Three recommended books about Christian heros and their ideas

Last year was perhaps the best, in terms of my personal feelings of satisfaction, since I was in my 20's, which is encouraging as I am now a grandparent and it's reassuring that, while you're getting older, at least some things in life may be getting better.

Much of the heightened satisfaction I experienced resulted from the fact that I got back into reading in a big way. In fact, not only was I reading an average of a book a week, I was free for the first time ever to choose the books I wanted to read or that would enhance my other interests, rather than having to read books assigned by professors or my supervisor (as in teaching posts I've had).

C.S. Lewis was the greatest provider of enjoyment, challenge, and joy, as described here last month, but numerous other authors also added to that, including Dostoyevsky with his The Brothers Karamazov, which I'd wanted to read since college and finally did, finding it probably the best novel I've ever read. Many literary critics far less biased toward his subject matter than I have also called that novel the best ever written.

So far this year I've been able to keep reading, and have finished three books, one each from the major branches of Christendom, that I especially want to recommend.

The De-Valuing of America, by William J. Bennett (Summit Books, 1992, 271 pages) is the account of Bennett's service in several federal posts, including secretary of education and drug czar, during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Bennett is a Roman Catholic who lets his audiences know early that his faith and the values derived from it shape his life, his ethics and morality.

This book tells of heroic accomplishments in government of a kind our generation, especially in the Clinton era of cynicism, is likely to have given up on. He accomplished far more, for example, than we're likely to realize or expect, as drug czar, his programs credited with actually bringing about significant reductions in teenage drug use and a sizeable decline in the number of addicts. (Lately, that trend has reversed.)

Bennett also is heroic for doing something we're likely to think no conservative Republican official (although he was a Democrat when Reagan first tapped him for federal service) could do: getting the left-leaning mass media to not only give him a fair shake but even get behind some of his campaigns.

As secretary of education, he put the issue of school choice through vouchers on the nation's political agenda, which alone makes him worthy of great admiration to my thinking.

The second book is Recharging the American Experiment, by James W. Skillen, (Baker Books, 1994, 181 pages). Skillen is executive director of the Center for Public Justice, a Christian political policy research center near Washington.

Skillen was interviewed for a couple of columns that appeared here in late summer 1993. Here he tells again why "principled pluralism" is the Christian option for American public life, especially for schools and political parties. An evangelical Protestant, Skillen and his Center favor pluralizing American politics by adopting a multiparty system for electing members of the House of Representatives (though not, in this era, the Senate or the Presidency).

This is definitely a book for thinking Christians and members of all other values communities to weigh and consider. The benefits Skillen sees deriving from a more pluralistic union are ones that would accrue to all people who want to see life organized around principles/beliefs/values rather than personal advantage.

Finally, Metropolitan Philip, His Life and Dreams, is a personal biography that reads like a novel but not, as I rather feared, like a public relations "puff piece."

Metropolitan Philip is the top prelate (archbishop) in the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese of North America. In that capacity, he has led the way in taking Orthodoxy from being "America's best-kept (religious) secret" to its becoming a more aggressively evangelistic faith community welcoming all who want to share "the fullness of the faith" through communion with the historic New Testament church.

It was in Antioch (in Syria), according to the New Testament, that believers in Jesus were first called Chritians, and Phillip's superior, the Patriarch of Antioch, is the latest in an unbroken line of bishops from St. Peter (later bishop of Rome) and St. Ignatius to his own administration, some 166 generations later.

Philip Saliba has clearly been the boldest Orthodox Bishop in welcoming Christians who want to move from "partial realizations of the faith" to "the fullness of the church," as the Orthodox express their understanding of themselves. While some prelates have played politics over the issue of who should be admitted into Orthodoxy and when, Phillip has proclaimed in the words of Jesus, "whosoever will may come," and "now is the hour."

The real beauty of this book is that it chronicles the life of a man whose devotion is to his Lord unwaveringly and who, in the process of living his life, dares to dream, to ask of God, and is privileged to realize the accomplishment of many of his dreams.

Published by Thomas Nelson in 1991, this authorized biography (291 pages) is written by Peter E. Gillquist, a former Campus Crusade for Christ evangelist who has become both a friend of Metropolitan Phillip and a priest in his archdiocese.

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© 1995 Jon Kennedy