Three: Theology, a Novel of the Miniscule, & a Tome by Joyce Carol Oates

This week, I read three very different writers: John MacArthur, Nicholas Baker, and Joyce Carol Oates. One is a Christian theologian and pastor; one is a postmodern fiction writer whose style departs from almost anyone else I have read; and Oates is an American writer who has been prolific since the 1960s.

Below are some thoughts on each book, its main concerns, examples from each that illustrate said concerns, and some questions for reflection.

In Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, published in 1994, MacArthur introduces his theme up front and unpacks it throughout the next 200 pages. He explains how existentialism, subjectivism, relativism, and mysticism have undercut the very foundations of logic and reason. The result has been widespread poverty of proper biblical interpretation:

. . . to say that people can’t reason their way to the truth of Scripture is not to imply that Scripture itself is irrational. The Bible is perfectly reasonable, consistent with itself, true in all its parts, reliable as a foundation for our logic, dependable as a basis for good judgment, and trustworthy as the definitive test of sound doctrine. Because it is pure truth, it is perfectly rational (xii)

And another gem:

We cannot simply flow with the current of our age. We cannot elevate love by downplaying truth. We cannot promote unity by repressing sound doctrine. We cannot learn to be discerning by making an idol out of tolerance. By adopting those attitudes, the church has opened her gates to all of Satan’s Trojan horses. (81)

But the various isms resulting from suppressing God and his revelation of himself in Scripture have led to abuses and misinterpretations that are embarrassing. In his trademark fashion, MacArthur does not pull punches. He quotes from primary sources in his many analyses of existentialism, mysticism, neo-orthodoxy/liberalism, fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and more. He traces the trajectory of how many people wound up with such reckless faith.

One example I found particularly helpful was his analysis of mysticism that has infiltrated much of the professing Christian church. Many people are chasing feelings, chasing experiences:

The faith of mysticism is an illusion. “Truth that is true for me” is irrelevant to anyone else, because it lacks any objective basis. Ultimately, therefore, existential faith is impotent to lift anyone above the level of despair. All it can do is seek more experiences and more feelings. Multitudes are trapped in the desperate cycle of feeding off one experience while zealously seeking the next. Such people have no real concept of truth; they just believe. Theirs is a reckless faith. (30)

He ends this book as he ends every book I have read from MacArthur—with a call to the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Scripture is the authority. Many profess that, but deny it in practice. Say what you will about John MacArthur, but I have never seen him equivocate on that: Scripture is the only objective standard—not traditions, not feelings, not “being led,” not visions, not “looking within,” and certainly not popes, bishops, or councils. If you seek clarity, and want an apologetic resource calling you back to living out, not just the sufficiency of Scripture, but also the authority of Scripture, this is a valuable resource. Isms come and go, but the Word abides forever.

A second book I read was a first for me. More precisely, the book and the author were new to me. Nicholas Baker is an American postmodern writer, and The Mezzanine, a short novel about a businessman’s trip up an escalator, and his mental activity during that trip, is, well, amazingly detailed in its attention to the banal, the quotidian, and the everyday. The author’s goal? To show us the superficial ways we so often glide through contemporary life without thinking through things.

Baker’s forays and footnotes (yes, lots and lots of footnotes, even footnotes about footnotes) serve to focus the reader on the things right under our noses and under our fingertips (like the handrail on an escalator, like the feel of a stapler on your office desk, like why shoelaces break at nearly the same time, etc.). Here is an example:

Presently the metal disk that drew near was half lit by sun. Falling from dusty heights of thermal glass over a hundred-vaned, thirty-foot-long, unlooked-at, invisibly suspended lightning fixture that resembles the metal grid in an old-style ice cube tray, falling through the vacant middle reaches of lobby space, the sunlight draped itself over my escalator and continued from there, diminished by three-quarters, down into a newsstand inset into the marble at the rear of the lobby. (103)

 Baker is new to me. I admire his precision in description. I admire his raising the issue of how the quotidian may teach us if we would but pay attention. But, I think Baker suggests herein, we suffer the illusion that we will be happier if we skate along life, carried escalator-like, unbothered by serious contemplation of our mortality. Baker is, in my view, important. He is not, I admit, easy to read; it can be work. But that, I believe, is part of what makes him important to read. If I had to summarize Baker’s aim, it is this question: What happens if we pay attention–stop entertaining ourselves to death–and just stop and pay attention?

The Oates novel I am (still) reading is her 2001 tome Blonde. It is nearly 800 pages, so it is not one I can finish in a day or two. Marilyn Monroe, as most of the world knew her, was really Norma Jeane Baker, and she is the subject of the novel. As readers, we meet her mother, Gladys, her grandmother, Della, the actors at The Studio in Los Angeles during Hollywood’s golden era, and on and on.

I said the subject was Marilyn Monroe. The more I read this novel, I would say the subject is not Marilyn so much as it is the question of what it means to act, to fulfill a role, to don a façade, and what costs are involved.

Norma Jeane Baker lived roles. And I think Oates is exploring that theme, not a small one. Stay tuned.

A Reading Log

IMG_1886We all have our struggles. One of mine is sleeplessness. But I’ve found at least some benefit: I can read during the nights. I’ve begun maintaining a reading log. Nothing fancy, but it helps in at least three ways. First, it helps me maintain a ledger of what I’m reading. Second, I am better able to see patterns among books and thinkers. (Some writers are worth more of my time; others have already consumed too much of it and I move on.) Third, a reading log provides a means of evaluating ideas.

Over the last several months, I have not written much blog-wise due to my current location with the military, but here is a list of some of my recent reading. In the left column is the book; the middle column lists the book’s author; and the third column is my response–usually just a fragment, phrase, or sentence or two. At the bottom are some of the volumes I’m still reading due to their length and/or weightiness. Hope you profit. My thanks to fellow readers who have pointed books and writers out to me that would have otherwise escaped my attention.

Book: Author: Response:
Suttree McCarthy Among the saddest books I have ever read. It may also be the richest book I read in terms of its delight in language and the fecundity of words. McCarthy is—his dark vision aside—a wordsmith on par with Joyce and Shakespeare.
Cormac McCarthy’s Nomads Andersen & Kristoffer A master’s thesis that was large on jargon and intellectual posturing and short on coherence and clarity.
Resolutions: Advice to Young Converts Edwards My only complaint is that I waited this long to read it. Edwards was certainly a theologian/philosopher, but in this volume, you also see he was a pastor with a love of discipling God’s people.
On Reading Well Prior A reminder that some of the world’s greatest literary pieces are explorations of the biblical worldview. A truly good book about books.
The Battle for the Beginning MacArthur I know of no other living Christian writer who is as biblical and clear as John MacArthur. In this volume, he tackles head on the mutually exclusive worldviews of biblical creation vs. macroevolution and materialism. An important book.
The Stranger Camus When I read it as an 18-year old, I thought it masterful. Now, er, hardly. A sad book about life without God, life without hope, and life without redemption.
In the Year of Our Lord Ferguson One of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. The bottom line up front: the true Christian church must always keep her focus on the truth, the gospel, Christ, and purity. Today’s pagan headlines are merely tomorrow’s fertilizer. Keep a biblical perspective.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Diaz Reminded me why I don’t enjoy postmodernism or post-postmodernism. With its trendy style of blending genuine pity with trendy pop-culture and profanity and gender politics, this is just what literary committees adore, but it makes for poor literature. Who will want to read this modish stuff in a few years? Egads.
Killing Jesus O’Reilly This could be helpful for skeptics of the Christian worldview.
Killing Lincoln O’Reilly Very enjoyable. I learned even more to appreciate Lincoln and to pity him.
Killing Patton O’Reilly Leadership for Patton was what he seemed born for. He was a patriot, a very fallen and cruel man, but also courageous like few others. When hell stared him in the face, he spat and kept right on marching. And I thank him and those he led.
Animal Farm Orwell Communism/Progressivism/Socialism fails—everywhere and always. But dogs return to the vomit. And people often act like animals.
The Catcher in the Rye Salinger Hard for me not to gush here. In my view, one of the best novels ever, esp. with regard to narrative voice, point of view, and tone. A masterpiece.
Exit West Hamid People are not reducible to religion, ethnicity, and politics. The human heart is the problem; we are sinners and we need a savior—and government is not the savior. Ever.
Kidnapped by the Taliban Joseph There are good and bad folks everywhere. Sometimes good intentions lead you into bad situations. But grace can still appear and even endure.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Angelou An anthem to the artist to sing—if for no else than himself/herself. Some will listen.
Tom Sawyer Twain I preferred Huck Finn. But similar episodes and themes are here—innocence vs. experience; corruption; escape vs. responsibility.
Blood Meridian McCarthy Perhaps the most violent book I’ve ever read (again). Horrific and beautiful. McCarthy descends into the pits of evil and reprobation, and takes us with him. There he writes in graphic detail. But it is so heartbreakingly beautiful in its expression that you endure the rapacity and cruelty and cannot see life the same way.
The Sun Also Rises Hemingway Immature adults taking themselves way too seriously and drinking way too much alcohol get mad at the state of the world, but refuse to take responsibility. This was a much better book when I read it as a 19-year old, if that helps. Probably the last time I’ll do this one.
The Sound and the Fury Faulkner A watershed book in terms of its use of interior monologue, non-linear time, flashbacks, stream of consciousness, etc.
Books Are Made Out of Books Crews A book about the books that have shaped Cormac McCarthy. Appreciative of this book.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction Peterson Beautifully written by a man gifted with discernment, biblical maturity, and a pastor’s temperament.
Facing the Music Brown A book of Larry Brown’s short stories. Kind of like Harry Crews’ fiction, these are stories of down-on-their-luck southerners who ain’t got no quit in ‘em. Excellent fiction.
Larry Brown: A Writer’s Life Cash A biography of Larry Brown, of his determination, struggles, literary triumphs, and isolation necessary to create.
Everything that Rises Must Converge O’Connor It’s Flannery O’Connor. Read it. Then read it again.
Hitler’s Religion Weikhart Excellent, readable, researched book of Hitler’s worldview (pantheism).
Hillbilly Elegy Vance No matter how successful we are in the world’s eyes, we never really leave behind the boy or girl we were at 12. Our childhood affects us till we die.
A Wrinkle in Time L’Engle Childhood imagination sometimes portends divinity.
Desperadoes Hansen Literary western genre. Beautiful language. A bit slow going, at least for me.
Light in August Faulkner Rich in interior monologue. A slow read for me. The preacher was my favorite character.
Killing the SS O’Reilly There is no bottom to man’s evil.
Love Thy Body Pearcey Read Nancy Pearcey’s books. You do yourself a disservice if you don’t. Logical, persuasive, and clear. Excellent.
Go Set a Watchman Lee Even the folks we think of as ‘good’ are sinners.


Currently I’m reading Don Quixote and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Both are excellent. Maybe this helps encourage you. It at least helps me to keep track of some of my reading life and helps me plot my future reading goals. “Take up and read.”

Five Books and a Question

“There are two types of books,” my professor said, “those of the hour and those for all time.” Thus said one of my favorite professors of literature as we met in his office one afternoon and discussed what we were reading and what we wanted to read. That conversation happenth-2ed over twenty years ago. I doubt Dr. N. even remembers it, but I have kept his words in mind.

He gave me a copy of Donleavy’s The Ginger Man and told me that I might enjoy it (I’d been trying to get through Joyce’s Ulysses at the time—a sort of literary rite of passage). I still have the copy of Donleavy’s novel and have not gotten to it. But I will. There’s just so much to read and it can be difficult to know how to divide one’s time wisely.

It’s common to make resolutions for the upcoming year. However, there is at least as much value (perhaps more value) in looking back—especially upon one’s reading. Reflecting upon history (one’s own, as well as the larger context and flow of worldviews) enables perspective that prognosticating may occlude. For fellow readers, you understand the joy of revisiting your books. In 2015, I did not read as many as is my custom. However, below are five volumes I particularly enjoyed and have wrestled with. I revisit each and ask myself what idea(s) remain after having gone through them. I welcome your reflections and recommendations of books you have found worthy of the effort. The titles listed are not in any particular order or preference.

  • Parables: The Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Revealed through the Stories Jesus Told by John MacArthur. This was the most recent book I completed. MacArthur is of course a Greek scholar, prolific writer and longtime pastor of Grace Community Church. True to MacArthur’s style, he deals relentlessly with the text of Scripture and focuses on the single meaning of each of Jesus’ parables. The book is an excellent return to the authority of the Bible amidst the melee that is endemic in literary criticism. MacArthur writes: “Jesus’ parables had a clear twofold purpose: They hid the truth from self-righteous or self-satisfied people who fancied themselves too sophisticated to learn from Him, while the same parables revealed truth to eager souls with childlike faith—those who were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” Near the end of the book, MacArthur concludes with a restatement of his thesis:

Because truth itself is critically important, and the church today is in imminent danger of selling her birthright in exchange for a postmodern philosophy that in effect would do away with the very idea of truth.

That is ground we cannot yield. We must be willing to submit our minds to the truth of Scripture, and we must refuse to subject Scripture to whatever theories or speculations happen to be currently popular in the realm of secular philosophy.

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. The author relies heavily upon surveys of corporate America and academia, and fills much of the book with historical accounts of the value many introverts have brought to civilization. At other times, she puts her finger on cultural trends:

 America had shifted from what the influential cultural historian Warren Susman Called a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality—and opened up a Pandora’s Box of personal anxieties from which we would never quite recover.

In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth.

Cain delineates between extroverted buzz and introverted depth. She helpfully encourages introverts throughout. Consider the following:

If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multitasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way. It’s up to you to use that independence to good effect.

  • Pagans in the Pews: How the New Spirituality is Invading Your Home, Church and Community by Peter Jones. Like MacArthur, Jones is a Greek and New Testament scholar. His thesis in the book is that paganism has invaded not just the Western culture, but the church itself. Feminism, liberalism, and monism have invaded many churches. The results are seen in the breakdown of binary distinctions (male and female; Creator and creatures; heterosexuality vs. homosexuality/lesbianism, etc.). Rather than worshiping God alone, man has descended into self-worship and godless humanism:

Today atheistic humanism is on the run. The new enemy is a spiritualized view of man. He is no longer simply the measure of all things, as rationalism maintained: Man is now also the measure of God, for man is God. This new spirituality is the final expression of idolatry because it is not just disobedience of God’s laws: It replaces the divine with the human.

Dr. Jones’ terms of One-ism (all is one/pantheism/monism) and Two-ism (God and His creation are separate; Creator and His creatures/creation; binary; dualism) help to illustrate Paul’s words in Romans 1—namely, that the essence of human sin is evidenced in our behavior. We “[exchange] the truth about God for a lie and [worship] and [serve] the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” (Rom 1:25 ESV)

  • Still the Best Hope by Dennis Prager. I heard Prager on talk radio one day a few years back. He referred to his belief in “ethical monotheism.” I could tell from that phrase that he was someone I needed to research. I bought some of his books, but this one is (in my view) his best. The thesis in his books, this one in particular, is straightforward: Leftism demonstrably fails because it starts with the wrong assumptions about human nature and about God.


One of the most helpful things Prager illustrates in the book comes in the addendum, wherein he lays out the differences between Leftism vs. Conservative values. Below is just a small sampling of his charts:

  Conservative Values Liberal/Left Values
The State Small Large
Source of Moral Standards American & Judeo-Christian values Individual consciences, the heart, science
Attitude toward Wealth Create more Redistribute
Morality Universal Relative (to individual/and/or Society
Primary Sources of Evil The individual and the state Socioeconomic forces
Humanity’s Primary Division Good/evil Rich/poor; strong/weak


  • Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness. I’m unashamedly an admirer of Guinness’ work, but I especially enjoyed this volume because I think he’s quite sober and winsome when dealing with the issue of how to deal with skeptics of the Christian worldview, especially if detractors are steeped in postmodernism, multiculturalism, pluralism, relativism, etc. Consider the following from Guinness:

What it means is that Christian advocacy must always be independent. It must always be consistent to itself and shaped decisively by the great truths of the Scriptures, and in particular by five central truths of the faith—creation, the fall, the incarnation, the cross, and the Spirit of God.

I did not even comment on my favorite non-fiction books I read in 2015, Nancy Pearcey’s Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes and Michael Walsh’s The Devil’s Pleasure Palace: The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West. In my view, those books are so important, they deserve their own articles.

So, did I learn from my former professor’s counsel, about books being divisible between those of the hour and those of all time? Did I make wise reading choices? Admittedly, I did not include the fiction, drama, poetry, or biographies I read in 2015, but these were some volumes I particularly appreciated.