Back Issues

Volume 9, Issue 1: Ex Libris

Crossed Fingers

Gary North; Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1996
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson

This is a whacking big book, and I suggest that anyone reading it set aside an appropriate amount of time--a month or two, say. It weighs in at over 1,000 pages, and may safely be considered as the Evander Holyfield of presbyterian histories.

The subtitle of the book is How Liberals Captured the Presbyterian Church. North has written a detailed history of American Presbyterianism, and he has started where anyone undertaking such a project needs to. The problems of the twentieth century began in the eighteenth century, and were plainly evidenced by the reunion of the New School and the Old School in 1869. Although the potential problems were clearly in evidence at that time, the only one who stood for the obvious was Charles Hodge. Whenever a crisis is manifest to the world, as it was with the ejection of Machen from the PCUSA, the temptation for many is to look back a few years to try to find the cause of the trouble. The difficulty is that the cause of the trouble is usually centuries back. A woman who suddenly finds herself in the middle of birth pangs should not start examining what she ate the night before.
In the past, we have resisted any promotion of books by the Reconstructionists, and in particular, any books by Gary North. The reasons for this are varied, but do not include a belief that his books are without value. Gary North has written much that is truly outstanding, along with other things that are, to use a theological phrase, more than a little odd. The wheat and chaff are generally mixed, and are presented as part of the same general agenda. Consequently it has been easiest just to read and pass by.
However, all these concerns notwithstanding, this book by North remains a must read, particularly for pastors and elders in the PCA. With allowances made for this and that, the mainstream evangelicals of today are the liberals of the 1920's. Over the course of the last century or so, we have seen enough denominations and parachurch organizations go liberal that you would think we would know what it looks like by now. But we have not yet mastered the concept. You would think we would have a grasp of what sets us up for such slides and ecclesiastical face-plants. But we do not.
A superficial critic of the book would say that North's central thesis simply concerns sanctions, or ecclesiastical discipline. This is quite true--North does drive the point about sanctions home. But . . . "Does it really take one thousand pages to point out that the conservatives were kicked out of the church because they had not kicked the liberals out earlier?" Of course not, but it does take this much work to show how the conservatives were maneuvered into an impossible position. When they had the power to discipline, they were fooled into thinking there was no need. When the need was apparent, they looked around for their hammer, but it was gone. The monkeys of modernism were all out of the cage.
North also addressed a number of "non-spiritual" issues which played a fundamental role in the defeat of the believers. For example, he "follows the money," particularly the Rockefeller money, and he follows the inner workings of the American establishment of the time. He also establishes the role of the centralized control of pastoral pensions. If a conservative pastor left the denomination, he lost his pension.
A central theme of the book is reflected by the title. The liberals were bound by oath to hold to the doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith. But they held to another faith, one which allowed them to "cross their fingers" when they subscribed to the statement of the rival religion. Their faith (faith in power) granted them permission to be scoundrels. This dishonesty was pointed out again and again by the conservatives in the course of their controversy with the modernists. But, as North ably points out, the conservatives were themselves compromised on the question of the Confession. The reunion of New School and Old School had come about on the terms of the New School. This meant that Arminians were not going to be disciplined, even though they were as much out of step with the Confession as the modernists were, just at different points. What this meant is that Machen had to fight a unified faith (modernism) with divided forces (a coalition between Old School Calvinism and Arminian fundamentalism). Machen's forces had to assail the modernists for being out of conformity with the Confession when they, the conservatives, were actually singing a different verse of the same song. It is hard to assail your opponent for doing just what you do.
Other examples of the same thing are not hard to come by. For example, on issues such as a six-day creation, which the Confession affirms, and the modernists denied, the conservatives also denied. Darwinism was king for a day, and even such an adversary of Darwinism as William Jennings Bryan (a Presbyterian ruling elder) was compromised on the question of the age of the earth. Across the board, the conservatives were simply inconsistent.
The greatest weakness in North's book is his treatment of chattel slavery. The Old School refused to condemn slavery as malum in se, wicked in itself, and consequently after the war, the Old School lost a great deal of its moral teaching authority. This is quite true as a historical matter, but North also treats it as an ethical matter--i.e. the Old School compromised the Scriptures at this point. But this is precisely what they refused to do. The fact that the South imperfectly reflected the biblical requirements concerning slavery is beside the point. Our modern state does not handle marriage biblically either. This does not make marriage inherently evil.
The great strength of the book is that it takes the long view. The liberals captured the Presbyterian church decades before anyone saw that they had. The implications are clear--the same thing is still going on. Although North's book is over a thousand pages, he has only begun the discussion.


How the Irish Saved Civilization

Thomas Cahill; New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1995
Reviewed by Nate Wilson

How the Irish Saved Civilization is a truly interesting book. Not only does it toss around the two words Irish and civilization as though they belonged together, but it gives the people of the Emerald Isle full credit for what we as civilized people are today.

Thomas Cahill explores this world in a way that has not been done before, and he's done his homework. He is very well versed in both classical and Irish mythology. He understands the Irish mindset and has done a sound job of imparting that knowledge to the reader. In working through a book like this, the reader is frequently ambushed by learning.
Mr. Cahill starts by painting us the picture of a failing Rome, the first-rate super-power of that day in its last hurrah. He tells us why and how Rome finally fell, as well as what exactly was lost to us in the process. Then he moves on to describe our heroes, the island people.
The Irish were the cream of the barbarian crop. They were just as tough, bad and hairy as any other Celt, but they had that unique Irish attitude that makes all the difference. While the Irish were simply enjoying being themselves, the rest of Europe had fallen into chaos. Rome had collapsed and all of the known world was being trampled by things barbaric.
At this point the Irish began to grow into their saving role. They got religion, and Ireland was converted to Christianity. This did strange things to the old Irish mentality. They were still ruled by chiefs, but the monks began playing a major role. These monks taught the Irish to read and write, and they were the only people in the Western world doing it. So while their Celtic brethren across the water were doing their darnedest to burn every library and book they came across, the Irish were copying every book they could get their hands on. The Irish are the reason that we have any classical literature at all. Thus saith Thomas Cahill, and he is very persuasive.
If the whole idea of our being so indebted to the barbarian Irish seems slightly odd, it is only because it is odd. But even if such oddities lead the reader to reactionary disagreement with Mr. Cahill, the read is still a no-lose proposition. The book remains worth the time if only for the Irish history and legends it contains. Highly recommended.


Music of the Great Composers

Patrick Kavanaugh; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996
Reviewed by Douglas Wilson

Quick--what is a concerto exactly? The composition is a "piece of music written for a virtuoso soloist, accompanied by an orchestra" (p. 103). "Oh," say most of us. Kavanaugh's book is a fine introduction to classical music for the beginner. While the subtitle says that this book is a "Listener's Guide to the Best of Classical Music," it is really written for the listener who has an awful lot to learn. The musically-trained and educated will find little for them here, but those who are not will be greatly helped.

The musical doofus is in a hard situation. He may continue to spend all his time with the other doofi, convinced that the latest album by the Pet Peeves is a real classic. Or, lamenting his condition, he can start spending time with those people who actually paid attention back in music appreciation class, begin attending concerts with them, etc. But he will soon be confronted with a major problem. Even if his pride does not prevent him asking the incessant questions which he must ask in order to make sense of what he is experiencing, his ignorance as a novice will keep him from knowing what questions he should ask. For the hapless, this book is simply a wonderful introduction to classical music.
Kavanaugh has been thoughtful at every level. When introducing a composer new to the reader, he gives a pronunciation aid for the many difficult names. This prevents the budding classical music enthusiast from blurting out at a post-concert wine and cheese party that he really liked that piece by Deevorack. Note how Kavanaugh introduces him on page 44. "Without a family of his own to care for, Brahms generously provided for many others, especially a younger composer from Bohemia (part of the present-day Czech Republic) named Antonin Dvorak (AN-taw-neen DVOR-zhahk)."
The book is filled with anecdotes of classical composers and, um, some others. When asked once about classical music, Ringo Starr replied that he loved Beethoven, "especially the poems" (p. 37). When talking with a publisher, Debussy was told that the company could wait for an opera three or four months. "`Three or four months!' the fastidious Debussy roared. `I take that long just to decide between two chords!'" (p. 146).
The book works through the various types of classical music. Kavanaugh begins with the orchestra, moves on to choral music, then to the concerti, then to opera, turns the corner to discuss chamber music, and then flummoxes the beginner by showing how classical composers treated the form of music called "the song." He finishes with his fine discussion of solo literature.
Best of all, Kavanaugh provides the beginner with a suggested "program" of listening. For those who need to better themselves musically, this book shows you clearly how and where to start.

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.