Unfamiliar Books


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In this series so far most of my recommendations have been of books that would be either very or at least relatively well known to conservative Presbyterians and certainly to their pastors. If you haven’t read them, you have still heard of the Letters of Samuel Rutherford or Pilgrim’s Progress, Augustine’s Confessions or Andrew Bonar’s Memoir of Robert McCheyne or Mere Christianity or Ned Stonehouse’s J. Gresham Machen. But we are at least dimly aware that other Christian traditions have also produced enormous libraries of Christian books and it shouldn’t surprise us that some very special and valuable books will be found where Presbyterians would be unlikely to go looking.

Take for example Bartolomé de las Casas’ The Only Way, a classic of Christian missiology and spirituality. The full title of the book is The Only Way to Draw All People to a Living Faith and indicates that the book is a manifesto of Christian love and of faith in the power of gospel published in protest of the atrocities committed against Indian populations by the Spanish conquerors of the New World. From the year 1512 De las Casas was an eyewitness of those atrocities and he spent the largest part of his life attempting to show the Indians the love Christ had for them and to persuade the Spanish government and the Roman church to forbid the cruel exploitation of the native peoples that so soon became characteristic of the colonial gold rush. It is a profoundly biblical argument buttressed by an appeal to history. De las Casas concludes that we are taught in Holy Scripture that the preaching of the gospel is to be appeal to the mind and the will of people and that while it is preached it is to be adorned by the Christian’s own peace and love. Proclaimed in this way the evangelist’s manner becomes a powerful illustration of the gospel’s central principle: a loving God who wins the needy and unworthy world with his love. Contrarily, he argued, it is utterly unbiblical to imagine that Jesus Christ approves of the forced conversion of peoples who remain otherwise unwilling to commit themselves to him, still less that he would approve of their oppression in his name! It is a great, great book and should be known by every Christian because its argument has implications for every generation and for all Christian evangelism and missionary work, perhaps especially in our intensely pluralist age. The Roman Catholic Paulist Press has brought out a beautiful edition, wonderfully translated, in its series Sources of American Spirituality. I am unaware of a book on the theme as beautiful, persuasive, and powerful as The Only Way. It partakes of that special authority that attaches to some books from the circumstances of their authorship.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known to conservative Presbyterians for his martyrdom, by the special order of Heinrich Himmler, in April 1945, just a few days before the prison where he was incarcerated would have been liberated by the advancing Allied forces. He is widely admired by evangelicals even though his theology leaves more than a little something to be desired. He was a moderately liberal Lutheran with a decidedly ecumenical outlook. It is no accident that his studies in the United States before the war were taken at Union Theological Seminary in New York, perhaps the flagship seminary of American liberalism. His superb The Cost of Discipleship is well known but his little gem Life Together is not. If your reading of Bonhoeffer has ever raised in your mind the question as to his commitment to historic, biblical and evangelical Christianity, this little book will lay your doubts to rest. It was written for the use of a small clandestine seminary of young German pastors of the Confessing Church, the church that stood up to Hitler and suffered for its stand. The seminary was eventually closed by the Gestapo. If the lasting legacy of that small band of faithful Christian men is this little book, a manual for their “life together,” the short existence of their community will prove to have been of greater importance than anyone probably understood at the time. Life Together is a masterpiece of the Christian life that, I believe, will be read with profit by Christians for centuries to come.

I could mention so many others, but thought I would mention two that may be of particular interest to women readers. The first is Elisabeth Leseur’s My Spirit Rejoices: the Diary of a Christian Soul in an Age of Unbelief. The story of the book is its greatest possible recommendation. Elisabeth Leseur was a devout upper-class French woman married to an aggressively atheistic husband. She was the sort of person Protestant people are referring to when they admit that, of course, there are many true Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. After her premature death in 1914 her husband found her diary and as he read it his wife was revealed to him in a way he had never seen her before and her life a life of Christian nobility that he had never once appreciated for what it was. She had maintained her Christian humility and simplicity amid the swirl of Parisian high society and her husband’s efforts to undermine her faith had served only to deepen her love for God and dependence upon his care. Reading his wife’s diary, by the grace of God, made Felix Leseur a Christian and eventually a priest. He published the diary as a testament to her faith. She was a wise woman and you will learn much from her too.

And, finally, you ladies (and you men too) should have at least some passing acquaintance with Simone Weil, the French Jewess socialist turned Christian; a woman with a powerful mind and a tender heart. The best entrée to her remarkable life, short as it was, is, I think, her Waiting for God, especially the edition with the introduction by Leslie Fiedler which tells the story of her conversion in a very winning way. There is no doubt that you will find yourself in a somewhat different spiritual world – so unlike our conservative American evangelical world – but what a life, what a conversion, and what a story!

We all wonder from time to time why, if our theology and ecclesiology are correct – as we believe they are –, how come there are so many Christians in other churches with other theologies? I have no idea what the answer to that question is, but I am grateful to God that early in my adult life he disabused me of the idea that only Reformed evangelicals had something important to say and that only Christians of our type lived genuinely godly lives. Far, far from it.