25 January 2015

2014 Book Awards and Reading List

January is almost over, and I have not yet upheld my yearly blog tradition of giving book awards. For those of you who are just joining us, every January I list the books I read in the previous year and name the best ones out of a variety of mostly arbitrary categories that I sometimes change from year to year but mostly keep the same. The only books I consider for each award are books that I have read for the first time this particular year, so rereads are not in the running. 

So without further ado, here are the 2014 Flying Inn Book Awards! Yaaaaaaaaayyyy! (ßIn a Kermit the Frog voice.)

Best Fiction Book I Read this Year: TIE
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Empire of Bones by N.D. Wilson

Best History Book I Read this Year: TIE
Ghost on the Throne by James Romm
The Punic Wars by Adrian Goldsworthy

Best Theology Book I Read this Year:
Our Reasonable Faith by Herman Bavinck

Best non-history, non-theology, non-fiction Book I Read this Year:
The Life of the Spider by Jean-Henri Fabre

Best Book I Read Out Loud to My Kids This Year:
The Marsh King by C. Walter Hodges

And, as always, here are the books I read this year:

  • Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers 12/14
  • Saint Julian by Walter Wangerin, Jr. 12/14
  • The Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp 12/14
  • The Hidden Stream by Ronald Knox 12/14
  • Captain Blood Returns by Rafael Sabatini 12/14
  • The Major Works by Anselm of Canterbury 12/14
  • The Persian Boy by Mary Renault 12/14
  • The Marsh King by Walter C. Hodges 11/14
  • Ancient Greece by Thomas R. Martin 11/14
  • The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson 11/14
  • Westminster Systematics by Douglas Wilson 11/14
  • Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places by Robert Ingpen and Philip Wilkinson 11/14
  • The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle 10/14
  • 1611 King James Bible 10/14
  • Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder 10/14
  • Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ by Alfred Edersheim 10/14
  • Western Civilization by Jackson Spielvogel 10/14
  • The History of England by Jane Austen 10/14
  • In Ole Virginia by Thomas Nelson Page 9/14
  • The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien 9/14
  • The Mason Bees by Jean-Henri Fabre 9/14
  • The Pentateuch in Its Cultural Environment by Herbert Livingstone 8/14
  • Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie 8/14
  • The Second One Thousand Years (John Richard Neuhaus, ed.) 8/14
  • A Primer on Free Will by John Gerstner 8/14
  • Pontius Pilate: A Biographical Novel by Paul Maier 8/14
  • One Shot by Lee Childs 7/14
  • The Edge of Evolution by Michael Behe 7/14
  • Scarlet by Stephen Lawhead 7/14
  • Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien 7/14
  • The Life of the Spider by Jean-Henri Fabre 7/14
  • The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien 7/14
  • The Passionate Observer  by Jean-Henri Fabre 7/14
  • Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz 6/14
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves 6/14
  • Our Reasonable Faith by Herman Bavinck 6/14
  • The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas 6/14
  • The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde 6/14
  • Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges 5/14
  • Fifty Famous Stories Retold by James Baldwin 5/14
  • Greenmantle by John Buchan 5/14
  • The Punic Wars by Adrian Goldsworthy 5/14
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen 5/14
  • The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin 5/14
  • Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson 4/14
  • The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde 4/14
  • The Lightning Thief by Percy Jackson 4/14
  • First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde 4/14
  • The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien 4/14
  • The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield 4/14
  • Cover Her Face by P.D. James 3/14
  • Empire of Bones by N.D. Wilson 3/14
  • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (H.R. James, trans.)3/14
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie 3/14
  • The Narnian by Alan Jacobs 3/14
  • The Drowned Vault by N.D. Wilson 3/14
  • Crusades by Terry Jones 2/14
  • Arthur by Stephen Lawhead 2/14
  • The Prayer of the Lord by R.C. Sproul 2/14
  • The African Queen by C.S. Forester 2/14
  • A Shot of Faith to the Head by Mitch Stokes 1/14
  • Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire by James Romm 1/14
  • The Dragon's Tooth by N. D. Wilson 1/14
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame 1/14
  • The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman 1/14

16 January 2015

Good Advice for Young Ladies

"I know what you're thinking about," said Mary; "and don't you be silly fools. Don't you listen to the lady novelists. You go down the king's highway; for God's truth, it is God's. Yes, my dear, Michael will often be extremely untidy. Arthur Inglewood will be worse--he'll be tidy. But what else are all the trees and clouds for, you silly kittens?"
"The clouds and trees are all waving about," said Rosamund. "There is a storm coming, and it makes me feel quite excited, somehow. Michael is really rather like a storm: he frightens me and makes me happy."
"Don't you be frightened," said Mary. "All over, these men have one advantage; they are the sort that go out."
A sudden thrust of wind through the trees drifted the dying leaves along the path, and they could hear the far-off trees roaring faintly.
"I mean," said Mary, "they are the kind that look outwards and get interested in the world. It doesn't matter a bit whether it's arguing, or bicycling, or breaking down the ends of the earth as poor old Innocent does. Stick to the man who looks out of the window and tries to understand the world. Keep clear of the man who looks in at the window and tries to understand you. When poor old Adam had gone out gardening (Arthur will go out gardening), the other sort came along and wormed himself in, nasty old snake."
- from Manalive by G.K. Chesterton

14 January 2015

The Dangers of Online Teaching

The greatest danger in the world of online teaching is that at some point, somewhere, some student is going to do something like this...

05 January 2015

Truth for Beauty's Sake

Classical education has become popular in many home school and private Christian school communities over the last thirty years or so. Like so many ideas when they become popularized, this means that many of the principles of Classical education have been misunderstood by those attempting to classically educate. Classical education is an educational philosophy developed in the 12th and 13th centuries and based on Greek and Roman principles combined with a Christian view of the cosmos. Classical education today, however, is seen less as a philosophy of education and more as a method of education. This distinction is key.

Classical education is built around 2 courses of study: the trivium (3 ways) and the quadrivium (4 ways). Together these make up the 7 liberal arts. Most classical educators today, both home school and private school, focus exclusively on the trivium to the exclusion of the quadrivium. The trivium is made up of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. These were thought of as the modes of learning or skills or arts or disciplines, if you will, that equip a student to move forward into the deeper studies of philosophy and theology.

In 1947, Dorothy Sayers published an essay titled "The Lost Tools of Learning" that suggests that children have various stages of development at which they are especially suited for learning each of these disciplines. Younger children are particularly suited for studying grammar, young teens are particularly suited for learning dialectic reasoning, and older teens/young adults are particularly suited for rhetoric. Because of Sayers essay, which sparked the modern classical movement, many people today in classical education talk of the trivium as if it is synonymous with these stages. This is what I meant earlier by Classical Education becoming method rather than a philosophy. In earlier times, the trivium was not implemented in stages, and in many older classical schools that have been around since the 1800s, it is still not implemented in stages. The idea that the disciplines and skills of the Trivium can be implemented in this way is a good method, in my opinion, presented by Sayers, but only a method and not part of the core philosophy. In addition, because Sayers did not talk about the quadrivium (it was never her purpose to set forth an outline for a full-orbed classical education) many schools today ignore the quadrivium entirely.

All right, all that was just an introduction... Now on to the actual book I'm reviewing.

Truth for Beauty's Sake by Stratford Caldecott seeks to reintroduce the importance of the quadrivium and the seven liberal arts to education today. The quadrivium is made up of mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy. While these things are often taught in schools today, they have lost the depth and purpose with which they were imbued in classical education. Arithmetic, for example, is seen now as merely quantitative: useful for calculating practical things for purposes of counting, engineering, programming, etc. However, though this is all part of mathematics, Caldecott points out that in a medieval Christian view of mathematics, numbers have sacred and poetic meanings, and the contemplation of mathematics can lead to deep philosophical and theological considerations. He points out that this poetic focus of math creeps into modern physics and other studies, but is not recognized in a widespread way. Geometry, likewise, is charged with poetic and sacred meaning, from contemplations on the Trinity based on pi, to contemplations of beauty based on phi. According to one legend, the discovery of irrational numbers, for example, caused the Pythagoreans to murder one of their own members in ancient times. It would be hard to think of Geometry causing such passion in modern times. Music (or harmonics, which is the old term for the study) stems from Mathematics and Geometry, and ideas about beauty and music are intertwined with those disciplines. The golden ratio (phi) in geometry, for example, corresponds closely to the major 6th interval in music which is considered by many to be the most aesthetically pleasing interval. Finally Caldecott points out how medieval astronomy was often based, not necessarily on observation, but on symbolism and meaning. It would not bother a medieval to learn that the picture he painted of the cosmos didn't correspond to reality. Indeed, in a fallen universe, he would not expect reality to conform to his ideal conception of it. Nonetheless, Caldecott believes that there is no contradiction between the empirical astronomy of today and the possibility of rich human meaning in the cosmos. 

Along the way, he emphasizes that we should think of these things (mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music) not simply as servile arts (designed for practical purposes) but as liberal arts (designed to make us free humans able to properly contemplate the creation and our Creator). Math is very useful in day to day life, but is important for its spiritual qualities even apart from its usefulness. Geometry is a great help to architecture, but both are means of expressing other truths. Learning to play music is a good skill (although actual playing of music was not included in the medieval quadrivium), but the study of music or harmonics apart from actually playing it helps us to contemplate astronomy (the music of the spheres) and mathematics and geometry in a higher way as we seek harmony in our lives and in the world around us. Finally, astronomy is good for the practical things it tells us about the universe, but, perhaps more importantly, for the things it teaches us about God.

This is, admittedly, a difficult book to read. It is scholarly and packed with footnotes. It runs the gamut from science and physics to philosophy and poetry. Caldecott writes of and integrates all of these disparate sources as if he expects that we are as familiar with them all as he is, which makes some high demands of the reader. His theology is pretty wonky in places as well, but I'll try not to judge him for that. The important thing here is to appreciate the picture he is painting for a full-orbed classical education and for the kind of person it produces.

This book is a great corrective to shortcomings in modern classical education as well as to our hyper-reductionistic modernity. It is thought provoking and bold; it is erudite and scholarly. And best of all, it approaches classical education as a philosophy (regarding what sort of person it produces and upon what principles it is based) and not merely a method (follow these three simple steps to academic excellence). If you are a teacher, administrator, or otherwise involved in classical education, I highly recommend this book!

De Concordia: Foreknowledge, Necessity and Predestination

Having read Anselm's De Concordia: The Compatibility of God's Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Grace with Human Freedom,  I was struck by how similar many of his arguments sound to those of Martin Luther in Bondage of the Will. Luther was clearly influenced by Anselm in his thinking, whether directly or indirectly.

For example, Luther argued that man does not have moral freedom of the will, because the sinful will is corrupt and unable to change itself to will good. Therefore, if we are to will good and choose God, then it must be because God has changed our broken will. Anselm writes:

"Now let us consider whether people who do not have this uprightness of will can acquire it in some fashion by themselves...no one who does not possess uprightness of will is equipped to acquire it alone with an act of the will...So there is no way by which creatures can have it on their own. Yet neither can a creature have it from another creature. Just as creatures cannot save other creatures, they cannot give them the means necessary for salvation. So it follows that a creature possesses he uprightness which I have called uprightness of the will only by the grace of God."

-Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, p. 455

This, of course, leads to the age-old question of why God gives this uprightness of will to some and not others. Is it merited or earned? Anselm again says:

"And even if God does not give grace to everyone, for 'He shows compassion to whom he wills and hardens those he wills to harden' [Rom. 9:18], still he does not give to anyone in return for some antecedent merit, for 'who has first given to God and he shall be rewarded?' [Rom. 11:35]...It must all be attributed to grace, too, because 'it is not of the one who wills, nor of the one who runs, but of God, who shows mercy' [Rom. 9:16]. For to all, except God alone, it is said: 'What do you have that you have not received? And if you have received it all, why do you boast as though you had not received it?' [I Cor. 4:7]...Thus when God gives willing and running to someone conceived and born in sin to whom he owes nothing but punishment, this is not 'of the one who wills, nor of the one who runs, but of God who shows mercy."

-Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, p. 455, 458

Not just in the matter of moral will, though, but also with regard to metaphysical free will, Luther seems to follow Anselm. Speaking of will in the abstract, metaphysical sense, Martin Luther agrees that man's will is free in the sense that it is not compelled in any way. Sinners are morally unable to will righteousness and are therefore in bondage in a moral sense until released by God's grace. However, sinners are not in bondage in the sense of being forced to sin against their wills. In Bondage of the Will, Luther writes: "I said 'of necessity'; I did not say 'of compulsion'; I meant, by a necessity, not of compulsion, but of what they call immutability. That is to say: a man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of the neck and dragged into it, like a thief or footpad being dragged off against his will to punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily."

Anselm likewise says:

"From all this it would seem to follow that people who sin do what they do necessarily even though they act freely." -Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, p. 440

And this leads to one more thing that often happens in discussions about foreknowledge, free will and necessity. It is often said that God's predestination is based on His foreknowledge. That events are predestined based on the fact that God has foreseen them already happening. In other words God is foreseeing things happen apart from his intervention (His knowledge is the result of things), and His predestination is simply a stamp of acknowledgement that He has indeed seen those things. Anselm makes a very good point about why this is a bad view:

"Since God is believed to foreknow or know all things, we have still to consider whether his knowledge results from things or whether the existence of things results from his knowledge. For if God owes his knowledge to things, it follows that they exist prior to his knowledge of them and that their existence is not owed to God...Of course every quality, every action, everything that has existence owes its being at all to God..." -Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, p. 447

21 December 2014

Baby, It's Cold Outside

We've been listening to a lot of She & Him this month, so I thought I'd share a Christmas video from them. Enjoy!

20 December 2014

Cur Deus Homo

The Birth of Jesus
by Giotto di Bondone
"If, therefore, as is agreed, it is necessary that the  heavenly city should have its full complement made up by members of the human race, and this cannot be the case if the recompense of which we have spoken is not paid, which no one can pay except God, and no one ought to pay except man: it is necessary that a God-Man should pay it."

-from Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works p. 320

09 December 2014

Christmas Playlist 2

Last year I shared a playlist of Christmas music I was listening to at the time. I'm still enjoying all of that music (especially Downe in Yon Forrest which is officially my favorite Christmas album ever), but there is also another sort of Christmas album to consider. These are the albums you listen to, not when you're sitting and enjoying a peaceful meal or sitting in front of your lit tree, but when you're in the hustle and bustle, wrapping, laughing, decorating, cooking. The fun, bouncy music that sets the mood for the season. This year, I'm posting a list of the fun, bouncy holiday music for the boisterous parts of the season.

1. Barenaked for the Holidays
I've been a Barenaked Ladies fan for a long time, and they never do things by halves. Their Holiday album is no exception. It is jam packed with fun, happy renditions of favorite Christmas songs, and a few of their own thrown in. This is one of our family's favorites at Christmas time (or Hannukah time for that matter).

2. A Very She & Him Christmas
This is the most low-key of the selections on this list, but when She & Him sing classic pop Christmas songs, they often do them better than the original. Their gender-swapped version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is hilarious.

3. Christmas with the Chipmunks
A true Christmas classic. I remember that even ALF listened to this for Christmas. (And if you're too young to remember ALF, I feel sorry for you.)

4. Veggie Tales Holiday Pack
Okay, so I'm cheating here. I like so many songs from both of the Veggie Tales Christmas albums, that I decided to choose both. "The Incredible Singing Christmas Tree" and "A Very Veggie Christmas" are staples in the Davis house.

5. Boogie Woogie Christmas
This is new to us this year, but I predict that Brian Setzer's  swing/blues renditions of Christmas songs are going to be with us for a long time. Our kids especially love his version of Jingle Bells.

08 December 2014

The Persian Boy

Note: Whenever I review a Mary Renault book, I try to include a little disclaimer. Renault always attempted to write books that would be true to the historical culture she was illuminating. She didn’t try to sanitize or modernize her characters. This means that pagans in her books act like pagans, think like pagans, and do lots of pagan things. Which also means that her books are not for everyone. CAVEAT LECTOR.

Mary Renault writes the best historical fiction I’ve ever read. The way she brings historical characters to life in a believable, realistic way, avoiding any anachronism in their personalities and actions, is simply amazing. I have never seen another author consistently combine good writing and good scholarship as well as Renault. In this way The Persian Boy does not differ from other books I’ve read by her.

The one thing of note about this book that can be discussed, however, is her choice of narrator. The story in The Persian Boy begins several years after Fire from Heaven, her previous book about Alexander the Great, and is narrated by Bagoas, King Darius’s eunuch who becomes Alexander’s lover. This choice of narrator was a bold move on Renault’s part and has some definite advantages and disadvantages.

I’ll talk about the advantages first. Renault focuses the main conflict in the book on the ways in which Alexander attempted to integrate his Macedonian and Greek soldiers that he brought with him on his campaign with his newly acquired Persian soldiers. What better way to symbolize that conflict than to tell the story from the perspective of one who grew up in the Persian court and is shocked and confused by the customs of these Macedonians? In addition, Bagoas becomes a rival to Hephaistion for Alexander’s affection, thus creating a “love triangle” of sorts. The rivalry between the two is there, even though Alexander is too naïve to sense it, and this well symbolizes the tension between his Macedonian and Persian contingents that he optimistically believes he will unify in one new culture containing the best of both worlds.

This being said, there were a number of disadvantages. Bagoas as narrator didn’t really work for me, and I think it was a misstep on Renault’s part. While we do get a harrowing and exciting opening to the book that shows Bagoas being made a eunuch after his family is murdered and a great introduction to Persian politics of the day, we don’t hear from Alexander for quite some time. The opening chapters of the book drag on without him. Some of Alexander’s most iconic victories and battles are relayed briefly by messengers because Bagoas is at Susa and not present at the battles. Likewise, most all of the major battles in the book as well as many of the political conferences have to be relayed second-hand as Bagoas the eunuch is not invited to such places and occasions. As a result, we the readers spend way too much time in the bedroom with Bagoas and way too little time in the field with Alexander.

This lopsided view also extends to the character of Alexander himself. Alexander’s sexuality was something of an enigma at the time. No, I’m not talking about the fact that Alexander had male lovers; that was pretty much commonplace in Greek culture, and no one would have thought twice about it. I’m talking about the fact that though Alexander did have his lovers, he appeared to care very little for sex and seemed to desire it little for its own sake. His self-control in this area was a marvel to those who wrote about him, especially in comparison with his soldiers and other conquerors of the time. Mary Renault showed this aspect of Alexander’s character in Fire from Heaven and makes a few perfunctory nods in that direction here, but, once again, her choice of narrator for this book forces her into an unbalanced emphasis on Alexander’s sex life rather than his character as a whole. I felt like the complex Alexander I came to know and appreciate from the first book is a bit flat and one sided in this second novel.

And speaking of characters I came to know and appreciate from the first book, I was very disappointed that Hephaistion played such a small role in this one. He was Alexander’s dearest friend, oldest ally, and lifelong comrade. He was the Patroklos to Alexander’s Achilles. And yet, because we’re getting the story from Bagoas, we, understandably, don’t see much of Hephaistion. After all, it’s not like he and Bagoas were chums or anything.

Overall, this book didn’t grip me or interest me as much as the first, mostly due to the issues named above. If Renault had continued the third person narrative style of the first book or even told the story in the first person from Alexander’s perspective, it would have done a much better job of giving the readers insight into Alexander’s character and his legendary conquest of Persia.

3/5 stars

27 November 2014

Watch out for those Turkeys!

In his Dictionary of Cuisine, Alexandre Dumas gives the reader a cautionary tale about turkeys involving the celebrated French poet Boileau.

"Boileau, when a child, was playing in a courtyard where, among other poultry, there happened to be a turkey. Suddenly the child fell, his dress went up, and the turkey...flew at him and with his beak so wounded poor Nicolas that, forever barred from becoming an erotic poet, he became a satiric one and maligned women, instead."

Ouch! So watch out for those turkeys, folks. They're more dangerous than they look. Dumas goes on to add:

"From this, no doubt, stemmed the aversion he had for the Jesuits, sharing the popular belief that they had introduced turkeys to France."
So you wanna mess with the Jesuits do you?

Alexandre Dumas' Dictionary of Cuisine  (page 250)