What We’ve Been Reading

Spring Book Recommendations from the Editors

Ben Dunson, Contributing Editor

Edmund Burke’s (1729–97) most famous writing was his trenchant analysis of the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France, but his many treatises, speeches, and letters are also well worth reading. I’ve recently been dipping into a one volume anthology of Burke’s works in the Everyman’s  Library. Burke famously wrote “A Speech on Conciliation with America” in defense of the American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War. The speech was widely read, and influential, in the colonies immediately before the war began. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) is a wonderful defense of objective standards of beauty, grounded in God’s creational design. Burke’s satirical A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) was a fantastic mockery of the atheistic proto-postmodernism of Lord Bolingbroke (1678–1751), a writer popular at the time. Burke was a clear thinker, an excellent writer, and an outstanding orator. It was quite enjoyable to leave the twenty-first century for a while and enjoy these works of a past master, all found in the Everyman’s edition.

Russell Kirk’s (1918–1994) Rights and Duties: Reflections on Our Conservative Constitution, is a collection of non-academic pieces all centered around the various ways in which “deeply rooted, like some immense tree, the American Constitution grew out of a century and a half of civil social order in North America and more than seven centuries of British experience” (p. 4). My own thinking on the sources of America’s political order has been greatly shaped by Kirk’s works. Among other things, Kirk argues that true freedom can only arise out of a just political order, and that the American system cannot be understood apart from “Christian assumptions about human nature and justice” (p. 143). He even anticipates some emphases of the “New Right,” such as its focus on how post-WWII American jurisprudence has deviated far from the original meaning of the Constitution to America’s great detriment.

It one of my goals in life to read as much Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) as I can. This is difficult, because he wrote a lot, but I do my best. I recently read his first memoir, The Oak and the Calf, which covers the time in which he began publishing works in Russia to the time in which he was exiled to the West (from the early 1960s to 1974). Through a strange set of historical quirks Solzhenitsyn was briefly free to publish works critical of communism (such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), though he soon fell from favor. Because he was prominent around the world, the authorities had great difficulty dealing with him. They found banishment the easier option than imprisonment or execution. The memoir is fascinating for many reasons, but a few stand out to me. First, is Solzhenitsyn’s indefatigable courage. He simply kept writing and writing in the face of increasing threats to his own life and safety. Second, is the many ways in which he managed to hide his writings from authorities (with help from many within Russia and in the West). Finally, particularly noteworthy are the many case studies of moral cowardice throughout the book, cowardice just as relevant today as when he wrote: most people care more about comfort, safety, and a steady income than they do about doing what is right. When times get hard, the average person gives way meekly to evil and oppression. Solzhenitsyn was a shining example of someone willing to risk it all to stand up to evil.

Terry Gant, Managing Editor 

Just finishing up 1984 for the second time in my life. I assume I was too young to understand it the first time because it felt like a very new experience. I am conscious that this is a grandiose statement, however, I must say that I think it is the most miserable book I have ever read. It is completely without hope or redemption. This is probably part of Orwell’s point. It is a tragedy. Nevertheless, the reader is left with no hope that any goodness will ever again be known on the Earth. I recognize the contribution to discourse that Orwell has made but I think I will probably throw away my copy and try to forget as much of it as I am able. I am truly unsure if it is worth it to be conversant in Orwellian vocabulary to endure this work of literature. Sorry, I know I am supposed to like it. For dystopian classics, I would redirect any interested parties to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, or better still, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Best to read the entire Ransom Trilogy by Lewis, in fact.

I have been working my way through Storm of Steel for a while and hope to finally finish it up. This work by Ernst Jünger is the journal of a World War I German soldier. It is a non-fiction work. This book is often suggested as further reading for those who read All Quiet on the Western Front. All Quiet on the Western Front is a fictional account of a German soldier and is considered one of the best anti-war works of literature ever written. Storm of Steel on the other hand, was written by a man who was a career military man and took as objective of a view of war as possible. The two books work well together and if you read one, it will be worth your time to read the other. Storm of Steel isn’t exactly pro-war, but it is written by a fighter who is very philosophical about his place in the world. I will likely move on to other works by Jünger after this one eventually. He is regarded as a significant literary figure from the Weimar and Third Reich eras of German history. Although he was on active duty military during World War II, Jünger was eventually accused indirectly of participating in a plot to kill Hitler and was dismissed from the service. He continued to write through the Cold War era. This particular book is extremely entertaining and well-written. I am using the Penguin Classics edition translated by Michael Hofman. I understand that there is some controversy about the translating work and if you want to get the best experience it may be a good idea to do a little research on which translation you would want. This one came into my hands for free though so it is the one I am reading!

I have just completed the biography of Mikhail Kalashnikov: The Gun that Changed the World. Kalashnikov led an interesting life and is most famous for his engineering of the rifle that bears his name, most commonly known as the AK-47 (Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947). Kalashnikov was a Kulak, or a well-off peasant, aka middle class. This group was hated after the revolution and Kalashnikov was a child in a large family which was deported to Siberia. He managed to forge a passport for himself and his friend and get a hold of a rifle which they used to pretend one of them was a prisoner being escorted whenever they passed through towns to escape. Kalashnikov served as a tank operator in World War II and came to be known for inventing a few clever mechanical contraptions to help the war effort related to tanks. As a result, he was brought into the Soviet R&D labs to help design military tech. The Soviets would describe the need they had and then ask for submissions from the engineers about how to meet the need. The AK-47 was one of these submissions. Even though it technically broke the rules of the contest, the Soviets immediately recognized its value and began production with Mikhail Kalashnikov in charge of a Soviet Factory-Town and overseeing production. The Soviets never gave Kalashnikov a patent for the weapon and so he was only paid the salary of an Army Colonel with the occasional bonus. In spite of his mistreatment by the USSR, Kalashnikov didn’t appear to hold any ill will toward them, which is the most interesting thing of all about his story to me. I believe the firearms of a nation reveal a lot about the way a people think and the AK-47 may be one of the strongest examples of this. Simple, tough, slightly outside the rules, easy to manufacture and much lighter than previous generations’ combat rifles (also much more accurate than it is given credit for). Kalashnikov was a brilliant problem-solver. When thinking through how to keep dust and mud out of the AK, he simply decided that he would make it hollow and loose so that the dirt and mud would just fall out on their own. The AK-47 and its multiple variants have truly changed the world.

Mike Sabo, Contributing Editor

Over the past few years, I’ve been studying the often overlooked concept of Reformed catholicity—that is, seeing the Reformed tradition as part of the broader Christian tradition that stretches back 1,500 years before the Reformation. As part of my exploration of catholicity, I’ve been diving into the Reformed stream that unsurprisingly seems to get far less attention in the American Reformed context: the Reformed conformists who stayed in the Church of England. Brilliant and learned divines such as William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, John Davenant, Richard Hooker, and James Ussher, among many others, thought that conformity, along with the Book of Common Prayer and retaining a more lavish liturgy in worship, was consistent with the doctrines of grace.

On this front I very much recommend Stephen Hampton’s excellent scholarship. An exceedingly important book is his recent Grace and Conformity: The Reformed Conformist Tradition and the Early Stuart Church of England, which is part of Oxford University Press’s excellent Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series. Hampton’s book is the rare academic work that is worth the very steep sticker price.

Grace and Conformity is a goldmine of riches, clearly showing the deep Reformed influence on key bishops around the time of the Elizabethan Settlement. Hampton demonstrates that far from Reformed theology being confined to a brief period of strength during Edward VI’s reign, it had a far broader effect on the CofE than what is commonly thought. As Hampton ably argues, those who stayed in the Church of England married the Reformed understanding of justification, holy communion, and other doctrines with an episcopal polity, the latter being of course anathema to Presbyterians and many other nonconformists (though some like Richard Baxter wanted a modified form of episcopacy along the lines of what James Ussher sketched out).

In the same vein I’m in the midst of reading two works that make the case from Scripture for an episcopal polity and a structured, more liturgical form of worship. In It Is in Heaven: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Introduction to the Traditional Church and Her Worship, Father Paul A. F. Castellano makes the case that, just as the New Testament sacrament of baptism did not overturn the previous inclusion of children receiving the covenant sign, neither did the New Testament church radically change how worship was to be done nor were the three offices of the temple suddenly reduced to two.

I’ve paired this with Edward Stillingfleet’s The Irenicum: Or Pacificator: Being a Reconciler As to Church Differences. Stillingfleet was a seventeenth century churchman who sparred with John Locke due to the latter’s alleged Socinianism and served as the Archdeacon of London, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Bishop of Worcester. So far, Stillingfleet has taken a far different strategy than Father Castellano. He begins the work by patiently laying out the foundation of his argument by drawing careful and precise distinctions between the commands of special revelation and the liberty Scripture leaves to human prudence, a tactic that is typically not found in modern theological works.

Though it makes sense that the Reformed cohort in America seems to have tunnel vision on the Presbyterian stream of the Reformed tradition—King George III called the American Revolution a “Presbyterian Rebellion”—this necessarily truncates our overall understanding of our history. The modern resourcement project should look to capture all the nuances and distinctions of the tradition as a whole, looking to recover the rich variety of local expression, which is one of the many features of our Reformed heritage.

Timon Cline, Editor-in-Chief

I’m always on a monarchy kick, but lately it’s been heightened. Derrick Wilson’s biography of Charlemagne is a model of readable history, a rarity especially today. Rarer still is that Wilson is thoroughly unembarrassed by his subject. He doesn’t avoid the inevitable and obvious flaws of Charlemagne the man, to be sure, though these are always appropriately situated in context. Charlemagne was ruthless, like any effective medieval monarch–especially if you wanted to live to 70 like he did. How would you behave in eighth century Europe if the papacy was trying to use you as a mercenary to beat the Lombards and, simultaneously, Saxon warlords were raiding your northeastern border? Rather the laudatory qualities and achievements of Charlemagne are dwelled upon by Wilson. Charlemagne the tactician, loving (to a fault) father, and sage of the imperial court. Instead of trying to degenerate the man in the “critical” vein, Wilson’s book induces admiration and aspiration in the reader which is, again, in short supply. If that awful Napoleon movie utterly failed to bring back great man history, maybe Wilson’s Charlemagne: A Biography will help. Sticking with the great man, monarchy theme, I’m only barely into Ernst Kantorowicz’s Frederick the Second: Wonder of the World. So far, it’s very Kantorowicz which is to say dizzying but fantastic. A couple months ago I read Philip Freeman’s wonderful little book, Julian: Rome’s Last Pagan Emperor. Also highly recommended, especially if you know little to nothing about Julian, a truly fascinating figure that, in a way, you can’t not like despite obvious misgivings. More pertinent to our own day, if history truly has a cyclical aspect, the last Roman pagans and their last champion provide possible horrible futures for western Christians. Upon completing Freeman’s Julian, I recommend an immediate dose of encouragement via Peter Sarr’s Justinian: Emperor, Soldier, Saint. Ignore the introduction–generally good advice–which is a little too on the nose and presentist. The rest of the book is worth it so far. 

Leaving monarchs and great men aside, the superb academic work I’ve read in some time is from Hillsdale’s Paul Rahe, Against Throne and Altar: Machiavelli and Political Theory under the English Republic. Surprisingly readable, I’ve blazed through it. Rahe’s learning drips off every page and his analysis is provocative regarding the populist turn in republicanism during the mid-seventeenth century–a form of republicanism that would’ve been unrecognizable to its Roman progenitors. This might seem like a scholastic distinction but once you see it you can’t unsee it and the implications for the way we view our own polity are apparent. 

Speaking of our own country, I just picked up Matthew Dallek’s Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right. This is a critical but informative narrative, which is to be expected. It treats the Birchers as the source code for everything “extreme” and bizarre (to the left) on the right today. In a sense, this is true, just as it is for Pat Buchannan. Much of the New Right commitments were workshopped a long time ago. And remember, of course, that Trump represents first and foremost a coup in the GOP. So, in a sense, the outcasts of yesteryear triumphed in the long run, which is not to deny that Dallek’s causality is a little too clean, but he does try to be fair most of the time. What’s strange, for those of us too young to remember it, is to realize how small the John Birch Society was and how relatively innocuous and unknown, but also feisty and zealous, most of its members were. And yet, the “liberal Cold War coalition” went to excessive lengths to ostracize and destroy it. Maybe because some of the Society’s “conspiracy theories” turned out to be true and some of their impulses correct. 

Image: Board Room of Admiralty, London, 1808.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

One thought on “What We’ve Been Reading

  1. In terms of what I’ve been reading:

    A True History Of The United States by David Sjursen
    Sjursen is a retired Major and combat veteran from the U.S. Army who also taught history at West Point.

    The Punishment of Gaza by Gideon Levy
    Gideon Levy is journalist and author. He writes article for Haaretz.

    On Palestine by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
    No need to say who Chomsky is. Pappé is an Israeli historian, political scientist, and former politician. He is also a professor at the University of Exeter in Great Britain.

    The Radical King Edited by Cornel West
    No need to say who West is.

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