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The American Presidency by Charles Jones (Very Short Introduction Series)

The American Presidency: A Very Short Introduction by Charles JonesSummary: A brief book on the powers and limitations of the office of President.

The American Presidency is a good example of where the Very Short Introduction series by Oxford Press can be helpful. At just over 150 pages of real content, this book can be read in a long sitting and give some real background to the subject area.

When the Very Short Introduction series gets it right, the books are usually overviews with a couple of main points. When they get it wrong, the books usually focus more on the research around the subject and forget to actually introduce the subject itself. The American Presidency is one of the former.

The main focus of the book is how the office of the President relates to the rest of the US government, which requires a short introduction to all three branches. A balanced government, with no branch dominating, was an innovation when the Constitution was written. The term President is based on the idea of presiding over something. Governor would have been a more accurate idea of the type of office envisioned, but that office had a negative connotation because of the appointed Governors prior to the Revolution.

The office of the President executes the functions of the federal government. As the country has grown in both size and complexity, the size of the government has grown and the complexity of managing a workforce of about 3 million people. (The size of federal employment has varied, but it currently approximately the same as 1967 in real numbers. Although the federal government now uses significantly more contractors, which are not included in the employment figures.)

The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William Doyle

The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction by William DoyleTakeaway: Taxes, abuse of power, responsiveness to the citizenry, and corruption seem to be involved in most revolutions.

My European history is lousy. I doubt I will every have a really good handle on European history, but short books like The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction help.

This good addition to the Very Short Introduction series. The book is just over 100 pages of real material. There are six chapters: Echoes; Why It Happened; How It Happened; What It Ended; What It Started; and Where It Stands.

In a short introduction like this, there is not room for a detailed look at the events of the revolution. A broad overview, along with cultural and historical implication is the main focus.

I had a couple of thoughts when reading. First, economics are almost always important to revolutions. But not necessarily directly. The French revolution occurred after some tax cuts and the average person was a bit better off. However overspending on the military and empire still distorted the fundamental economics.

Both the aristocracy and the church share some blame for the revolution. In both cases there were signs that their power and finances were unsustainable in the long term. Instead of voluntarily giving up power, finances and authority for the good of the country as a whole, they were ultimately reduced to a fraction of their previous state. I always think the church should understand giving up power and finances to gain cultural voice and authority. But that seems to be a hard lesson to learn, even when it is part of our faith.

I also did not realize the extent that the church was repressed in France. It went badly for everyone and in many ways it is odd to me that the Soviet Union and later China (and others) did not learn the lesson about the repression of the church and faith from the earlier French revolution.

The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Luke Timothy Johnson

The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction by Luke Timothy JohnsonSummary: A great overview of the New Testament in less than 150 pages.

I love the idea of the Very Short Introduction series. Short books, around 150 pages, written by experts in the field for a general reader that has little or no background in the field. The reality is that the series (now over 300 books) is wildly inconsistent. Luckily, this is one of the better from the series that I have read, not as good as Mark Noll’s book on Protestantism, which is the best in the series that I have read, but it is close.

My main complaint about the Very Short Introduction to the Bible is that it did not talk at all about the content of the bible. Luke Timothy Johnson spends the majority of time in this book on content. Much of that is focused on the synoptic gospels. Then there is an overview of Paul, with an in-depth look at of Paul and an overview of Johannine books (including the Gospel of John and Revelations).

The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction by John Guy

Takeaway: A strong monarchy does not prevent political complaints about taxes and the economy.

As the saying goes, “so many books, so little time.” Very Short Introduction books can be helpful as a quick guide to a subject. My English history is not that great, so I picked this up on sale to help fill in some gaps.

The Very Short Introduction series is a mixed bag, some have been excellent and some have been horrible. The most common problem is that some of the guides skip the content and spend all of their time talking about the scholarship. That is not a problem here. This is straight narrative history. Starting immediately before the rise of Henry the VII, going to Henry VIII, Mary and eventually Elizabeth.

I was actually better informed about this era than I thought because of my readings in reformation history. But this was a decent overview. There were two short chapters at the end that talked about the influence of the arts (primarily architecture and music) in the era.

Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Edward Craig

Summary: How out we to live? What really exists? How to we Know?

Very Short Introduction series has been pretty hit or miss, as are most short introductions. It is hard to introduce a subject that has thousands of books and thousands of professionals working in the areas.

Philosophy is one of the better ones. My background in philosophy was pretty weak. I have tended toward theology instead of philosophy and while there can be some overlap, as I am getting older I feel my lack of background more and more often as I am reading.

Craig made some good decisions in structuring the books. He focused on the three questions in the summary as three of the questions that have been a part of philosophy since the beginning and continue to be important. Then he looks at Plato, Hume and an unknown Buddhist philosopher to illustrate how those questions were handled.

African History: A Very Short Introduction by John Parker and Richard Rathbone

African History: A Very Short IntroductionSummary: A Very Short Introduction to the Academic field of African History, not actual history itself.

Oxford Press’ Very Short Introduction series continues to interest and somewhat discourage me.

It is interesting because the idea of getting a short introduction to a particular subject in about 150 or so pages by someone that is well known in the field is a great idea.

The problem is that about half of the books I have read from the series just do not live up to the promise.  A Very Short Introduction to African History has the same basic problems as A Very Short Introduction to the Bible.  It is a lot about the academic practice of African History, the problems of doing history with predominantly non-literate cultures, in a geography that tends to short term structures, that has been very altered by climate change over the past 10,000 years and with a subject as diverse as an entire continent that is separated by language, culture, racial characteristics and that contains a huge diaspora.

All of those academic concerns really are interesting, but they do not tell me much about actual African History.  And I think most people that pick up the book, probably are interested more in the actual African History than the problems of the academic study of African History.

Augustine: A Very Short Introduction by Henry Chadwick

Augustine: A Very Short IntroductionSummary: Augustine is very important to the the history of Christian thought and often misappropriated by all sides.

Augustine is not my favorite Christian thinker.  I know this is partially because he is not incredibly accessible.  And partially because I have not read that much of him, and there is a lot to read.

I read his Confessions in grad school.  And I have read bits and pieces since.  Chadwick says that is part of the problem with Augustine.  Because Augustine wrote a lot, more than virtually any other of the church fathers prior to middle ages (or at least we have more of his writing than anyone else), there is a lot of material to mine for Augustine’s support of your favorite theological point.

There are three main points that I got out of this introduction.  One, I have heard frequently that Augustine was anti-women.  There is a lot of evidence to marshal for that position, but Chadwick says that Augustine was not anti-women, he was anti-sex.  And much of his anti-sex position was really about the fact that he was concerned about his own weaknesses rather than being against sex as a whole.  Augustine for a while advocated that pastors live apart from their wives in celibate community.  This was not all that popular among the pastors he supervised. (Although it was part of the movement toward celibate priest.)

Offsite Review: Jesus: A Very Short Introduction

jesus a very short introductionI don’t know anything at all about The Jesus Blog.  But Brian LePort at NearEmmaus, listed this in his weekly recommended reading list today.  I am a fan of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series.  There are almost 300 books in this series.  Most books are about 110-150 pages, many are less than $6 on kindle (this one is $5.84), they are lendable if you have a kindle.  But most important, they are written for a lay person by a serious scholar in the field.  My favorite is Protestantism by Mark Noll and I also recommend the Reformation, but recommend skipping the Bible.  I have also picked up Augustine, but have not read it yet.

The series is not just religious.  It is includes everything from String Theory to Probability and a wide range of historical topics.

The Very Short Introduction series put out by Oxford University Press aims to package important subjects in slim, concise books written by experts.  Richard Bauckham’s recent introduction to Jesus hits exactly this mark.  Bauckham takes one of the most traversed topics in history and religion and offers a thoroughly sane and balanced treatment.  He begins by discussing the cultural history of Jesus in the western world and ends by discussing the implications of Jesus’ impact for Christian theology.  But the torso of this book is an introduction to Jesus as an historical figure.  Bauckham introduces Jesus’ culture including his (ethnic/religious/national) Jewishness, his political context in Roman occupied Jewish Palestine, and his contemporaries.  He discusses the source material (inside and outside the Christian canon) that historians generally use to reconstruct his life and teaching.

continue reading at The Jesus Blog


The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Marshall

The Reformation: A Very Short IntroductionTakeaway: The Reformation is very important to the history of Christianity and Europe, but the mythology of the Reformation is often overplayed and detrimental to understanding modern history.

This is the third book I have read in the Oxford Very Short Introduction series.  And I continue to be impressed.  I have done some reading on the reformation and taken two different History of Christian classes that included the reformation.  But even at only 135 pages of content, this book was able to add to knowledge of the Reformation.  The plan of this book is to debunk some of the myths while showing how much the different sides of the reformation really agreed.  Here is the thesis statement from the book:

Myths are not lies, but symbolically powerful articulations of sensed realities. It is probably safer to believe that all the myths about the Reformation are true, rather than that none of them are. The goal of producing a totally unmythologized account of the Reformation may be an unachievable, or even an undesirable, one. Nonetheless, this little book – drawing on the best, not always impartial, modern scholarship – will attempt to explain what sort of phenomenon the Reformation was, to assess its impact across religious, political, social, and cultural areas of life, and the character of its legacy to the modern world.

The Bible: A Very Short Introduction by John Riches

The Bible: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Takeaway: Still not the book I am looking for on the bible.

Last week I stumbled on the Very Short Introduction series and was very impressed with Mark Noll’s book on Protestantism.  This week I ventured in again and was much less impressed.  The bible is a hard topic.  But I was really put off by the focus and direction.  The first chapter was on approaching the Bible as either classic literature or sacred text took me a while to get over.  I actually had to go back and re-read it after reading the whole book.  After the second reading I was not as irritated once I had some context, but I think it shows some of the editorial problems of the book.