By In Politics

Recipes and readings for Advent (2)

One of our members at Emmanuel in London, Lucie Brear, has compiled a fantastic collection of recipes and suggested Scripture readings for advent. If you want to discover a traditional English way to prepare for Christmas, then just read on! I’ll post them here one week at a time. Here’s the second:

A Medieval Christmas: Fast Days and Fish Days

Christmas conjures up images of a host of culinary delights. It is a time of feasting and merry-making, celebrating the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Medieval times, feasting at Christmas was commonplace, though there are striking differences in what was eaten and served at Christmas time then as compared to now. There was a version of Christmas pudding (or ‘Christmas porridge’, as it was then known) but generally speaking, there were not as many Christmas-specific foods as there are now. The same sorts of things were eaten at Christmas as during the rest of the year, though in greater abundance.

Fast and Feast by Bridget Ann Henisch is filled with detailed and fascinating information on food and feasting in Medieval society. Here is what the author has to say on Christmas:


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By In Culture, Family and Children, Film, Politics, Wisdom

Bombadil at Home

When it comes to what the Bible means by taking dominion Tom Bombadil comes to mind for me; but I think what comes to mind for most people looks a lot more like Saruman.

If you’re a reader of Lord of the Rings, you understand those references. But if you’ve only seen the films, you probably didn’t–at least not the reference to Bombadil.

Poor Bombadil, what’s he in the story for anyway? (Peter Jackson, the director of the films thought he was expendable.) That whole episode in the Old Forest before the hobbits get to Bree seems like a senseless detour. Was Tolkien dallying? Was it just a bit of comic relief?

I don’t think so. Tolkien worked with texts professionally and he doesn’t strike me as the sort of person to do something on a whim. He was fussy.

I’m a writer in my own small way, and even I know that something that can’t be made to fit should be thrown out.

Either that, or you leave it in because it is somehow a way to underscore the point if the thing.

What’s the point?

There are many things like this in the world: the Sabbath, (what’s the point?), beauty, (what’s the point?), higher education, (what’s the point?).

When it comes to those things some people edit them right out of their lives. Or perhaps worse, they repurpose them to make them fit our restless, ugly, and benighted lives.

I think Saruman missed the point of life in Middle Earth. That’s why he tried to repurpose what he found there.

This was the reason he was interested in the lore of Middle Earth. He wanted power, ostensibly to save Middle Earth from Sauron. But in the process he became Sauron’s slave.

In order to acquire this lore, many eggs had to be cracked and his interrogations were torturous. That’s why Gandalf said to him, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Saruman thought he could save Middle Earth by dominating it.

But Bombadil just lived there. That’s why he was truly the master.

The word dominion has a fascinating provenance. It’s from the Latin, domus, for house. It is where were get the words: domestic and domicile. And those words never alarm people. But say, dominion, and your mind immediately runs on to domination.

But really, should it?

And this brings me to Bombadil. Just who is this guy? Tolkien didn’t say.

But in The Fellowship of the Ring, in chapter a chapter entitled: In the House of Tom Bombadil (the seventh chapter, by the way), we have Frodo, and the other hobbits wondering the same thing.

And Frodo asks, “Who is Tom Bombadil?” And this is the answer he receives:

“He is, “ said Goldberry, staying her swift movements and smiling.

Frodo looked at her questioningly.

“He is as you have seen him,” she said in answer to his look. “He is the master of wood, water and hill.”

“Then this strange land belongs to him?”

“No indeed!” she answered, and her smile faded. “That would indeed be a burden,” she added in a low voice, as if to herself. “The trees and the grasses and all things growing or living belong each to themselves. Tom Bombadil is the Master. No one has caught old Tom…. He has no fear. Tom Bombadil is master.”

Goldberry is Tom’s fairy-like wife that he received as a gift from the Withywindle–like a similar gift received my another man, long ago.

But unlike that man, or Saruman for that matter, Tom’s mastery is of a different kind than the kind sought by those men. We’re told that he knows the songs. I think that means he knows the natures of things. And his mastery preserves those natures. I think that can be seen in Tom’s rescues of the hobbits. And each time he comes singing the songs that set things right, not as a conqueror. (I’ve written more about that here.)

That’s real dominion for you. It is a very different sort of dominion we see in other deliverers. Whether the deliverer goes by the name Adam, or Bacon, or Saruman, we can know one thing, the sort of dominion they seek is unnatural.

But Bombadil, the funny fellow with the nonsense songs and the yellow boots, we can be sure that he’s on our side. And even though he looks clumsy, he’s graceful enough to flick individual raindrops away from his head in a downpour. He’s the master.

Fathers, when it comes to dominion in your houses be like Bombadil.

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By In Politics

The Menace of Chinese Food

Rev. Dr. James B. Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis Institute

One of the unrecognized and most deadly evil of modern life’s facets is Chinese food. Most people are wholly unaware of the critical nature of the Chinese food question, and blithely continue to participate in this wicked and dangerous activity: eating Chinese food. Of course, to speak against such a hallowed institution as Chinese food is to be regarded as a fanatic, or even as sacrilegious, but we must be true to the faith!

A moment’s reflection by any serious and committed Christian will show transparently why Chinese food must be rejected. Chinese food is an expression of Eastern monism. Not only does it come from the East, the heart of the world’s most sophisticated paganism (which in itself is reason to reject it as dangerous); it also in its very nature and composition reflects the monistic philosophy of the East.

Christianity gives equal ultimacy to the one and the many. In the West, this has meant that on one’s plate there are several kinds and portions of food: salad, vegetables, meat, and dessert. These are not, however, all mixed up together in a monistic unity, but are left diverse. It is the harmony and combination of the various foods, eaten one bite at a time, which gives expression to unity and diversity.

Chinese food, however, tries to break this down. All the foods — salad, vegetables, meats, and sweets — are mixed together in an attempt to destroy diversity and create a food-monad. This is obviously perverted and evil. Beyond this, sweet and sour are mixed together, in accordance with the philosophy of yin and yang. What could be more pagan?

There is more. Because the perverse nature of Chinese food causes it to be so intrinsically unpalatable to the human tongue, vast quantities of monosodium glutamate are added to make it taste better. Now, monosodium glutamate, or M.S.G. as it is popularly known, is recognized to be a poison, causing hyperactivity in children and cancer in adults. Not only is Chinese food pagan, it is also poisonous. It is also idolatrous. (more…)

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By In Politics

Should Christians Carry in Church?

Guest post by G Shane Morris: 

Is it okay for Christians to bring weapons into church for self-defense? The shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs has renewed the urgency of this controversial question. Conservative writer Tom Nichols caught flak on Twitter for opposing the idea of parishioners packing in the pews. A colleague of mine suggested Saint Paul might have some stern words for those who armed themselves with more than the metaphorical sword of the Spirit in God’s house. (more…)

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By In Politics

Trees and Three-Legged Stools: Reno and Gregg on Novak’s legacy

First Things‘ editor R. R. Reno appears to have dropped something of a bombshell in the October issue by cautiously raising questions about The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, the reference, of course, being to the late Michael Novak’s eponymous 1982 book. According to Novak’s argument, our society can be compared to a stool with three legs consisting of economic freedom, democratic political institutions, and a moral-cultural base rooted in Judeo-Christian religion. If one of these legs collapses, the stool will come down with it. Economic freedom, shorn of moral constraints, will turn into mere self-seeking. We ought not to subvert any one of the three lest we lose the whole. Nevertheless, as anyone reading Novak is aware, he took great pains to affirm the legitimacy of the free market against socialists and a certain type of conservative reluctant to soil his hands with the tainted ink of banknotes.

While Reno admits to having been favorably impressed by Novak’s book when it first appeared, more than thirty years later he now believes that its focus on the dynamism of the free society underestimates the importance of stability and loyalty to the permanent things of life. At this moment in history, with so much of our cultural patrimony under siege from so many fronts, Reno is persuaded that the “new birth of freedom” Novak championed “has tended to weaken the two other legs holding up society: democratic institutions and a vital religious and moral culture.” In retrospect, Reno holds, “we underestimated the flesh-eating character of our free market economy, which now markets ‘community’ and uses ‘social justice’ as a way to sell products.”

Not so, writes the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg, in First Things and the Market Economy: A Response to R. R. Reno. Gregg believes that “parts of Reno’s argument about free markets are seriously flawed,” and he has three elements in mind.

First, practically and empirically, it is not at all apparent to him that the free market has triumphed over its alternatives, as seen in various international trade agreements which are typically “replete with page after page of conditions agreed upon by governments,” including “exemptions, preferential treatment of particular products, etc.” “Call it what you will,” Gregg observes, “but it’s far removed from the free trade envisaged by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.” Moreover, Gregg cites evidence to suggest that the American economy has seen a recent increase in government regulation and intervention.

Second, Gregg believes that Reno has not been fair to Novak, who, in his subsequent writings, “did think long and hard about those permanent non-market conditions that promote the flourishing of individuals and communities,” including “the importance of stable traditional families.” Remember the three-legged stool once again. The market cannot function well in a nation lacking strong social mores and vital religious faith.

Third, Gregg follows Novak in arguing that, despite our society’s “shocking crimes, its loss of virtue, its loss of courtesy [and] the decline of common decency,” we cannot hold our “liberal institutions” responsible. In fact, the only antidote to “vulgar relativism” and “nihilism with a happy face” is the general recognition that there is such a thing as truth and that we are capable of grasping it.

While I can sympathize to some degree with both Novak and Gregg, I think Reno is on to something that we ignore to our detriment.

First, I cannot help concluding that, in addressing the market as they do, Reno and Gregg are in large measure discussing different, albeit related, phenomena. Unless one is an ideological libertarian, one will likely recognize that the degree of government intervention in the economy is a matter of prudential judgement. Should we raise the minimum wage? Many will argue that it is a matter of justice that workers at the bottom of the ladder be fairly compensated and that this calls for a higher minimum wage. Others counter that raising the minimum wage will aggravate unemployment. Who is right? Well, that’s up for negotiation, and economists rightly seek empirical evidence before deciding. If Gregg is correct that economic life is increasingly strangled by unnecessary government interference, then obviously the balance between the two needs to be revisited and perhaps altered accordingly. I doubt that Reno would disagree.

But I think Reno is getting at something much more deep-seated than prudential considerations about concrete economic policies. The reality is that, at least since Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau sought to anchor political community in a voluntary contract among sovereign individuals, the larger liberal tradition has sought to recast all sorts of communities and relationships as voluntary associations. This larger trend has seen individuals decreasingly willing to defer to the authoritative character of especially marriage, family, church institution, and state, all of which are not easily reducible to mere private contracts and whose intrinsic internal structures are set, as Christians believe, by a loving and providential God. Chastity and fidelity in marriage are not arbitrary traditions changeable at the whims of the partners but are norms basic to the very institution of marriage.

If I am understanding Reno correctly, what he is critiquing is the larger trend within liberalism to extend this voluntary principle too far: to take an undoubted good, namely, individual freedom, and to make of it nearly a god before which every other consideration must bow. If we can choose items in a shopping mall, why not choose our own identities and compel everyone else to pretend that we are what we plainly are not? This is by no means to denigrate the shopping mall, but only to recognize that the consumer society, in which the many social and cultural goods are reduced to marketable commodities, is a dangerously distorted one.

This suggests to me that, though all metaphors admittedly fail when pressed too far, that of the three-legged stool tempts us to misconstrue the place of culture and oversimplifies the true complexity of our society. Even using the term democratic capitalism to cover this complexity privileges the political and the economic, while capitalism, though possibly useful in some contexts, unduly calls to mind the reductive framework of Marx and his heirs. Russell Kirk better comprehends the drawbacks associated with Novak’s term: “Now in truth our society is not a ‘capitalist system’ at all, but a complex cultural and social arrangement that comprehends religion, morals, prescriptive political institutions, literary culture, a comprehensive economy, private property, and much more besides.”

Of course, our societies are more than just polities, economies and culture, with the last element reduced to a phenomenon somehow parallel to the other two. They are at least economies and polities, but they include a variety of communal formations reflecting the multifaceted character of human life. It seems better to recognize that religious, moral and cultural factors are not one leg among others, but are much more basic.

Allow me, then, to shift the metaphor from stool to tree. The roots of the tree are the religious underpinnings of a society, and the trunk is the cultural context fed by the roots. The various activities and communities are the branches, pushing out in multiple directions with their leaves and flowers contributing in their own way to the life and beauty of the entire organism. These branches include artistic endeavors, sporting clubs, public and private libraries, museums, schools, universities, trade unions, professional associations, and a host of other communities which, taken together, are often called civil society. If one of the branches breaks in the wind, the tree will still survive, and new branches will grow in its place. If, however, the trunk is damaged, this will negatively affect and perhaps kill the entire tree. As First Things‘s writers have always affirmed—to shift the metaphor yet again—politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from religion.

Neither politics nor economics is foundational in the same way culture is. Witness the fact that those countries adopting an American-style constitution have not been notably successful in avoiding authoritarianism because they lack the same cultural soil that nurtured that constitution in the eighteenth-century English-speaking Atlantic colonies.

Human beings are created to make culture, as affirmed in Genesis 1:26-30. But we make it in different ways in different times and places, and according to the foundational religious worldviews that condition our lives, both as individuals and as communities. If we come collectively to believe, contrary to the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, that we belong to ourselves and that God’s world is ours to do with as we please, then this possibly tacit conviction will of course shape and misshape our shared spaces accordingly. Liberty, an undoubted good, will then become mere license, constantly pushing against the sensible and proper limits established to constrain it. Given the seriousness of this danger, I believe Reno is correct to warn us of where we are and where we are likely heading if we persist on the current path.

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By In Culture, Politics

Trump, the NFL, and Culture War

As the Christian approaches the NFL/National Anthem Controversy, the first thing we have to understand is leftism is the greatest political threat to the church today by a mile. State-worshipping nationalism is indeed a problem, especially within the church, but it is dwarfed by cultural marxism. FoxNews watching Baby Boomers are responsible for a host of our present miseries, but they aren’t going to put my family in a gulag. The people who claim my very existence as a white person is oppressive and racist seem more than wiling to. These are the people who are driven to riot when someone as tame as Ben Shapiro, a quick-witted dispenser of fairly mundane GOP talking points, arrives to speak on their universities. These are the people who will ruin the lives of bakers, florists, photographers, etc. who will not use their skills to celebrate sodomy. These are the people who demand that anyone even tangentially connected with slavery must be erased from all historical memory.

Every major corporation kowtows to these people. Including and especially sports leagues like the NFL. Do not forget that when Texas and North Carolina put forth bills to protect freedom of conscience of Christian business owners, the NFL threatened both states to pull their business. The NFL also notoriously promoted Michael Sam, the Mizzou defensive end with underwhelming football talent (as evidenced by his quick departure from the league), but unbelievable value as a propaganda tool. They are quick to banish players who are merely accused of domestic violence or sexual assault, doing away with all semblance of due process in a move that is clearly made to placate radical feminists who wish all accusations of violence against women were similarly punishable by testimony of a single witness.

Like most cultural institutions in America, universities, entertainment conglomerates like Disney (the owner of entertainment products like Lucasfilm and ESPN), news media, tech corporations like Google and Apple, the NFL is moderately left wing. They have their finger on where the zeitgeist is and have set their course just a wee bit left of that. They are not radically leftwing, for if they were, Colin Kaepernick, the Fidel-Castro-loving, pig-sock-wearing, former 49ers quarterback, who is not without enough talent to at least justify a roster spot, would still be employed. They are clearly terrified to have their organization connected to whatever the worst inanities Slate, HuffPo, Vice, and Salon can inspire that will come out of his mouth at a press conference. The NFL is clearly willing to sip some diet woke, but if they let Kaepernick come back, a fatal overdose of wokeness will get injected straight into their veins. (more…)

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By In Culture, Politics, Wisdom

Localism and the Pastorate, a.k.a. Dying Where You’re Planted

I was honored to be asked to speak at the annual Front Porch Republic conference alongside the Notre Dame political theorist and savant Patrick Deneen and the regionalist writer and wit Bill Kauffman, among others. The theme of the conference was, Localism and the Professions. They let me tag along I suppose because, like Mr. T., they “pity the fool!” Another reason may be that ministers were once considered professionals. 

The conference this year took place at Hope College in beautiful Holland, Michigan. A portion of this talk was adapted from something I published at Front Porch Republic a few years back.

Here’s my talk:

Professionals profess things. That’s what professionals do. They have been entrusted with valuable information.

I’m a minister, I’m entrusted with professing the gospel.

Information should bring Aristotle to mind, the man who identified the causes that inform everything. While every community begins with material causes that make a community possible, there are three other causes that actually make a community out of the materials on hand.

It is worth noting that each of the traditional professions corresponds to one of these causes. I think it is fair to say that the medical profession attends to the efficient cause. Sick people can’t work. Then there is the legal profession. Lawyers are stewards the formal cause. Through the administration of the laws, people can serve the common good as they pursue private goods. But traditionally it was the clergy that helped a community see what it is all for. We were the stewards of the final cause.

Notice the use of the past tense? For reasons that have spawned a million books, I’m out of the traditional job. No one really wants to hear from me about what it’s all about.

This can be seen in urban planning. People don’t build churches in the center of things anymore.

I live in New England where every town green is graced by a while clapboard Congregational church. But the only question people ask of those old buildings is, “What time is it?” when they glance at the steeple clock.

When people do look to the clerisy for guidance it isn’t as a community, but as consumers. And generally these individuals are looking for what George Barna calls “life coaching” to help them reach their personal goals. I’m like the trainer down at the health center. I provide advice on a proper diet and workout regime for the spirit.

Some of my colleagues have taken this up with gusto. They help people develop a personal relationship with Jesus. And this relationship is inward, and very, very personal. I’m reminded of Harold Bloom’s take on the old hymn, “In the Garden”. People go to the garden alone to commune with Jesus. And Bloom asked, “Just where is this garden, anyway?” It’s a Gnostic garden, he surmised, I think correctly. It is a virtual place; it only exists inwardly.

But local communities are real places that can be found using a map.

The Blessing of Getting Stuck

Speaking of places, now that I’ve treated the professions, let’s look at the other operative word in title of this conference—localism.

I now grudgingly accept that you don’t choose the location; the location chooses you.

I’ve moved around a lot during my time on the planet, first as luggage, then as the guy with the luggage. But I’ve been sitting on the same spot for the last ten years or so. The spot is in the Connecticut River valley, the rusted heart of industrial New England. The mills are largely gone; the gun makers are leaving, and if we ever beat our spears into pruning hooks the folks who work for Electric Boat will be out of work. But I won’t be leaving any time soon. I’ve set down some roots.

It’s not because I’m from there. I’m from a different valley—the Ohio River valley, western Pennsylvania specifically. It’s a rusted belt too, but different enough that I don’t feel entirely at home in my new home. There’s no going back, though; I’m different enough now that western Pennsylvania isn’t home anymore. I’m a stranger wherever I go, I suppose.

Now, we all know what Wendell Berry thinks of ministers. We’re careerists, careening from church to church. We just don’t care enough about the places we’re called to. He’s right. But it begs a question.  Yes, many of us blindly take our cues from mega-church pastors thousands of miles away, and we hanker after a “larger sphere of ministry”, but the ladies in our churches often take their cues from a pastor who’s been dead for thirty years. And when a congregation turns on you, your best hope is to get out of Dodge as fast as you can. This can discourage putting down roots.

What does it mean to put down roots anyway? Does it mean buying a house? Shopping at farmers’ markets? Scolding yourself when you feel the urge to run?

After thinking about it a while I’ve concluded it means what the metaphor implies: it means drawing nourishment from the place where you’re planted.

I’m not talking about drawing something from the atmosphere of a place. Local color is wonderful, but it won’t feed you (unless you can package it and sell it like they do on Cape Cod or in Vermont). What keeps you somewhere is productive property, the sort that can’t be moved. Wendell Berry has a farm. He cultivates it, and draws a living from it.

We can’t all get back to the farm, though–not soon, anyway. But there are other forms rooted property can take.

Small businesses usually work this way. Your reputation for minding the store takes years to build. And a pastor knows that a local businessman is worth three corporate executives. While the guy in the corner office may fill the offering plate with dough, his knowledge of a community is generally nil. And he could be transferred to Minneapolis in the blink of an eye. I’ve seen it: there he is; now he’s gone.

There is a risk to staying put. We should acknowledge it. That seems odd—what could be more conservative than putting down roots? But it is wildly speculative. The risk goes by the name: “opportunity cost.”  By staying put you limit yourself to what this particular place can yield. And if you’ve made Detroit your home, well, too bad.

Local churches are somewhat like this. They’re not property—at least not a pastor’s property. But how my church fares will largely determine how I fare. While Connecticut isn’t Detroit, I do see young people leaving, and old folks too. It’s a hard place to start out, and a hard place to finish. It’s expensive to live there; it’s even more expensive to die here. Still, we’re holding our own, even growing some.

I wonder a bit about the future of my church, though. Someday she will be better served by a younger man. What then? Where will I go? I’ve seen old preachers kill their churches by using them as life support.

My church isn’t the only thing that keeps me here. There’s my wife’s family. We moved here between pastorates a decade ago in part because we wanted our kids to be around grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a good move.

But there was another reason we moved here: investment real estate. I had collected some properties in the area on the side over the years.

When I was just starting out my wife and I went to visit a saintly pastor and wife who were getting along in years. They lived in a trailer. Their good cheer and hospitality spoke to their royal status in heaven amid their humble surroundings. But I was ashamed of the church for forgetting them. I’ve known others like them, elderly ministers living in trailers.

Often they were the best men, not ladder-climbers, or namedroppers, just simple preachers who visited widows in their distress and went to fetch wayward children from the street. These were men I think even Wendell Berry would respect. But it was in the car during the ride home that I decided I would not become one of them. If possible, I would be both saintly and propertied. I don’t know if I’ve managed saintly—I’ve been told my faith is pretty earthy—but I’ve managed to become propertied. Maybe I’ve made some kind of trade. But I knew that day that, while I could trust the Lord to meet my needs, I could not trust the church.

That sounds terribly Protestant, I know. I suffer from the cautious love for the church that typifies the brand of Christianity I belong to.

I began investing in real estate in the early 1990s. I’ve done all right. Now I’m a freeholder. I even own enough to be considered a yeoman. I could have been a voter in colonial New England. It has afforded me a rare measure of independence for a preacher. But it has cost me something. I’m not free to get up and go. I’m rooted in the Connecticut River valley.

Commercial corporations have their own form of itinerancy. In the church the itinerancy was there from the start. The Son of Man had no place to lay his head, and Paul was a tentmaker—the perfect trade for a man on the road. Apostles didn’t set down roots. There was always another village on the other side of the hill that needed the gospel. But the apostles depended on the Lord. Their rootlessness distracts us from the roots that stuck straight up into the air. Corporation men are not rooted in the soil either. But their roots don’t reach up to heaven. They dig into corporations that float in the contested space between heaven and earth, where the Prince of the Power of the Air dwells.

Every formula for freedom I’ve come across contains some measure of dependency, usually hidden, like some secret ingredient. The Apostles were free because they depended on bread from heaven; corporation men are unencumbered by local loyalties because they live like tiny corpuscles in national and transnational bodies. But the yeomanry: family farmers, small business owners, and people like me, depend directly on a particular place for a living. As those places fare, so do we.

But we enjoy another form of freedom. We’re more self-reliant because we depend on things close at hand, things that grant us more agency than the rootless are granted. Sure, our local communities can’t separate themselves from the world entirely, as Berry’s fiction beautifully laments, but I’ll take the risks that come with my place over the freedom of the corporation man. He’s tied to the earth too. The body he lives in is a giant Mickey Mouse in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It’s tethered to the ground with strings too thin to be seen on television. But eventually everything that begins on earth falls back to earth and dies. There is great freedom in accepting this. I suppose I will die where I am planted.

If you’d like to know more about my latest book before shelling out your hard-earned money for it, Wipf and Stock, the publisher of my book, Man of the House, has given me permission to share a little sample of the book with you. The hope, of course, is you will like it enough to purchase a copy. Enjoy!.

Click here to download the book excerpt as a PDF: Man of the House_Excerpt

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