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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Legacy of John Calvin : His Influence on the Modern World

2009 is the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth and just as Calvin was a prolific publisher in his day, there has been a resurgence of publishing about Calvin in our day. This is a good thing because to not know about Calvin is to either be ignorant of the foundations of your own culture or to believe a broad characterization of him that is unlikely to do him justice and in some cases so patently false as to be silly. David Hall does a terrific book in that he sums up the lasting contributions of Calvin as they touch us today and gives us a concise and accurate biography in a very short space. Hall does not dwell on the theological intricacies of Calvin but does show us glimpses of his genius as a reformer of the Church and as a leader of men. Although there are many contributions Hall lingers on The Academy of Geneva because Calvin was singular as a protestant reformer in starting a school of higher learning to continue training and education from the protestant worldview beyond his lifetime. What makes this important is that students were trained in Geneva and deployed worldwide which in the end made this form of Protestantism far more influential. Calvin is also presented as a man who has a political mind and taught republicanism and democracy in nascent form. That men are ideally ruled not by a monarch but a group of men who are elected with the consent of the governed seems pretty natural today but in Calvin’s day these were far the norm. Hall also debunks the idea of Calvin being a total laissez-faire capitalist or that wealth was a proof one one’s election. Calvin’s teaching certainly did result in economic development but this was largely because he held all professions done honestly brought glory to God as opposed to the previously held view that only religious vocations did. But Calvin did believe honest gain was to be shared with the poor and saved for a “rainy day” rather than spending it on luxury items as we would today in a consumer economy. Calvin’s views on governance and industry make me wonder if Wall Street and Obama’s Washington might benefit from a read through The Institutes. For anyone who knows about Calvin already, this book is worth a skim. But for the totally uninitiated, Hall’s Legacy of John Calvin makes for a solid primer.

Friday, December 11, 2009

God's Batallions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

A starkly different and yet eerily familiar picture of the Crusades emerges in Rodney Stark’s new offering God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. The “case” that Stark makes in the book is that after centuries of continual aggression against the West, the Crusades were launched against the Muslims when fresh new provocations were made against Christian pilgrims and holy sites in Jerusalem. Stark also finds in his research that far from being a brutal and opportunistic war and land grab, the European crusaders had little to no gain financially and many actually bankrupted themselves in order to go. This was for them a war of ideals, religious ones in particular, and though it was brutal, it was fought according to the prevailing codes of decency and fair play that ruled in their day. Stark also reveals in the book that much has been made of the decency and enlightened attitudes of the Muslims that simply doesn’t bear out under scrutiny. Merciless slaughter and slavery were tactics they used any time they could against the crusader settlements. What is eerily familiar about the Crusades is that they were popular when they were successful and only the wealthy of Europe had to support them. When there was stalemate or failure and the financial drain was too much, they lost their public support. The case was made it was impossible to sustain the mission and there were just too many enemies to keep at bay with too few troops, er knights on the ground. I think a strong case is made that the Crusades were morally right as a political/social phenomenon. After all, European crusaders were merely conquering from Muslims lands connected to their religious faith that the Muslims had conquered from Jews and Christians just centuries before. At least in the Medieval world, taking and possessing conquered land was considered honest and normal by all the involved parties. As I read the book I couldn’t help but think of our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Defensive, just, distant, and increasingly unpopular at home. It would be nice if they just ended due to lack of interest, but I fear the Islamic penchant for Jihad may require our attention until “kingdom come.”