was often his wife who kept him grounded when the desire for power rose up within him. As the authors say, “Fascination with power would forever be his weakness; and against its lure he often had no protection beyond the ever levelheaded Ruth telling him that he needed to stay away from politics and keep his eye on his evangelical mission.”
  • Similar to that, it was interesting to see how Graham struggled with keeping his vocation separate from his political leanings. Time and again he would attempt to remain silent during elections, but time and again he would find himself embroiled in controversy, In the end he would, more often than not, endorse a candidate (sometimes explicitly but just as often merely implicitly).

 

I found The Preacher and the Presidents a very interesting read. Though I read it as an evangelical, I read it as one who is perhaps unusually ambivalent towards Billy Graham. In some ways the book gave me new appreciation for Graham and his desire to ensure that everyone, even Presidents, had searched their hearts and had understood the gospel. In some ways it changed the way I think of Graham’s ministry. It certainly opens up an aspect of his life that, to this point, has been largely unknown. Though clearly positive towards Graham in their tone, the authors deal sensibly and fairly with some of the more troubling aspects of his career (including his well-publicized anti-Semitic remarks and his tendencies to be meddlesome). Other aspects of his career that concern some conservative Christians (his ecumenism and some of his more recent comments that seem almost universalist) fall outside the narrative of the book so receive no attention.

I enjoyed this book from cover-to-cover and would commend it to those who are interested in the subject matter. Its presents a fascinating and unique little slice of history and does so in an engaging way. I’m glad I read it and I suspect you will be too should you make the time to do so.

 

7 years 5 months ago
When he was just sixteen years old, Edward Beauclerk Maurice signed up with the Hudson’s Bay Company and was sent from his native England to an isolated trading post in the Canadian arctic as one of the Company’s Gentleman Adventurers. A million miles from nowhere, there was no communication with the outside world (beyond the very occasional, very faint radio broadcast) and a ship arrived only once each year. Maurice’s job was to trade with the Inuit people who lived nearby, accepting the furs they brought to him and in turn providing them with the goods they came to want and need: medicine, boats, gasoline, tobacco and guns. Where many of the Gentleman Adventurers took advantage of their clientele, Maurice became enamored with the Inuit lifestyle and became like one of them. They taught him how to track and hunt, to build igloos and to depend on the land to provide. He learned their language and their culture, even taking an Inuit wife.

Like so many others, Maurice’s career was interrupted by the Second World War and he left the north to serve in the New Zealand Navy. When the war ended he settled into a small English village and became a bookseller. He never returned to the arctic. Though he wrote The Last Gentleman Adventurer decades ago it was consistently refused by publishers until just a few years ago. Sadly, Maurice died in 2003 just as the book was being readied for publication. It was his only book.

The Last Gentleman Adventurer is a fascinating account, not so much as a biography but for a light anthropological study of a stone age people as they are suddenly introduced to the industrialized powers. It is amazing to see just how quickly they become dependent on things they wouldn’t have been able to dream of just a few short years before. It is also amazing and even shocking to see the paternalism that was transparent to people in the early part of the last century but so clear to us today. Maurice goes to the arctic believing in the superiority of his culture and, though he comes to respect the Inuit, he always regards them almost as children dependent on his care. Whether the Inuit were better off before or after the arrival of the British is debatable.

A book that will not provide or demand opportunities to think deeply, The Last Gentleman Adventurer is, nevertheless, both fun and fascinating. It satisfies as entertaining biography and as enlightening anthropology. I’m glad I took the time to read it.

7 years 6 months ago
While not everyone knows the name of John Newton, everyone knows his song and at least a bit of his story. Immortalized in the words of “Amazing Grace,” the most-recorded song in history, everyone knows that John Newton was wretched and miserable until saved by a grace that forever transformed his life. Two centuries ago, fewer people knew his song, but far more knew his story. That story is told again and told afresh in Jonathan Aitken’s new biography John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace.

John Newton lived a life that could only have been more dramatic if it were the product of fiction. Forced into naval service when he was young, Newton endeared himself to no one, living a life of utter disregard for authority. While attempting to desert he was captured and dropped to the lowest ranks of seamen. He eventually found a way to be released from the military and wormed his way onto a slave shape with which he sailed down the long coast of Africa. Being deserted for a time on that dark continent, he was made the slave of a slave-trader and suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his captor. After a time he was rescued and became the captain of his own slave ship. But then, during a long passage across the Atlantic Ocean, he began to read a Bible and underwent the remarkable transformation chronicled in the song he wrote years later.

Newton worked in secular employment for a time but soon felt the call to ministry and was ordained an Anglican priest, a position he retained until his death in 1807. In the intervening years he became widely-known through his biography and through his efforts to abolish the slave trade. He served as mentor to William Wilberforce who fought a long but ultimately successful campaign to ban the British slave trade. It was two hundred years ago that this battle was won and two hundred years ago that Newton died. As Eric Metaxas has written a new biography of Wilberforce to mark the occasion, Aitken has done the same with Newton.

And it is quite a good biography. Aitken, who has previously chronicled the lives of Richard Nixon and Chuck Colson is a recent convert who underwent quite a radical conversion. He does a fine job of bringing the life of his subject to a whole new generation. While it may lack the depth of some of the greatest biographies of the greatest Christians, it is eminently readable and enjoyable from the first page to the last. A unique contribution of this book is that it relies on diaries and correspondence that have previously been unpublished. Newton’s own writing, and especially his letters, provide a good deal of the book’s content and some of its most edifying. In fact, the content and depth of these letters persuaded me to seek out a volume published by Banner of Truth titled simply The Letters of John Newton.

The theme of this biography can be aptly summarized by the final words spoken by this hero of the faith. “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior.” This account takes us from Newton’s days of joyous depravity to his dramatic conversion to his new life and ultimately to the moment he went to meet the great Savior he had come to know and love. It is a worthwhile addition to any library.

7 years 6 months ago
I have long had a bit of a fascination with John Donne. A poet and eventual clergyman who lived from 1572-1631, Donne’s poems are among my favorites. His Holy Sonnets have given me much cause to think and his early works, so often sexual and vulgar, have shown a man who underwent a clear and profound transformation in his life. From writing poetry which described forbidden and clandestine affairs that involved bribing servants, hushing siblings, and sneaking past parents in order to consummate love, Donne progressed to poetry celebrating Christ and his triumph over death.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Donne was born into an English Roman Catholic family at a time when belonging to the Roman church could and often did carry grave consequences. Though his father died while Donne was only a young boy, he still received a good education and soon learned of his ability to mold language. He also learned of his ability as a lawyer and a statesman and soon converted to the Anglican Church in order to enhance his career prospects. Proudly profligate, Donne spent his youth and early adulthood attempting to satisfy every lust of his flesh. Yet in an age where marriages were strictly arranged by fathers to further their own ends, Donne secretly married for love and was to suffer the consequences of such an uncouth arrangement for the rest of his life. After trying unsuccessfully to rise through the ranks in government service, he eventually became a priest and spent much of his career as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Though a number of his sermons and works of prose has survived, Donne is known today as being one of the greatest English poets. He is remembered in common phrases he coined such as “no man is an island,” and “know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne: The Reformed Soul is a new account of Donne’s life by John Stubbs, a young scholar from England. It relies equally upon previous biographies and the record of Donne’s life as it is found in his prose and poetry. In a biography of a poet, we depend a great deal on the ability of the author to interpret the poetry. If he misinterprets the man’s writing, he misinterprets his life, and especially so when so much of Donne’s poetry, and his early poetry in particular, was autobiographical. On the whole, though I am largely unqualified to make such judgments, I felt that Stubbs was accurate in his interpretations and presented Donne as he appears in his works. Where I had a little bit less confidence was in the author’s understanding of Donne’s theology. Donne lived in a time of great political and ecclesiastical complexity, a time when religion and politics were hopelessly intertwined. Thus it can be difficult to separate what Donne truly believed from his studies of Scripture and what he almost had to believe in order to maintain his position. And, of course, in a book of this sort we get only a small glimpse into Donne’s theology through his surviving sermons. The sermons and poetry combine to provide a glimpse into an odd, uneven faith that seemed to yearn for much of the Catholicism Donne had left behind and also yearned for God to be someone other than who He reveals Himself to be. Whether Donne truly knew and loved the God of the Bible is difficult to know and certainly not ours to judge. Reading his works, though, presents enough confusion and slightly unorthodox theology that it becomes quickly apparent why Donne is known as a poet and not as a great Christian or theologian.

This biography is a long read and certainly not always an easy one. It turns often (and obviously) to seventeenth century language and this can take time and effort to unravel. Yet the book is clearly well-written and is a rewarding read, even if it can be complex. In the early stages the book is really quite sensual as Stubbs moves through Donne’s years as a philanderer, a man who enjoyed the thrill of the chase but who quickly tired of the women he caught and who subsequently moved on to others. He occasionally employs harsh language in giving the sense of the words Donne and other poets used in their poetry. The latter portions aptly describe Donne’s life in the context of the fascinating period in which he lived out the last years of his life.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul is not the kind of biography that would likely be written by a Christian or published by a Christian publisher, even if does deal with a Christian figure. Yet it is an interesting biography and a good one that has been well-reviewed by many notable publications. It is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in the great poet John Donne.

7 years 7 months ago
George “Bud” Day is the most decorated officer in the modern history of the U.S. military, having won (this is a chest seriously full of medals and ribbons) the Medal of Honor, Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal for Valor with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Bronze Star Medal for Merit, Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Medal with nine Oak Leaf Clusters, National Order of Vietnam, Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and Prisoner of War Medal). His military career began in 1942 when, despite being under-sized and under-age, he managed to work his way into the U.S. Marines. He served for almost three years in the South Pacific, never seeing combat. After the war he returned home and studied law, eventually graduating with a degree in that discipline. In 1950 he joined the National Guard and, when called up a year later, applied to fly fighter jets. He soon became one of America’s most skilled pilots and, after being promoted, decided to dedicate his career to the Air Force.

In 1967, with the war in Vietnam raging, he was made commander of a secret squadron of F-100 jets and was tasked with Forward Air Control. It was the job of this select group of pilots to fly low to the ground and to seek out and mark targets that other jets could destroy. On August 26 of 1967, his plane was shot down and he suffered serious injuries while ejecting. He was quickly captured but escaped at the first opportunity available and became the only soldier to journey all the way to South Vietnam. Sadly, just moments from reaching the safety of American lines, he was spotted by a North Vietnamese patrol and shot in the leg and hand. He was dragged back into captivity where, for five years he was held, constantly being brutally tortured. While in the “Hanoi Hilton” he met John McCain and the two of them developed a lifelong friendship. He was finally released in the spring of 1973. Three years later he was honored with the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States.

American Patriot, a new book by Robert Coram, tells the story of Bud Day’s life. It begins with his upbringing in a harsh and poverty-stricken home in Sioux City, Iowa and continues to the present day (Day is, after all, still alive). Though Day is best-known for his contributions during the war, his years of public service continue even today. When President Clinton’s government passed a law scrapping the life-long health insurance that had been promised to veterans, Day fought on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of vets and won a stunning victory. He also campaigned against John Kerry whom he regards as a traitor because of his inflammatory and untruthful comments during the Vietnam War (and it is worth nothing that Day’s torturers used Kerry’s testimony against Day when torturing him) and appeared in advertisements for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Even today, at the age of 82, Day continues to work as a lawyer in Florida, often representing members of the military.

To be honest, I read this book as a form of light distraction because of a good deal of heavy reading I have been doing. It served its purpose well. Day has lived a fascinating life and truly is a patriot. His highest belief seems to be in the value and importance of America and he looks with unforgivable disdain on anyone who would become a traitor to his nation. He has dedicated his life to serving his country and reacts with anger and outrage to those who violate her highest ideals.

While the book is largely well-written, it is clearly a favorable biography and may even almost dive occasionally into the realm of hagiography. The author turns too often to hyperbole and melodrama when considering Day’s virtues while passing quickly over his vices. The Prologue may be the most melodramatic prose I’ve read this side of high school and made me wonder if I’d be able to finish the book. Thankfully it was short-lived and got much better after that. I should note that quite a number of words of the four-letter variety are used throughout the book (including a multi-paragraph exposition of the number of ways pilots use the word “s—t.”). It is, after all, a book about a fighter pilot, a breed known for his arrogance, self-assuredness and foul mouth. Day is not the theologian or hero of church history I typically read about in biographies!

American Patriot was a good read and one that isn’t entirely irrelevant as the 2008 Presidential campaign begins to heat up. Veterans played a critical role in the last election and Bud Day served as a leader. I wouldn’t be surprised if his face and his name are in the news again as a new election nears. This book is a good and interesting read for anyone with an interest in military history.

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