Review of ‘Literature: A Student’s Guide’ by Louis Markos

LiteratureLouis Markos, Literature: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). Paperback | Kindle

The Greek poet Archilochus said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” By that standard, I am a fox. For as long as I can remember, I have tried to gain a generalist’s understanding of the world rather than a specialist’s. And I have tried to do this from within a Christian worldview.

So, you can understand why Crossway’s Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition series is appealing to me. It consists of brief introductions to various academic disciplines—e.g., liberal arts, natural sciences, social sciences—written by Christian professors for Christian college students, faculty, and trustees. Though I’m well past my college years and not an academic, I still like to learn, so I have been reading my way through the series.

Literature by Louis Markos is interesting, though misnamed. It focuses on poetry rather than other literary genres, such as novels, short stories, and essays. It is valuable precisely as a primer for how to read a poem and why.

Markos divides his discussion of poetry into four topics: rhythm and rhyme (Chapter 1); words and images (Chapter 2); ages, authors, and genres (Chapter 3); and theory and criticism (Chapter 4). Throughout, he displays an appreciation of traditional poetic forms and meters as well as the interpretive techniques of the New Critics.

In the Introduction, Markos makes a general case for the value of literature in a scientific age, one that I resonate with: “We cannot live in such a vast sea of discrete, unassimilated, often anti-humanistic facts [i.e., facts disclosed to us by science]. We must make sense of the facts, must synthesize them somehow with what our race has learned about God, man, and the universe…literature is one of our best tools and guides for achieving this grand and humanizing synthesis.”

Amen to that!


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Review of ‘Siding Star’ by Christopher Bryan

Siding-StarChristopher Bryan, Siding Star (Sewanee, TN: Diamond Press, 2012). Paperback | Kindle

An astronomer discovers a supernova. A detective investigates a murder. A conspiracy grasps for control. Their stories collide in Christopher Bryan’s supernatural thriller, Siding Star. It is the first in a series of three novels (so far) featuring Detective Inspector Cecilia Cavaliere of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary. It is written self-consciously in the vein of Charles Williams’ novels and C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. If you like those novels, you’ll like this one, though—as with any supernatural thriller—a willing suspension of disbelief is key to enjoying it. Will love or power win? Read Siding Star and find out.


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Review of ‘Vertigo 42: A Richard Jury Mystery’ by Martha Grimes

Vertigo-42Martha Grimes, Vertigo 42: A Richard Jury Mystery (New York: Scribner, 2014). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

Vertigo 42 is the twenty-third mystery novel Martha Grimes has written, and like the others, it is named after an English pub or bar, this one high atop a skyscraper in downtown London where the action begins. And like the others, Scotland Yard Superintendent Richard Jury sleuths the mystery with help from his friend, Melrose Plant (the former Lord Ardry); his sergeant, Alfred Wiggins; and the cast of characters (in every sense of the term) from Long Piddleton.

The mystery in this case consists of four deaths: Hilda Palmer’s, a nine-year-old who died at Tom and Tess William’s house twenty-two years previously; Tess Williamson’s, who died five years after that; Belle Syms, whose death occurs near the book’s outset; and a man whose death occurs not long after and not far from Ms. Syms. With the exception of the man, who died of gunshot wounds, it’s not clear whether the women’s deaths were accidents, suicides, or murders.

Did I mention Stanley the dog, the “descendant” of Victorian-scourge Lytton Strachey, and Melrose Plant’s fabulous lifestyle? No, well, they’re all there, making for a plot that slowly unwinds and then twists…then twists again. If you’ve read Martha Grimes’ previous Jury novels, don’t miss this one. If you haven’t, start with The Man With a Load of Mischief and work your way through.


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Review of ‘Sharpe’s Story: The Story Behind the Sharpe Series’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes-StoryBernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Story: The Story Behind the Sharpe Series (West Chatham, MA: The Sharpe Appreciation Society, 2007). Paperback

Several years ago, a friend recommended the Richard Sharpe stories by Bernard Cornwell. I had been reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories, and my friend thought I would like the Sharpe stories, which also were set in the era of the Napoleonic Wars. I didn’t take him upon the recommendation then, but when I finally did, I realized how right he’d been.

Bernard Cornwell is a terrific storyteller, and Richard Sharpe is a terrific character. A rogue, but as Cornwell puts it in Sharpe’s Story, he’s “our rogue.” In this booklet, Sharpe describes the genesis of the character and the series that bears his name. He also explains why the books were written in the order they were, and how the successful BBC series influenced the stories. I’m reading the Sharpe stories in the order of the events they describe, not in the order of their publication, and I’d recommend others to do the same.

Sharpe’s Story also includes “Cakes and Ale” as an appendix. This is a short memoir Cornwell wrote describing the circumstances of his birth, his adoption by highly religious parents, and his eventual rejection of that family and their religion, together with his reunion with his birth family. As a Christian minister, I have to admit a bit of disappointment at Cornwell’s conversion to “atheism and frivolity,” as he puts it. Nonetheless, I appreciate Cornwell’s outstanding talents as a writer and plan to continue reading the Sharpe stories, and perhaps Cornwell’s other books. They are outstanding examples of how historical fiction should be written.


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Review of ‘The English Spy’ by Daniel Silva

The-English-SpyDaniel Silva, The English Spy (New York: Harper, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

When the glamorous ex-wife of the heir to the British throne is murdered, Israeli intelligence reveals to British intelligence that the murderer was Irish terrorist-for-hire Eamon Quinn. Then it offers to put legendary Mossad agent Gabriel Allon on the case, and Allon brings on Christopher Keller—ex-SSA officer turned assassin-for-hire—for good measure. Turns out, Allon and Keller have a personal beef with Quinn, and when it’s personal, things get messy. Daniel Silva’s newest installment in the long-running Gabriel Allon series is fast-paced and full of plot twists. If international spy thrillers are your thing, this one’s well worth reading.

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Review of ‘What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an’ by James R. White

What-Every-Christian-Needs-to-Know-About-the-QuranJames R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013). Paperback | Kindle

What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an presents an introduction to and a critique of Islamic scripture (Qur’an) and tradition (ahadith) as they touch on matters pertaining to orthodox Christianity. Author James R. White is a Christian theologian who has engaged in debates with Islamic scholars. As befits a scholar, White’s tone throughout is measured and reasonable, and his arguments are nuanced and fair-minded.

The first three chapters introduce readers to Muhammad, the Qur’an, and Islamic monotheism (tawhid). In these chapters, and throughout the book, White’s presentation hews closely to Islamic beliefs that are shared by all Muslims (Sunni and Shia). He bases his description of Muhammad’s life and early Islamic history in the Qur’an and ahadith. In other words, he utilizes the same sources that Islamic theologians utilize. This leads Christian readers directly to the textual sources of the Muslim faith and assures them that White’s critiques are based on authoritative texts Muslims themselves acknowledge.

The next four chapters focus on areas where the Qur’an and ahadith either misinterpret or contradict orthodox Christianity—or both. Chapter 4 demonstrates that the Qur’an critiques a Trinitarian doctrine that no orthodox Christian holds. Chapter 5 demonstrates the fundamental contradictions between what the Bible and the Qur’an say about Jesus. Chapters 6 and 7 turn to the doctrine of salvation, showing that Muslims deny that Christ died on the cross to graciously atone for people’s sins.

When Christians point out these misinterpretations and contradictions to Muslims, Muslims respond by claiming that Christians have “corrupted” their Bible, either by misinterpreting or rewriting the New Testament. The final four chapters thus turn to issues of translation, literary sources, and textual criticism. These are the most technical chapters in the entire book, but they also repay careful study. They demonstrate that Christians have not in fact “corrupted” their Bible and that the textual transmission of the Qur’an is not as clean as Muslims commonly believe.

For Christian readers, the effect of White’s overall argument is a shoring up of the intellectual defenses of their faith in Jesus Christ against Muslim assaults on the same. For Muslim readers the effect may be to raise a troubling question: Can we trust an allegedly inspired book that makes false statements about other religions and rests on questionable textual foundations?

I recommend What Every Christian Should Know About the Qur’an to both Christian and Muslim readers, though especially the former. We live in an age of great conflict between these two religious communities. Rather than focusing on a small minority of terrorists who commit violence in the name of Islam (against the wishes of the vast majority of Muslims, by the way), we should focus our critique on the doctrines and practices that all Muslims hold in common. Doing so is less exciting, perhaps, than the evening news, but it is also more helpful to the long-term project of winning Muslim hearts and minds.


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The American Creed and the Christian Gospel


On the Fourth of July, when I have raised the American flag over my house, I will step back, put my hand over my heart, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance aloud. No one will see me do this. No one will join me. It will be a personal expression of love for my country as well as a fervent prayer that “the Republic” will indeed become “one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

My patriotism is part family history, part intellectual conviction. As far as I can tell, my father’s and mother’s ancestors all came to this land prior to the Revolution, settling in the mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies, respectively. At least one ancestor fought in the War for Independence. If my family has a country, it has been America for a very long time.

More than genealogy, however, this nation’s ideals explain my love for it. Our nation, as Abraham Lincoln so memorably put it, was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That is why I read the Declaration of Independence every Fourth—to remind myself of the American creed. It is a good creed. Who, after all, could possibly be for slavery and inequality? As a nation, we have not always lived up to those ideals, but the answer to our hypocrisy is to reform our behavior, not necessarily to reformulate our deepest beliefs.

What America Is Not
Given my patriotism, it may surprise you to learn that the only Sunday morning worship service I have ever walked out of in sorrow was a patriotic worship service. The service was conducted with sincerity and excellence. It was a highlight of the year for many of the other church attendees. Members of the community who would not otherwise darken the church’s doorstep came because of this service.

And yet, I walked out, wondering whether my fellow Christians and I had worshiped country instead of God that day. We had celebrated America, saluted the flat, sung patriotic hymns, and honored the Divine Being whom the Declaration names as “Nature’s God” and “Creator.” We had not talked about “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3), however—who judges sin, offers salvation, and calls on people to repent and believe. We had heard, in short, the American creed but not the Christian gospel.

That troubled me deeply. For while I love my country, I love Jesus more. I know that the American Way is not the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our country is not God’s kingdom, our Declaration is not the Bible, our flag is not Christ’s cross, and Washington DC is not the New Jerusalem. (Thank God!) Worship services that blur the self-evident differences between the goodness of America and the grace of God neither honor God nor help sinners.

Humanity’s deepest problem, after all, is not “taxation without representation,” but “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, the solution most needed is not a declaration of independence but a confession of utter dependence on the mercy of the Savior (Eph. 2:8–9). If a worship service fails to include the proclamation of the gospel and an invitation to repentance and faith, then whatever else it has done, it has not worshiped God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

Maintaining the Tension
This does not mean that the American creed and the Christian gospel necessarily contradict one another. It does mean that they exist in tension, however. Let me explain why with reference to the opening chapters of Genesis.

When God created the heavens and the earth and everything within them, He looked upon the work of His hands and declared it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Unfortunately, within a short time, human beings—the “image of God” (1:27)!—disobeyed God, and their sin infected every aspect of creation (3:14–19). After the Fall, then, the resident goodness of God’s creation exists in tension with the sinful distortion of who we are and what we do. Consequently, we can offer neither an unqualified affirmation nor an unqualified critique of anything in Creation. Instead, we can only say, “Yes, but…”

So, yes, the American creed is good, true, and beautiful. But, no, it too has been distorted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. America can be loved, then, but not without critique and not without remainder. Love of country must be subordinated to a higher ideal. When displaying the American flag, etiquette demands that it be placed higher and more prominently than any other national flag. For the Christian, however, even the flag must bow to the Cross—and I’m not just talking about platform displays. I’m talking about the space the Cross occupies in our heads, hearts, and hands.

The gospel of Jesus Christ—and the gospel alone—shines with undiminished spiritual and moral luminosity. (There is not “Yes, but…” when it comes to the gospel.) It is the standard against which all other allegiances, beliefs, and commitments must be judged. To the extent that the American creed conforms to gospel priorities, it can be affirmed. To the extent that in contradicts gospel priorities, it must be critiqued.

In times past, American Christians have not always been aware of the extent to which American values contradict the gospel. One thinks especially—and with great sorrow—of white evangelical Christians’ weak support for if not outright opposition to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. By contrast, one marvels at how Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers were able to touch what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” and to awaken “the better angels of our nature” through explicit appeals to the gospel and the highest ideals of the American creed.

The gospel demands not that we choose either flag or Cross, but that we subordinate the former to the latter—always and in every way. By doing so, the spiritual and moral purity of the gospel acts as an antidote on our sin-infected love of God’s good creation, including our sin-infected nation.

So, What Should We Do?
Richard John Neuhaus often said, “Politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.” For a long time, American Christians have thought of their country as a Christian nation. Whether that was the case historically is arguable. What is not arguable is that it is no longer the case today. To a significant extent, our politics and culture do not reflect the Christian religion. The temptation that must be avoided is to focus on changing our politics and culture without changing our religious commitments. Doing so puts “works” before “faith” and muddies the message of God’s grace. If Christians want to see true, lasting change in America, the place to begin seeking it is the altar rail, not the voting booth.

This doesn’t mean the voting booth—or, increasingly, the judge’s bench—is unimportant. Voting for candidates, supporting legislation, advocating for specific causes are important, but not all important or even of the utmost importance. Government can enforce outward conformity to the law, after all; it cannot generate inward commitment to the highest moral ideals. The heart of the matter, from a political and cultural perspective, is the human heart, and only God can change it.

Thus, our houses of worship should be places where the gospel—and it alone—is continually preached. As E. E. Hewitt’s wonderful hymn puts it, “Sing the wondrous love of Jesus, / Sing His mercy and His grace.” Keep the focus on Him as the solution to humanity’s pressing need. Ask people to come to faith in Him right then and there. Invite them to receive the Holy Spirit into their lives as God’s sanctifying and empowering Presence.

Moreover, the local church should be the place where the gospel is first lived out socially. This is not only because Jesus Christ established a church, not a state, but also because Christians have no business telling others how to live if we are not living that way ourselves. “You hypocrite,” Jesus said to us; “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:6). A gospel-centered integrity is beautiful and attracts others.

And finally, pray. If patriotic songs are sung in church, they should be chosen not because they celebrate America, but because they glorify our Truine God. Most vital, however, is that churches spend time in concentrated prayer for America on patriotic holiday weekends. As Paul writes:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions and prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:1–4).

This Fourth of July, may God grant our nation peace and quiet, godliness and holiness, through His Son, the Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ!


P.S. This article originally appeared at on July 3, 2015, as “The American Creed and the Christian Gospel: July 4th reflections on an authentically Christian patriotism.”


Review of ‘Sharpe’s Fortress: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Gawilghur, December 1803’ by Bernard Cornwell

Sharpes-FortressBernard Cornwell, Sharpe’s Fortress: Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Gawilghur, December 1803 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000). Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle

There is a line between war and murder, and Ensign Richard Sharpe keeps stepping over it in this third volume of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. On the one hand, we see him devising and leading the 33rd Light Infantry and a ragged assortment of Scots, Sepoys, and cavalrymen up a ladder in the escalade of the Gawilghur fortress. (Sharpe is fictional; the escalade was not.) On the other hand, we see him revenge-killing a sergeant and two privates who had betrayed him and stolen his stuff. (The men who wanted to kill him were themselves seeking revenge for the hanging of a relative, which Sharpe carried out under orders.)

When you combine the war violence and the revenge killings with the looting and rapine that accompanied British victories—indeed, when you remember that Cornwell is depicting the imperial invasion of a foreign land—you start wondering why any moral human being would derive pleasure from reading Cornwell’s books. At least that’s the question I began to ask myself while reading Sharpe’s Fortress.

Here’s the answer I came up with. Cornwell is a masterful storyteller. His depiction of the exploits of the British Army in India during the era of the Napoleonic Wars is gripping. It’s difficult not to be sucked into the narrative of men under fire—even if their cause is unjust, or at least very imperfectly just. I dare you to try and read about the repeated British infantry assaults on Gawilghur’s inner fortress—bloody, futile assaults—without marveling at the bravery of the soldiers. I dare you not to thrill when Sharpe realizes that an escalade—basically, climbing a ladder over a wall under fire—might put enough troops on the inside of the gate to open it up, and then puts that dangerous plan into action. Cornwell’s chapters describing these actions are some of the best war-writing I’ve ever read.

Another part of the answer relies on the value of an empathetic understanding of history. The Sharpe series is a work of historical fiction. The fictional part gives you empathy, as Cornwell portrays the motives (good and bad) and courage (or lack thereof) of people on both sides of a conflict. The history helps you understand the past. How did Sir Arthur Wellesley defeat Napoleon at Waterloo and become the Duke of Wellington? By putting Sharpe under Wellesley’s command, Bernard Cornwell helps you begin to understand the question.

A final part of the answer is that reading the Sharpe’s series helps form the moral conscience by giving the reader a depiction of both martial virtue and martial vice—that is, of courage versus cowardice—as well as of the horrific impact war has on soldiers and civilians alike. I don’t know that Bernard Cornwell wrote this series to provoke such thoughts. I think he certainly wants us to understand the bravery of the ordinary soldier. But I do know that reading this series inspires such thoughts in me. A book that is both a page-turner and a thought-provoker is a good book, in my opinion, even if it’s historical fiction about the fine line between war and murder.


P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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