By LeRoy Lawson
The War of the Worlds
H. G. Wells
London: Penguin Books, 2007 (first published in book form in 1898)
Science and Religion in Quest of Truth
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011
New York: Page Publishing, 2014
Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale
Ian Morgan Cron
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013 (previously published by NavPress, 2006)
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English
John H. McWhorter
New York: Gotham Books, 2009
Language A to Z (audio download/CD)
John H. McWhorter
Chantilly: The Great Courses, 2013
The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012
Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time
New York: W. W. Norton and Company (Great Discoveries series), 2005
Today’s column just drops some hints about some books I’ve read lately. It’s been a good season in the library, and what I’m turning in is more like a student’s annotated book list of several than a genuine review of a few.
Science Fiction, Science and Religion
Let’s start with science fiction. You might wonder what H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds is doing here, since I should have read it a long time ago. Well, I did. But I subscribe to C. S. Lewis’s dictum that whenever you read a new book, it is wise to balance it with a good old one—I subscribe, but not very faithfully. So many unexplored reads, so little time to revisit old favorites!
Recently I took advantage of an audible book sale and bought a bunch of them cheap, including The War of the Worlds, made more famous by Orson Welles’s radio version in 1938. It sent the American listening audience into a panic. You can hear it today on YouTube, which I just did (I was listener number 580,101). It’s still scary. So is this book. First published in serialized form in magazines in 1897, it earns its “classic” status.
From science fiction to science: John Polkinghorne’s Science and Religion in Quest of Truth takes us on a personal search for truth that honors both science and religion. The English theoretical physicist and Anglican priest is not intimidated by the absolutist claims of either theologians or scientists. He believes faith and reason can coexist to mutual benefit.
I am not the only one intrigued by his writing. In 2002 Polkinghorne received the Templeton Prize, which honors “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”
In this book he doesn’t duck the tough issues that have kept some scientists and religionists at odds for too long now. You may not always agree with his answers, but you’ll appreciate his honest wrestling with the questions.
Answering the Call
David Randle’s Finding Neguinho is an honest personal account of the adventures awaiting young David and his bride Inga when they answered the call of John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps in its early days. They were assigned to a frontier outpost in Brazil. There, thanks to the initiative of a bright young boy named Neguinho, they were welcomed into and became part of his Brazilian family.
The Randles went to South America to serve but, as is often the case with such idealists, they received more than they gave. The friendship ties formed in the 1960s lasted long after the Randles returned to their native Indiana.
I enjoyed learning of the jungle culture, meeting through Randle’s unsentimental eyes the people who, though language and customs were different, reminded me a lot of the people I knew back home. It also reminded me that, in spite of the steady stream of negative reporting on the evening news, young men and women like David and Inga continue to earn our praise as they answer the call to serve.
A student put me on to Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale. He asked whether he could review it for class. I said yes, but that meant I’d need to read it also. I’m glad I did. The Francis here is Francis of Assisi, venerable saint to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This remarkable child of wealth renounced his inheritance, embraced poverty, attracted followers, founded the Order of Friars Minor (we call them Franciscans), and has remained an ideal to this day of what it means to humbly follow Jesus.
The “chaser” of the title is a discouraged, confused, disillusioned megachurch pastor trying to find his way back to authentic discipleship. He discovers what Francis discovered before him: you can’t have it both ways. As a declared Christian, you either will follow Jesus or be swallowed up in this world’s vanities.
You’ll have to indulge this old English teacher. From time to time I have to return to my linguistic roots, to figure out why we speak American (and not British) English and how it should be spoken and written right. So I dipped into John H. McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (he’s using the term in its technical, not its profane, meaning). Our language, in other words, does not have a pure pedigree. We communicate with a mix descended from the Celts (Scotland, Wales, Cornwall)—and German and French and Latin and Scandinavia.
Not having had enough of McWhorter in this one book, I went on to listen to his Language A to Z. The title is literal. He gives brief talks on interesting aspects of language from A (for Aramaic) to Z (for zed, which is how the British pronounce zee), all the way through the alphabet, serving up such delicacies as D (for double negatives and why they aren’t so bad) and L (for like, that infuriating frequent interrupter of teenager’s sentences, like, you know?).
I started the column with science fiction, went on to science and religion. I’ll end it all with science, period. Of several instructive recent reads, let’s look at two.
William Rosen’s The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention is applied science. The “most powerful idea” is that the power in steam can raise elevators from the depths of mines and drive the pistons that drive the wheels of the iron horse (train), an idea so powerful it gave birth to the industrial revolution, and in turn, birthed this modern age.
I have a friend who has never been able to live down his comment in a phone conversation: “You know, Einstein was brilliant.” As soon as he hung up he rang back to say he’d realized how lame that sounded. Well, Einstein was brilliant, and his incredible vision of the relativity of space and time catapulted us from the industrial age into the nuclear age.
I’ve read several Einstein-related books. Michio Kaku’s Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time is one of the simpler ones, accessible to nonphysicists like me.
What comes through on these pages is not only Einstein’s brilliance, but his humility. Science after him built on his special and general relativity theories. He ranks with Isaac Newton among science’s greatest, yet he never ceased to marvel before the unfathomable mysteries of the universe.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and on Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.