Pride Comes Before Destruction, Or Does It?

Jessica Tracy’s TAKE PRIDE:  WHY THE DEADLILEST SIN HOLDS THE SECRET TO HUMAN SUCCESS (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) is a well-written, very interesting, and often humorous look at that mysterious aspect of our personality, pride.  What is pride?  How and why did human beings develop pride?  What crucial role does pride play in shaping our lives?  These are among the questions Ms. Tracy attempts to answer.

Before getting into a review of TAKE PRIDE, let me first admit to a brief love affair with the study of psychology.  I took a two-semester course in general psychology as a sophomore in college way back in 1964-65, when literacy was still a requirement for admission to college.   The first semester was a great experience.  We studied theories by Freud, etc., learned what abnormal was in contrast to normal, and all sorts of interesting things about people’s behavior.

That abnormal vs. normal thing still eludes me, however.  How can you classify some behavior as abnormal when no one seems to be able to define normal?  Think about that for awhile.

I almost decided to major in psychology, but then came the second semester.  It was all about the parts of eyes and ears, testing, and statistics.  I was so bored.  But I made it through the course having learned two lasting lessons.  First, psychology is NOT a science.  It is more like a group of late night patrons in a bar passionately expressing their personal opinions on subjects about which they know little.  Second, having been taught by a practicing psychologist with a patch over one eye and an addiction to cigarettes, I am convinced that every psychologist is in need of a psychiatrist.    But I wander.  Back to Ms. Tracy’s TAKE PRIDE.

The French philosopher René Descartes is famous for saying, “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes was pointing out the simple truth that in order to reason one must begin with some assumption.  In his case, his starting assumption was the fact that he could not doubt that he was sitting there thinking (i.e., doubting).

What the thinker must remember, however, is that the starting assumption determines the path one’s reasoning takes as well as the end or conclusion of the journey.  I think it is important for the reader keep this in mind while reading TAKE PRIDE.

Ms. Tracy’s beginning assumption is the evolutionary theory of the origin and development of life.  Human beings are but one animal species.  What distinguishes a human from the other animal species that arose from the evolutionary process of, as one individual has put it, “from ooze to you by way of the zoo,” is what Ms. Tracy calls “our uniquely human sense of self.”  “Without the human self,” writes Tracy, “our species would not have been able to do or become all the things that make us different from other animals.”

Pride is the emotion that enabled we of the human species “to do and become” all that we can as humans.   Pride provides the “motivational kick” that enables human beings to be human.  “Pride and self,” concludes Tracy, “are mutually reinforcing psychological phenomena, two adaptations that go hand in hand and whose joint evolutionary development has allowed our species to become what it is today.”  Pride is not a negative emotion.  It is rather a positive emotion.  It leads to greatness, but can also lead to tragedy.

All of this is mere theory or speculative reasoning based upon theoretical assumptions.   Ms. Tracy uses words and phrases like “self-evident,” “obviously,” “must be the result of,” etc. to give the appearance of scientific fact to what remains only speculation.

Various scholars have tried to explain what makes a human being different from other animals using the theory of evolution.  All have failed.  Beginning with the assumption that matter is the ultimate reality, one cannot arrive at a satisfactory explanation of what makes a human being human.  Creationists beginning with the assumption that the ultimate reality is a personal, infinite creator do have an explanation for the” mannishness of man.”  But both evolution and creation are theories, neither one of which can be tested and proven wrong.

A discussion among psychologists is much like a group of children playing in a sand box discussing their feelings about sand.  The scene may be interesting, even entertaining, for the adults looking on, but little more than that.  Because psychologists are trying to understand people, their books will always be, depending upon how well written they are, interesting.  “People,” said Art Linklleter, “are interesting.”

I found Jessica Tracy’s TAKE PRIDE interesting and thought provoking.  It was a welcome break from the lighter reading I have been doing of late.  If you are considering reading it, I encourage you to do so.   Just keep in mind that your response to what Tracy is saying will depend upon your answer to the question of what is the ultimate reality.   All inquire must begin with the answer that question.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy.

Historian’s Almanac: August 12, 2016

Today is August 12, 2016.  There are 141 days left in the year and only 87 days left until we elect a new President.

It was on August 12, 1927 that the romantic action-packed World War I movie “Wings” premiered at the Criterion Theater, in New York City.  It was awarded the highest honor, Best Picture, at the first Academy Awards ceremony on May 16, 1929 in Los Angeles, California.  “Wings” was the only silent movie so honored by the Academy.  The script was written to accommodate Clara Bow, superstar and cultural icon known to history as the “It” Girl.

“Wings” is one of the most significant movies in cinema history.  The realistic air combat scenes set the standard by which all subsequent aviation movies were judged.  It took 7 months to film, rather than just 1 month, which was normal at that time.  “Wings” cost $2 million ($26,725,988.70 in 2016) to make, a paltry sum compared to the cost of today’s action movies.  Last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” had a budget of $306 million.  “Avatar” (2009) cost $425 million to make.

Frequent bad weather around San Antonio, Texas where “Wings” was filmed left the cast with time on their hands.  By the end of filming, every one of the elevator girls at the St. Anthony Hotel, where the cast was housed, became pregnant.  Clara Bow, who announced her engagement to Victor Fleming upon arrival in San Antonio, had a sizzling affair with Gary Cooper.  It has been said of Cooper, whose career got its big boost from his role in “Wings,” that he bedded every one of his leading ladies during his career.

“Wings” is also remembered as one of the first motion pictures to show nudity.  During a scene at an army recruiting center, the naked backsides of some male recruits being processed can be seen through a cracked door.  Far more titillating, I’m sure, is a brief second during a Paris bedroom scene when movie goers were treated to a glimpse of Clara Bow’s breasts.

[See “Wings” trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9P3XXvleo4]

Janis Joplin gave her last concert on the evening of August 12, 1970 in the Harvard Stadium at Harvard University.  She ended the concert with her own version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.”  She died of a drug overdose on October 4.  [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bn5TNqjuHiU]

Joseph Lister (1827-1912) introduced the use of an antiseptic during surgery on August 12, 1865, when he applied a solution of carbolic acid to a leg wound of a seven-year-old boy.  In 1879, Dr. Joseph Lawrence named his newly developed mouthwash, “Listerine,” in honor of Joseph Lister.

“The more I see of men, the more I like dogs.”  Clara Bow

“Audiences like their blues singers to be miserable.”  Janis Joplin

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.

 

 

Historian’s Almanac: August 4, 2016

Today is August 4, 2016.  There are 149 days left in the year and only 95 days left until we elect a new President.

The Norwegian Nobel Laurate, Knut Hamsun (aka, Knut Pedersen) was born on this day in 1859 in Lom, Gudbrandsdal, Norway.  Born into poverty, Knut was sent to live with an uncle who starved and beat him regularly.  In 1874 he was able to escape from his uncle’s oppression.  He spent the next 5 years doing odd jobs for food and shelter.

Hamsun began his writing career with the publican of his first novel, The Enigmatic Man: A Love Story from Northern Norway, in 1877.  It was a love story that began, “Near a small hill crowned with trees, at the foot of which a small river meandered across the lovely meadow, was a handsome farmhouse. It belonged to the richest man in town, Ole Aae.”

Hamsun was not proud of his first novel, or two others that are among the 30 novels he wrote during his long career.  He did not allow them to be included in his Collected Works during his lifetime.  Why?  As he explained to his publisher:  “I would never have published things like ‘A Reconciliation’, ‘The Enigmatic One’ and ‘Bjørger’ had it not been, each time, to show my brothers and sisters that I was not to be made fun of.”

During his literary career of 70 years, Hamsun wrote short stories, plays, essays, travelogues, and poetry as well as novels.  He first won acclaim with Hunger (1890), a novel about a young writer driven to near madness by hunger and poverty.  He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920 for Growth of the Soul, first published in 1917.

Among well-known authors who have praised Knut Hamsun are Arthur Koestler, H. G. Wells, and Thomas Mann who hailed him as a “descendant of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche.”  Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Polish-born Jewish author who wrote only in Yiddish, and himself a Nobel laurate, was a great admirer of Hamsun.  “The whole school of fiction in the 20th century,” said Singer, “stems from Hamsun.”

Norwegians are proud of Knut Hamsun the Nobel Laurate.  But, there is another side of Hamsun’s legacy that is problematic.  Hansum was among a small number of interwar intellectuals who somehow found merit in the pseudo-scientific racial theories that were popular at that time in both Europe and America.

Hamsun supported the German occupation of Norway during World War II.  In 1943, he sent his Nobel medal as a gift to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.  It may have been an attempt to gain an audience with Hitler, whom he admired.  If so, it worked.

When Hamsun met Hitler in 1943, he dared to advise the Führer on German policy towards Norway.  Hitler, of course, was not used to taking advice from anyone, even such a devoted lackey as Hamsun.  According to Hitler confident, Otto Dietrich, it took Hitler 3 days to get over his anger.

In 1945, when he heard the news of Hitler’s death, Hamsun published a eulogy in the Aftenposten is Norway’s largest printed newspaper:

“Hitler was a warrior, a warrior for humankind and a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. He was a reforming character of the highest order, and his historical fate was that he functioned in a time of exampleless [unequalled] brutality, which in the end felled him.

“Thus may the ordinary Western European look at Adolf Hitler. And we, his close followers, bow our heads at his death” (May 7, 1945).

Sufficient time has gone by since the end of World War II to allow Norwegians to excuse Hamsun’s pro-Nazi past and focus on his legacy as a great author.  On the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2009, the Knut Hamsun Center was opened in northern Norway near where he was born.  Resembling a large black cube, the Hamsun Center is a museum and educational center dedicated to honoring his life and work.

Hamsun’s literary works remain on school reading lists in Norway.  Still his wartime collaboration with the German occupation and his pro-Nazi sympathies linger in the background like a ghost.

——

It’s the birthday of Elizabeth, wife of George VI (The King’s Speech), Queen of England (1936-1952), and mother of Elizabeth II.  She was known as the “Queen Mother.”  She died on March 30, 2002.

It’s the anniversary of the death of the American actor Victor Mature, who starred in many Biblical epics, among them Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Robe (1953), and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954).  Of his career, he once said: “Actually, I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor; ask anybody, particularly the critics.”

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.

 

Historian’s Almanac: July 31, 2016

Today is July 31, 2016.  There are 153 days left in the year and only 99 days left until we elect a new President.

Seventy-two years ago today, the French writer, poet, philosopher, journalist, and pioneering aviator, Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry took off from an airbase on the island of Corsica on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean Sea.  He was flying an unarmed Lockheed P-38 Lightning American fighter aircraft.  He did not return to the airbase.  Pilot and plane simply vanished without a trace.

Many pilots vanished on missions during World War II, but Antoine Saint-Exupéry was not just another pilot.  He was a French national treasure.  He was also a French patriot determined to serve his country.  When the Germans invaded France in May, 1940, Saint-Exupéry joined the French Air Force.  Faced with imminent defeat in late June, France asked for an armistice and exited the war.  Saint-Exupéry would not accept defeat.  After spending 27 months in the United States campaigning for America’s entry into the war, he joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa.

Saint Exupéry’s literary career began in 1926 with the publication of L’Aviateur (The Aviator) in the French literary magazine Le Navire d’Argent (The Silver Ship).  A short novel, Night Flight (Vol de nuit) appeared in 1931.  It was based on his experience flying the mail in Argentina.  Night Flight became an international best seller.

Wind, Sand and Stars (Terre des hommes) appeared in 1939.  It was an autobiography, a memoir, in which Saint-Exupéry presents his philosophy of what makes life worth living.  “The book’s themes deal with friendship, death, heroism, camaraderie and solidarity among colleagues, humanity and the search for meaning in life” (www.wikiwand.com/en/Wind, _Sand_and_Stars).

Saint-Exupéry may well have remained a literary figure known mainly to his countrymen and a few students of modern literature were it not for a short novella published a year before his death.  He wrote and illustrated The Little Prince during the 27 months he lived as an expatriate in New York City.

“Everyone knows the basic bones of the story: an aviator, downed in the desert and facing long odds of survival, encounters a strange young person, neither man nor really boy, who, it emerges over time, has travelled from his solitary home on a distant asteroid, where he lives alone with a single rose. The rose has made him so miserable that, in torment, he has taken advantage of a flock of birds to convey him to other planets. He is instructed by a wise if cautious fox, and by a sinister angel of death, the snake” (Adam Gopnik, “The Strange Triumph of ‘The Little Prince,’” The New Yorker, April 29, 2014).

The Little Prince was received with mixed reviews, when it first appeared.  It spent only two weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list, whereas Wind, Sand and Stars remained there for five months when it first appeared in 1939.  Readers were confused.  Was it a children’s book?   Was it meant for adults?  Was it an allegory, or perhaps a serious philosophical book?  What was it really about?

Volumes have been written trying to figure out who or what the various characters—the prince, the fox, the snake—represent, or where in Saint-Exupéry’s life they are found.  Once when asked who the Little Prince was, he replied:  “I am the prince.”

Over the years since its first appearance, The Little Prince has been translated into 250 languages and dialects.  It continues to sell two million copies annually, and with total sales exceeding 140 million copies, it is one of the best-selling books ever published.

Why its lasting appeal?  The answer to that question can be found within the publisher’s blurb on the back cover of most editions:  “There are few stories which in some way, in some degree, change the world forever for their readers. This is one.”

Part of the mystery surrounding Saint-Exupéry and the Little Prince is that they both fell out of the sky and disappeared forever.  At least that was the case until September, 1998, when a French fisherman fishing off the coast of France south of Marseille, discovered caught in his nets a silver identity bracelet with Saint-Exupéry’s name on it and that of his wife Consuelo.  The bracelet was later verified as that belonging to Saint-Exupéry.  In May, 2000, the remains of his Lockheed P-38 were discovered near where the bracelet was previously found.

There remains at least one mystery that leaves this blogger wanting to know more of Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance.  A few days after Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance, “[a]n unidentifiable body in a French [military] uniform” was found washed up on a beach south of Marseille.  Was it Saint-Exupéry?  We will never know.

I close with this quote from the Little Prince.  “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The unabridged audio book of The Little Prince can be found on YouTube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTi536xVuw4

Until next time be good to all God’s creation and always go under the mercy.

 

 

Historian’s Almanac: July 29, 2016

Today is the 29th day of July, 2016.  There are only 149 days left until Christmas and only 155 left in 2016.

It was on this day in 1586 that Sir Walter Raleigh made the first delivery of Virginia tobacco to England.

You will recall that it was Sir Walter who covered a puddle of water with his velvet cloak so that Queen Elizabeth I might not muddy her royal feet.  The first mention of his noble gesture is found in Thomas Fuller’s History of the Worthies of England, published in 1662.

Raleigh was but one of a number of gentlemen rumored at the time to be among the Virgin Queen’s lovers.  Whether or not Queen Elizabeth I did in fact have secret lovers has never been verified by historians.  Elizabeth’s Roman Catholic opponents who wanted to replace her on the throne of England with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, referred to her as the “whore” of Europe who had “defiled her body and the country” with her “filthy lust.”

There is no doubt that Raleigh was one of the queen’s favorites and that she was obviously charmed by him.  But, though she may have had other male favorites, she was not one to suffer disloyalty.  When it became known that Raleigh had secretly married one of the queen’s ladies in waiting, Sir Walter was packed off to the Tower of London, as was also the recent bride, Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton.

Raleigh and his wife were released from prison in 1593.  Raleigh regained the Queen’s favor after several years.

The Raleighs lived happily until Elizabeth’s death on March 23, 1603.  Just four months later Raleigh was arrested and returned to the Tower of London after being implicated in plot against Elizabeth I’s successor, James I.   James I was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.  At the appointed time on October 29, 1618, Raleigh was beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster.  His severed head was embalmed and given to his wife, Lady Raleigh.  She kept in a velvet bag until her death 29 years later.

A small pouch of tobacco was found in Raleigh’s cell after his execution.  He had written on it in Latin, “It was my companion at that most miserable time”.

Raleigh’s delivery of tobacco to England on this date in 1586 was perhaps his most lasting legacy.  Jamestown became a boom colony as Virginia tobacco became one of the New World’s chief exports to Europe.  Promoters of the foreign weed hailed it as a “sacred herb” with valuable medicinal properties capable of curing 36 ailments. More importantly perhaps is the fact that it quickly became a very profitable source of tax revenue wherever it was introduced.

Not until the mid-twentieth century did modern medicine acknowledge that tobacco, far from being good for one’s health, was in fact a deadly weed.  Such was already noted by James I in a treatise he wrote in 1604 titled “A Counterblaste to Tobacco”, in which denounced the use of tobacco as “[a] custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

 

Also of note during these two weeks of the major political party conventions to nominate candidates for the upcoming election is that on this day in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon was nominated as the Republican candidate for president.  Although Nixon lost the election to John F. Kennedy, he was elected president in 1969.  Ironically, it was on July 29, 1974 that the House Judiciary Committee voted 27 – 11 to recommend President Nixon be impeached.

 

And finally the world’s best known sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, made his first appearance in the “Adventure of Dancing Men” on this day in 1898.

Until next time be good to all God’s creation and always go under the mercy.

 

 

The Witness of John’s Gospel

41INwEFqdcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Gospel of John is often given to new Christians to read because its central message is the divinity of Jesus Christ.  It is often given to unbelievers for the same reason.  Many have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior after reading John’s Gospel.

Adam Hamilton’s JOHN: THE GOSPEL OF LIGHT AND LIFE (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016) is an exposition of the Gospel of John for both the Christian layperson in search of a better understanding of John’s Gospel and the non-Christian seeking to know more about the Christian faith and the person and work of Jesus Christ upon which that faith is built.  It is not a commentary.  It is not a ponderous scholarly study intended for the seminary student.

Because the book is about John’s Gospel and its central theme, “the identity and meaning of Jesus,” Hamilton includes the entire Gospel of John from the Common English Bible. Thus one can read the Gospel along with Hamilton’s guide to its major themes.  The study is divided into six chapters, each of which is followed by a portion of the Gospel.  Hamilton notes in his introduction that the book is suited for small group study.  If used for a small group study, a DVD is available for purchase, as well as a paperback guide for the small group leader.

As fallen creatures we live in darkness until that darkness is pierced by the light of the Gospel.  The light brings life both now and beyond physical death, for the darkness cannot overcome the light.  The life of the believer is lived in the light that is the Word, the Word that was in the beginning, was with God, and was God.  The born-again follower of Jesus Christ lives knowing, as Hamilton puts it, that “Death is just a period at the end of a sentence before a new sentence begins.”

Hamilton points out that John’s Gospel should not be read as though it were some sort of mini biography.  The emphasis is on the “meaning—the spiritual significance” of the events in Jesus’ life and the words he spoke.  It must be read at two levels, even allegorically at times.

On one level the account of the various miracles performed by Jesus are related in a straightforward manner.  They tell us that water was turned into wine, that a blind man was made to see, or that a lame man was made to walk.  On a deeper level they answer the questions that confront all of us:  Who is this man Jesus?  How does he affect my life?  What is required of me?  We are compelled to answer the question that Jesus asked of his disciples in Matthew 16:13-17:  “But who do you say that I am?”  It is the most important question that must and will be answered by every human being.

Here and there Hamilton points out interesting insights that otherwise might go unnoticed.  One example is John’s mention that when Jesus was on the cross the soldiers “affixed a sponge to a hyssop branch, dipped it in sour wine, and raised it to his lips.”  Why does John include that little detail?

In suggesting an answer, Hamilton calls our attention to Exodus 12:21b-22a, Leviticus 14, Numbers 19, and Psalm 51:7 to help us understand the important symbolism of the hyssop branch.  When we read those Old Testament passages in light of John 19:28-30, we are reminded that the Bible from Genesis through Revelation is a book about Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  He is the “second Adam” who came to restore what was ruined by the first Adam.

In John 10:10 Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (KJV).  Later John reminds us that for the Christian living a more abundant life does not mean a life of idle contemplation.  At the end of his Gospel John again quotes Jesus:  “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (20:21).  As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to serve, to witness, and yes, to suffer, always knowing that Jesus Christ stands on the other side of the Jordan with his arms open wide to welcome us home.

JOHN: THE GOSPEL OF LIGHT AND LIFE is the first book by Adam Hamilton that I have read.  Having done, I will go on to read other titles by him.

Until next time be good to all God’s creation and always go under the mercy.

Finding One’s Place in a Post-Christian World

anything goesLeslie Williams’ latest book, WHEN ANYTHING GOES:  BEING CHRISTIAN IN A POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD (Abingdon Press, 2016) is a bold affirmation of meaning and purpose in a world that loudly proclaims that all is meaningless.  It is particularly suited for the thinking Christian layperson who is attempting to live as a Christian in a cultural environment that is increasingly hostile to Christianity.

The intellectual and cultural life of America during its first two hundred years was shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Western Civilization, of which the United States is but one small part, resulted from a synthesis of classical humanism and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, what historians refer to as the Medieval synthesis.

The Medieval synthesis, or “pre-modernity,” understood reality as an orderly universe created by a personal infinite God who created all that exist from nothing and is not, himself, a part of his creation.  Thus there was meaning and purpose for both the individual and history.

The Scientific Revolution of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries discovered that the universe was a kind of machine, or clock, which operated according to cause-and-effect natural laws.  The eighteenth-century Enlightenment relegated God to the role of “clock maker,” or architect of the universe.  The Enlightenment’s understanding of reality, “modernity,” was a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Both pre-modernity and modernity held that there was meaning and purpose for both the individual and history.  Because human beings were rational, they could unlock the secrets of the universe, and with the knowledge gained through the application of reason, they could build a better world.  There was a basis for faith in progress and optimism about the future.

The Christian living in America today is “swimming against the post-Christian American cultural currents. . .”  The assumptions that in the past formed the basis of the cultural consensus have been removed.  The Bible and Christianity no longer have any authority in contemporary American culture.  If there is no God as post-modernity asserts, there is no reference point, no hope for meaning.

Williams:   “I can’t even toss around the words soul or truth because post-modernism has claimed there is no absolute truth, that all ‘truth’ is relative.  Objectivity is obsolete.  And we have no soul, no center, no self, but are made up of mere echoes from tradition, from brain chemistry, and from our past experience.”

Using her own life experiences, Ms. Williams provides the Christian reader with a guide to making sense of, and living in, a post-modern, post-Christian America.  Unlike our non-Christian fellow travelers along the road to Damascus, we Christians are not adrift in a fog.  Our worldview affirms that we are living in a world of hope, a world in which the future is brighter than the past.

If you, reader, are among those experiencing the loneliness of the Christian mind, Leslie Williams’ WHEN ANYTHING GOES:  BEING CHRISTIAN IN A POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD will help you make sense out of what many are convinced makes no sense.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.

A Story With a Happy Ending

moonlight over parisMOONLIGHT OVER PARIS: A NOVEL is an old fashioned romance told and retold many times before.  There aren’t any surprises.  We know from the outset, perhaps even from the cover, exactly how the story will develop and end.  Still, I found it a good read and worthy of recommending.

A young, attractive lady recovering from a failed romance seeks to recover by going to Paris to pursue her long suppressed desire to be an artist.  Helena is able to do so because, as we soon discover, she is from a very wealthy family.  While in Paris, Helena lives with a wealthy aunt who is a bit “modern.”

It is the 1920s, a period when those who survived the trauma of the Great War are trying to forget it by embracing all things new and modern.  Helena soon finds friends among a small group of art students.  Not surprisingly, Helena meets a young American named Sam Howard who is working for the Chicago Tribune.  Like Helena, Sam is trying to escape his past.  In his case it is the expectation that he will assume leadership of Howard Steel.

There are cameo appearances of various American expatriate writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernst Hemingway, members of what will later be remembered as the “Lost Generation.”  To include the writers without mention of Sylvia Beach and her Shakespeare and Company Bookstore would not do, and so they are a part of the ambiance of the story.

MOONLIGHT OVER PARIS reminds me of the romance novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It does not need any hot and steamy love scenes to keep the reader’s attention.  It is simply a pleasant novel to enjoy when one feels the need to relax and put mind in neutral.   Read and enjoy.

Where Jesus Walks the Earth

Midnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace CollideAn amazing thing happened that night in the little town of Bethlehem.  Only a few understood.  They were told in advance of the event in which they were chosen to play key roles.  The few privileged to hear the announcement of the birth of a baby were aware that something unusual and marvelous had occurred, but what, they did not understand.

There was one, a pitiful, paranoid, little old man who was told of the event perhaps as late as two years after it happened.  Fearful of what it might mean for him, many innocent lives were brutally snuffed out at his command.

Prior to that night in Bethlehem, God was known only to his chosen people, the Hebrews.  He dwelt among them, at first in a tabernacle, and then in a temple built for him.  The few who were allowed to approach him did so with fear and trembling as did Moses on Mt. Sinai.

With the birth of Jesus, God himself entered history.  The God of the Hebrews was henceforth accessible to all.  Not only that.  As he went among his people telling them that the promised Messiah had come, he ministered healing to the physical and spiritual needs of those in need.

When John the Baptist sent one of his followers to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus told the messenger, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”

Since the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians have followed his example. The Gospel is proclaimed throughout the world, and those suffering, whether followers of Jesus Christ or not, receive a cup of cold water in the Messiah’s name.

It is through human hands that Jesus touches those in need.  This is the theme of Jamie Blaine’s new book, Midnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace Collide (Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group, 2015).  It is a collection of vignettes that illustrate how the Lord reaches into a suffering world through the life of one who works in a psychiatric ward, answers a crisis hotline, and yes, even as a assistant manager of a roller rink.

As the reader goes with Jamie Blaine from one life in crisis to another, he cannot but be reminded of Mother Teresa who went out into the streets of Calcutta, India, seeking those who suffer unseen by the multitude surrounding them.  What compels Christians like Mother Teresa and Jamie Blaine?  Blaine explains it this way:

“Jesus said whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.  So when I go see the guy in jail who is crying and kicking the wall, I think, There’s Jesus.  And if he’s eating screws and he curses and throws his shoes at me, well, maybe it’s more like, Okay, that’s Jesus’ little brother.  Still.  Better be patient. Be kind.

“When I drive up at four in the morning to see some woman babbling to aliens and doing the tango hustle through her neighbor’s yard with tinfoil wrapped around her head and no pants on, There’s Jesus.  Or at least his little sister.  So find her some pants and bring her cold water.  Sit on the back steps and listen to whatever story she needs to tell.  Do the best I can to help her get from where she is to where she needs to be.  Because someday Jesus will meet me just outside the gate, and I don’t think he’s going to ask where I went to church or how many Bible verses I memorized.  He’s going to say, “Where were you when I was sick?  When I was in jail?  How about when I was hungry?  Where were you when I lost my mind?”  (pp. 196-197)

Waiting curbside with a drunk for a hospital van to come and pick the poor man up, Blaine hears the Gospel in the form he, the drunk, has tried to fit to his life:

“You ever just look around at life and wonder what in the world is goin’ on down here?”

“Sure.  Who don’t?”

“Exactly.  Even in the Bible, son.  Every one of them characters in that book wondered the same thing at one point or another.  If you ain’t ever really read it close, check it out seometime.  See for yourself.”

“All right,” I tell him.  “I’ll check it out.”

“Like, whose idea was all this?”  He holds out his hands like Moses before the sea and pivots from the Jiffy Lube to Taco Bell.  “I ain’t asked to be born.  Ain’t asked to die.  Sure ain’t asked to be judged.  I ain’t signed up for none of this.  But here I am.”

After a pause, he continues:

“Even Jesus Christ hisself wasn’t so sure sometimes, was he?”

Minutes pass as Blaine and the derelict wait for the van.  Blaine probes him about how many drinks he has drunk during the day.  “Just one,” he answers, then continues his sermon.

“So anyway, my point is, you see, maybe God said, ‘Well, before I judge ’em too hard, I might oughta walk a mile in their shoes.’”

“So he come down to earth as a little baby, fought with brothers and sisters and worked in the family woodshop.  Tried to go tell people the good news and his friends screwed him over and then—them religious folks kilt him.”

“And maybe, when Jesus got back to heaven he kicked off them shoes, looked at God, and said, ‘Dad, it’s rough down there.  Go easy on ’em.’”

When Blaine asks his companion, “How’d you come up with that?”  His reply is simple, but profound.  “I got lots of time to think.” (pp. 40-42)

After the hospital van picks the man up and drives off, Blaine is left reflecting on how truth is found in strange places.

Jesus continues his earthly ministry as his Holy Spirit embodies and empowers his followers who are his body.  But, as is seen in the Bible, he also uses “perverts and murderers, prisoners and women of ill repute,” the weak and foolish.

Midnight Jesus is not an inspirational book in the normal sense, but it does inspire.  It is not a theological study or a commentary, but it does compel the reader to think about his or her faith and commitment as a follower of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  One cannot follow Jamie Blaine as he moves among the forgotten casualties of a fallen world without confronting the question Jesus Christ asks of us, “Where were you when I was . . . .”

This is a book that needs to be read.

 

 

Al Capone and America’s Noble Experiment

My father and another man owned a small meat packing business in Freeport, Wisconsin during the 1920s and the Great Depression.  They, like so many small businesses, went bankrupt during the depression.

Freeport lies 133 miles northwest of Chicago.  My father delivered meat to various stores, etc., in and around Freeport and all the way to Chicago.  Some of Al Capone’s speakeasies in Chicago were among his customers.  My father never met any of the bootleggers or gangsters.  Probably the closest he ever came to one was when he went to see a movie on the evening of July 21, 1934 at the Biograph Theatre on the north side of Chicago.  It was the following night, in front of the Biograph Theatre, that federal agents gunned down John Dillinger.  Ironically, the movie playing was “Manhattan Melodrama,” a gangster movie featuring Clark Gable and William Powell.

America was at that time—1920-1933—conducting what was called a “noble experiment”—prohibition.  “National prohibition of alcohol . . . was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America.”  It failed in every area.  In fact, many believe that all prohibition did accomplish was to make organized crime big business.

Prohibition became the law of the land with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution on January 16, 1919.  The amendment prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes . . . .”  Mississippi was the first state to ratify the amendment (January 7, 1918).  The necessary number of states ratifying the amendment was reached, when Nebraska became the 36th of the 48 states then in the Union to ratify it on January 16, 1919.

Prohibition divided the nation into camps.  Those who supported prohibition were known as “dries.”  Those who opposed it were known as “wets.”  The dries were led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  They saw it as a victory for the improvement of public health and morals.  The wets opposed prohibition as an attempt to impose largely rural and Protestant values on urban centers with large immigrant and Catholic populations.

Although there was widespread support for the Eighteenth Amendment, at least initially, there was significant opposition.  The amendment left it to the federal and state governments to pass the necessary legislation to enforce the ban.  Congress acted by passing the National Prohibition Act, commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in October, 1919.

The Volstead Act went into effect at midnight on January 17, 1920.  The first documented violation occurred just fifty-nine minutes later, when $100,000 worth of “medicinal” whiskey was hijacked from two railroad freight cars in Chicago.

It was near impossible to enforce prohibition.  Most citizens simply ignored the law.  Prohibition did succeed in making lawbreakers out of ordinary, law-abiding citizens, while at the same time lowering respect for law in general.  Ordinary working-class people felt that they were being deprived of their occasional glass of beer or shot of whiskey by the upper classes that had easy access to as much as they wished to consume.

There was little enthusiasm among federal, state, and local law enforcement to enforce prohibition.  Congress provided funds to hire a mere 1,500 agents to prevent 125 million people from having a drink of liquor or a glass of beer.  A federal judge ruled that physicians could prescribe liquor for “medicinal” purposes, resulting in an average of 10 million such prescriptions per year.  Some doctors sold blank prescription books.

Even if violators were arrested, it was difficult to get a conviction.  Of 7,000 arrested in New York during given period, only 17 were convicted and none sentenced to jail.  Juries often refused to convict violators.  In San Francisco a jury drank up the evidence, thus forcing the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

Disrespect for the law reached the highest levels of government.  Both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and his successor kept private stashes of liquor in the White House.  One attorney general serving under Harding accepted bribes from bootleggers. An ingenious entrepreneur named George Cassidy was the unofficial bootlegger to Congressmen and Senators.  He made regular daily deliveries, as many as 25 a day, to House and Senate offices.  Cassidy wore a trademark green hat so that capitol police would recognize him and not interfere with his business.  He operated his enterprise for five years in the House grounds before transferring to the Senate office building for another five years.

Americans made folk heroes out of gangsters who risked their freedom to quench the public’s thirst for alcoholic beverages.  They weren’t gangsters so much as they were Robin Hood like defenders of the public’s right to drink what he or she pleased against a too intrusive government.  “I violate the Prohibition law, sure,” Al Capone admitted.  “Who doesn’t?  The only difference is that I take more chances than the man who drinks a cocktail before dinner and a flock of highballs after it.  But he’s just as much a violator as I am.”

It is impossible to speak of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition without mentioning Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone.  “Only twenty-nine and at the height of his power,” writes journalist Nathen Miller, “Capone held a near monopoly on bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and labor racketeering in the Chicago area.”

When Frank J. Loesch, reformer and founder of the Chicago Crime Commission, wanted to have an honest election in Chicago in November, 1928, he went to Capone and asked, “Will you help me by keeping your damned cutthroats and hoodlums from interfering with the polling booths?”

“All right,” answered Capone, “I’ll have the cops send over squad cars the night before the election and jug all the hoodlums and keep ‘em in the cooler until the polls close.”

Chicago police went through the streets the night before the election and rounded up known lawbreakers.  Seventy police cars cruised city streets on the day of the election.  Capone honored his word.  Loesch later recalled, “It turned out to be the squarest and most successful election in forty years.  There was not one complaint, not one election fraud and no threat of trouble all day.”  Chicago was Capone’s city.

Capone was a successful businessman, if also a gangster. The Office of the U.S. Attorney in 1925 estimated Capone’s annual income at $105 million, or approximately $1.5 billion in 2015.  He knew how to prosper in a free economy.   “I am like any other man,” he once said.  “All I do is supply a demand.”  Adam Smith discovered the law of supply and demand; Al Capone knew how to exploit it.  “Prohibition,” he said, “has made nothing but trouble.”  He recognized that there was a demand for a product that could not be obtained through legitimate channels.  Like a good capitalist, he became the supplier.  “When I sell liquor,” said Capone, “it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”

Capone did not believe that competition between criminal gangs should include murder.  “There was, and there is, plenty of business for all,” he said.  But a smile went only so far.  A smile backed up by a gun was sometimes necessary.  When rivals refused Capone’s peace terms, he simply had them gunned down.

Hymie Weiss, leader of the North Side Gang, rejected Capone’s peace overtures, he and several of his associates were gunned down in broad daylight.  Capone, who everyone knew ordered the hit, said that “Hymie Weiss is dead because he was bull-headed.”  Always conscious of his public image, Capone paid the medical expenses of an innocent bystander injured during the raid.  He also paid for damages done to shops in the area.

Capone made one fatal mistake as a business man; he failed to pay taxes on criminal income.  The Supreme Court ruled 1927 that even illegally earned income was taxable.  Capone was arrested and convicted of income tax evasion in 1931.  In addition to being sentenced to eleven years in prison, he was fined $50,000 plus $7,692 for court costs.  He also owed the IRS $215,000 plus interest in back taxes.

Capone was 33 and suffering syphilis, gonorrhea, and cocaine addiction, when he entered prison in May, 1932.  He was paroled in November, 1939 after serving just over seven years of his eleven year sentence.  His progressive mental decline resulting from syphilis was evident even before his release and retirement to his estate at Palm Island, Florida.  He died January 25, 1947. Only months before a psychiatric examination revealed that he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child.

A little known aspect of Capone’s life was his love of music.  He was a fan of opera and jazz.  He played the banjo and mandola.  While at Alcatraz he played banjo in the prison band, the Rock Islanders that gave concerts for inmates on Sundays.  He even wrote a love song, Madonna Mia, which was recorded in 2009.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.