Resurrecting my Blog

I am sitting at my desk in my study, surrounded by various objects assembled with the hope that they will make my time spent here more enjoyable and productive.  My goal is to spend some time each day writing.  Within the past month, I completed work on a new edition, the fourth edition, of a book on the history of twentieth-century Europe.  It was a joint effort by myself and Michael D. Richards, who, like myself, is a retired history professor. 

            I enjoy writing, but there is a difference between writing for pleasure and writing as work.  Writing a history book is laborious.  There is an outline to follow, deadlines to meet, editors to please, fact-checking facts, drafts and rewrites of drafts, and much more.  I have always wanted to write about whatever interests me at that moment.  It might be something in the news, something someone said, something I happened to read or hear, or my thoughts inspired by the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset. 

            The internet offers all sorts of opportunities to put one’s thoughts into words and release them in cyberspace on the chance that someone somewhere might choose to read them.  In August 2010, I started a blog.  It seemed like everyone had a blog, so why not I?  There wasn’t any particular theme.  I did not limit the blog to a specific topic such as philosophy, politics, food, or whatever.  I entitled it “My thoughts and opinions on a variety of subjects, mostly history.”  I chose history because that was my profession.  I was a history professor and remained one until retirement in the spring of 2016. 

            The blog was not my first effort at writing for publication.  Since my time in graduate school during the 1970s, I have written and published numerous book reviews and articles of one sort or another for journals and reference books.  By 2010, I even had five books to my credit.  My first venture into writing for publication was during my high school and college years.  I occasionally wrote editorial-style letters to newspaper editors, sometimes using a pen name.  Yes, some of my comments might have gotten me pilloried.  I have a couple of “memory boxes” in which I keep newspaper clippings and other mementos from my past lives. 

            Recently, I took up the challenge of writing a memoir or autobiography.  My better half has repeatedly encouraged me to do so for our daughters.  Also, I was involved in certain events and met people who might interest local history buffs.  And, who knows, maybe others from my past might choose to reflect on the time when our paths crossed. 

            Like everyone, I am not the same person today I was at various periods of my life.  I have learned a lot about the meaning of life through past experiences.  There was more than one fork in my life’s path at which I had to choose which direction to take.  My choice was not always what presented itself as the best choice, but I always decided to take the path I was convinced was the right one.

            I am learning how to use the Worpress, something I did not do in the past.  And so, as I begin to bring my blog back to life, I plan to include “my thoughts and opinions on a variety of subjects.” I will have a home page and different “pages” to organize my various blogs, for example, fiction, history, opinion, book reviews, memoirs/autobiography, musings on the meaning of life, etc. 

            So, consider this the launch of my “new” blog, and if you think you might be interested, please sign up to receive email notices when I publish.  Just use the “Email Subscription” form in the upper right-hand corner.  And until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy. 

Work: Curse or Blessing?

In the mid-1980s, my wife and I attended a Sunday School class at an Evangelical Free Church in Deerfield, Illinois.  The class was team-taught by two Bible professors from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Dr. John H. Sailhamer and Dr. Gleason Archer, Jr.  To learn about the Bible from two such scholars was a great honor. 

I remember well a discussion one Sunday in which the two distinguished Old Testament scholars debated whether the Hebrew word in Genesis 2:15 translated into English as “work” should be translated as “worship?”  Dr. Archer was of the opinion that the Hebrew word should be translated as “worship.”  He blamed the mistranslation of the Hebrew word as “work” on those who produced the King James translation of the Bible.  Dr. Sailhamer favored “work.”  The difference of opinion, as I recall, seemed to have something to do with a little mark—a jot or tittle as they say—above one of the letters of the Hebrew word that determines the correct translation.

That said, now to the subject of this review, Grace at Work: Redeeming the Grind & the Glory of You Job by Bryan Chapell (Crossway, 2022).  Bryan Chapell is a former pastor, seminary professor, and seminary president.  Grace at Work is a biblical, and therefore Christian, look at how we who identify as followers of Jesus Christ should view our labor, job, work, vocation, or “daily grind.”  Many of us, indeed myself, have often felt that work is a byproduct of the curse mentioned in Genesis 3:17.  That is not true.  Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 says that for one to enjoy one’s work is a blessing from God. Bryan Chapell challenges the reader to consider work as a part of who we are as Christians: “Is what we are doing truly honoring God?”  Every aspect of our life, everything we are and do, should reflect our relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Work, for example, results in financial reward.  But our material possessions, including our finances, are not “private property,” as seen from a worldly perspective.  We exercise stewardship over our possessions, including our very life.  Using or misusing our possessions will reflect our relationship with Jesus Christ.  The central theme in Grace at Work is that God gives purpose to our work, and through our work, many opportunities to show the world what it means to be one saved by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Grace at Work is well-written, easy to read, and easy to understand.  It includes “Notes,” which guide further reading if desired.  There is also a “General Index” and a “Scripture Index.”

We Christians live lives in total obedience.  We struggle with what the apostle Paul called “the old nature.”  Still, we are given daily opportunities to be an example to the world of what it means to be a clay vessel in God’s hands.

Academic Freedom: From Ram-skit to Bull-dung — by Crystal Downing

Can the Churches Survive the Pandemic

The pandemic known as COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow to the institutional churches.  Pastors have resorted to streaming their services on Facebook, YouTube, and other means made available by modern technology.  Such substitutes are a poor substitute for meeting together.  Some churches may not reopen once the pandemic ends.  There is a fear that many who missed meeting together with fellow believers may decide that attending church at least once a week, or even less often, was not necessary or rewarding.

Some denominations were already experiencing a flight from the pews well before the pandemic struck.  The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, has noted a drop in baptisms and membership for several years in a row.  Some of the losses are accounted for by the rise of non-denominational church fellowships and the fact that the youth are abandoning the faith of their parents as soon as they are free to do so.  

Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman’s book, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential (Crossway 2021), is timely.  The authors provide an argument for the role of the institutional church in the believer’s life.   Their argument is persuasive.  However, it is important to note that they are referring to the institutional church, that is, the brick-and-mortar building that is likely a part of an organized denomination.  Before becoming too depressed about the state of affairs, one must keep in mind that the institutional church and the Church as the Body of Christ consisting of all those—past, present, and future—who have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not the samething.  The former is finite and will vanish; the latter is eternal.

There are numerous verses in the New Testament that call upon believers to gather together for fellowship, exhortation and teaching, worship and celebration of the Lord’s Supper, etc.  Hanseen and Leeman provide a good both a reminder of the importance of meeting together and an encouragement to do so.

As I read and thought about the content of Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ is Essential my mind was drawn to the words of an old Negro spiritual:

Let Us Break Bread Together Lyrics

1. Let us break bread together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us break bread together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me) 

2. Let us drink wine together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us drink wine together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me) 

[3]. Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy on me. (on me) 

4. Let us praise God together on our knees, (on our knees) 

let us praise God together on our knees. (on our knees) 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, 

O Lord, have mercy if you please. (if you please) 

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

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2021

Every Memorial Day we pause to remember those who served and those who died in the wars that involved our country.  Not all wars are included.  For example, we make no mention of the so-called Indian Wars that did not end until 1924.  Perhaps the latter are omitted because even the most nationalistic American tends to look back at them with shame.   

We are right to remember those who served, whether as volunteers or draftees.  Most, even those who could not understand why they were fighting, did so as a matter of duty to one’s country, and for many, it was more then that.  They believed, or were able to convince themselves, that they were fighting to defend their country and the noble ideals for which it stood, even if they were among those groups of citizens who were denied the ideals for which they fought.  Despite 200 plus years of history “We the people” remains a promise, a goal, a work in progress towards which we continue to strive. 

We see evidence of the cost the veterans paid in the many monuments that are often neglected except on Memorial Day or July 4, and we see it in the physical scars that some veterans bear for the remainder of their lives.  Often overlooked are the psychological scars that haunt many veterans with memories of war that cannot be exorcised by pills, liquor, or counseling.  The pain suffered often extends to those loved ones who live with the physical and psychologically wounded, or with memories of loved ones who lost their lives in past and present wars. 

During the fall of 1993 I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  It was very late during the night, and yet there were still people visiting the memorial.  Some were very emotional.  Perhaps they were looking for the name of a son, husband, or father who died while serving his country.  The average age of those who served in the Vietnam War was 22.  The youngest to die in combat was only 15.  His name was Dan Bullock.

Dan Bullock was an African American who dreamed of one day becoming a pilot, police officer, or U.S. Marine.  At age 14, he altered the date on his birth certificate to say he was born on December 21, 1949 rather than 1953, and joined the Marine Corps on September 18, 1968.  He arrived in Vietnam on May 18,1969 and was killed in action just 20 days later on June 7. 

It took a lot of courage for a young man–dare I say boy—of only 14 to volunteer for military service during wartime.  He had to have been physically strong for his age and a strong spirited individual to have survived Marine boot camp.  I cannot help but wonder what he might he have become had he not joined, or having joined, survived the war?

Memorial Day should be a day of mourning not a day of celebration.  Cancel the parades, picnics, sporting events, and trips to the beach or the mountains.  Cancel all the Memorial Day sales and close all the stores and even the restaurants.  There is nothing to celebrate.  We celebrate positive events—births, weddings, graduations, promotions, anniversaries, etc. etc.  War is insane!  War represents the worst in human nature.  Although it has been with us since the beginning of human history, and will no doubt be with us to the end of history, any rational human being would agree that war has no victors.

A friend of mine posted on social media the official statistics on how many Americans died in our nation’s past wars.  As one might expect, World War II had the highest number of deaths, 291,557.  More then 7,000 have died in combat since 2001.  But as I mentioned above, the number of deaths is only a small part of the cost a people pay for participating in wars. 

Instead of listening to the national anthem and watching heroic war movies, listen instead to antiwar songs and read the memoirs and poetry of those who know the true meaning of war.  I have been told, and I believe it true, that those who abhor war most are those who have experienced it. 

I did not serve in the military during the Vietnam War.  I tried very hard not to be a participant.  As a historian by profession, I have studied the history of wars throughout the millennia of human history.  What have I learned?  I am not sure I can answer that question.  I remain puzzled.  I read once that Leon Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in attempt to understand why so many men would march halfway around the world to kill a bunch of people they did not know or have any reason to fight.  Did he find an answer?  I do not know.  Tolstoy was a pacifist, but pacifism is not a rational answer, unless of course, everyone was to become pacifists.   And how likely do you think that will occur, given the historical record of human folly?

So, I sit here on this Memorial Day with no desire to join the celebrations or go out shopping in order to show my patriotic support for the American economy.  In the past two years I lost a very good friend and a brother-in-law, both of whom I would like to have known much better.  Both of them served as officers in the Vietnam War.  One was a Marine captain; the other a captain in the Army.  Both lived the remainder of their lives with the after effects of the war.  The one was wounded 5 times and carried pieces of shrapnel around in his body.  The other could never forget those under his command who died, nor come to terms with the feeling that the United States abandoned the Montagnards whom they recruited to fight the Viet Cong. 

One thing I do conclude, sitting here thinking about this Memorial Day, is that the line from the Roman poet Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” * often quoted to glorify war, is a lie, a very BIG LIE.

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

*”It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”

Must We Bear a Burden of Guilt for the Sins of Our Fathers?

Suppose for a moment that your mother dropped you off at an orphanage when you were just an infant.  Although she could not, or would not, care for you, she did remain a part of your life.  She would occasionally pick you up and take you to visit your grandmother.  Those were good times, for you adored your grandmother.  She was always happy to see you, and you were able to experience from her some of the love you were missing in your relationship with your mother. 

Suppose further that when you were seven years old, your mother agreed to allow your then foster parents to adopt you, after which the visits with your mother and grandmother ceased.  Your new home was a loving one.  You gained a mother and a father and two brothers who welcomed you as a full member of the family.  You call your adopted parents “Mama” and “Papa,” and your brothers speak of you as their “sister,” never as their “adopted sister.”  The manner in which you are welcomed into your new family is all the more remarkable since you are a mixed-race child in a German family.  Your mother was German; your father was Nigerian. 

Your parents are not wealthy, but neither are they poor. You are able to attend good schools and travel abroad.  As an adult, you are able to live for a time in Paris and Israel.  You earn a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies from Tel Aviv University.  Eventually you marry a German and have two children.  Then, one day while visiting the central library in Hamburg, you happen “by chance” to pick a book off a shelf that smashes into your world like a bolt of lightning, forcing you to confront the question, “Who am I?”  The book is the story of your mother, Monika Göth, daughter of Amon Göth and his mistress, Ruth Irene Kalder.  Suddenly, you must face the fact that you are the grandchild of one of the most notorious mass murderers of the Holocaust. 

The above is in brief the story of Jennifer Teege as she relates it in her autobiography, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past (New York: The Experiment, 2015).  Jennifer Teege was 38 years old in 2002, when she happened upon the book, I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? by her biological mother, Monica Göth.  It is Monica’s account of her life’s struggle with the knowledge that she was the daughter of Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp near Kraków, Poland, who was convicted of war crimes in 1946 and executed by hanging.

Amon Göth was not just a SS officer carrying out orders given to him as the commandant of a concentration camp.  He enjoyed inflicting fear, pain, and death on those who were his victims.  He would stand on the balcony of his villa overlooking the camp and randomly shot prisoners with a rifle.  He had two dogs, Rolf, a Great Dane, and Ralf, an Alsatian mix, that he trained to attack and tear apart prisoners on his command.  He would ride about the camp on his white horse and, if he saw a prisoner working too slow or pausing to rest, he simply shot him or her, adult or child.  “When you saw Göth, you saw death,” a survivor of Płaszów later recalled.   Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a survivor who suffered daily abuse as a maid in Göth’s villa, describes the terror that Amon Göth’s mere presence inspired: “As a survivor I can tell you that we are all traumatized people. Never would I, never, believe that any human being would be capable of such horror, of such atrocities. When we saw him from a distance, everybody was hiding, in latrines, wherever they could hide. I can’t tell you how people feared him.”

As a retired history professor with a special interest in twentieth-century European history, and in German history in particular, I found Ms. Teege’s book informative and very interesting.  I have often wondered how the children of high-ranking Nazi officials dealt with the burden of their parentage.  How would such a person answer when asked, “What did your father/mother do for a living?”  “Who were your parents/grandparents?”  These survivors, sometimes called “Hitler’s children,” confronted their family’s history in various ways. 

Not all of them survived the fall of Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.”  The six children of Magda and Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest confidents and Reich Minister of Propaganda, died in the Berlin bunker, poisoned by their mother.  Magda could not bear the thought of her children having to live in a world without Hitler.  She had another child by her first marriage, Harald Quandt, who survived the war.  He was a successful industrialist in the postwar era, and died in a private airplane crash in 1967.

Some of the children of high-ranking Nazi officials, like Edda Goering (b. 1938), Wolf Rudiger Hess (1937-2001), and Gudrun Himmler (1929-2018), refused to ever accept the fact that their fathers could have been guilty of the crimes of which they were accused.  Gudrun Himmler, daughter of the Heinrich Himmler, leader of the infamous SS and chief architect of the Holocaust, spent her life defending her father and channeling aid to former SS and Gestapo members through an agency known as Stille Hilfe (Silent Help).  Among those she helped were Klaus Barbie (1913-1991),”the Butcher of Lyon,” Martin Sommer (1915-1988), the “Hangman of Buchenwald,” and Anton Malloth (1912-2002),  convicted in 2001 of beating at least 100 prisoners to death in Theresienstadt.

Hitler, himself, did not have any children.  The claim made by a Frenchman, Jean-Marie Loret (1918-1985), that he was Hitler’s illegitimate son, conceived during World War I while Hitler was serving on the Western Front, did not survive DNA tests.  Hitler’s sister, Paula (1896-1960), did not have any children.  As of December 5, 2018, there were five surviving descendants of Hitler’s half-sister Angela (1883-1949) and half-brother Alois (1882-1956).  They agreed among themselves not to have any children, thus assuring that the Hitler bloodline will end with them. 

Bettina Goering is the great-nice of Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s earliest followers.  Hermann Goering was one of the highest decorated heroes of World War I.  He took over command of Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron, the “Flying Circus” (Jagdgeschwader 1) following the Red Barron’s death in aerial combat.  Goering’s popularity as a war hero enabled Hitler to win the support of many upper-class patriots who otherwise would have ignored “corporal” Hitler.  Goering served as commander of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and after 1941 was Hitler’s designated successor.   

Speaking of how she remembers her father, Bettina Goering says, “When I see Hermann as a family person, I think he’s really nice, and charming, and incredibly caretaking, and it’s hard for me to see flaws. But then you see what he does in politics and how he killed people, including his so-called friends.”  She has lived with the fear that some of what made her father a war criminal, though he was never the level of monster as others mentioned above and below, may reside in her DNA.  She and her brother both underwent sterilization so as to bring an end to the Goering bloodline. 

Some of the children and grandchildren of prominent Nazis discovered only later in life that their infamous forbearer was a war criminal, having been told as children that he died during the war, often as a hero.  Some, like Jennifer Teege’s mother, Monica Göth, have personal memories of their parent or grandparent.  That was true of Brigitte Höss, daughter of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz.

Höss was born in 1900, the son of a former army officer who wanted his son to become a priest.  When World War I broke out, Höss was allowed to join his father’s old 21st Regiment of Dragoons.  At 15 years of age, he served in the Middle East with Germany’s ally the Ottoman Turks.  During his service in the Middle East, he witnessed the Armenian Genocide.  Around one million Armenians were killed by the Turks in what today would be referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”  He served with distinction, having been wounded three times and received several decorations for bravery, including the Iron Crescent and the Iron Cross first and second class.  After the war’s end, he joined the Nazi Party in 1922, and in 1934 the SS Death’s Head Unit.  He served in both Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps before becoming Commandant of Auschwitz concentration and death camp in 1940.

As Commandant of Auschwitz, Höss oversaw the mass killing of between 2 and 3 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russian prisoners of war and various other individuals.  After experimenting with various methods, Höss introduced the use of Zyklon B gas.  At his Nuremburg trial he boasted that as many as 2,000 prisoners could be disposed of in half an hour.  He was transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943 after revelation of an affair with an inmate.  He returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee the murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews over a 56-day period.  When the war ended in 1945, Höss tried to evade arrest, hoping to escape to South America.  He failed.  When charged at his trial with the murder of three and one half million prisoners, he replied:   “No. Only two and one-half million—the rest died from disease and starvation.”

Inge-Brigitte Höss was the third of five children born to Rudolf and Hedwig Hensel Höss.  Brigitte moved to Spain during the 1950’s, where she worked as a model.  She met an American engineer working in Spain.  They married in 1961.  They eventually settled down in Georgetown, located in northwest Washington, D.C.  She was employed by an exclusive fashion salon in D.C., owned by a Jewish couple who fled Germany in 1938 after the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass) attack on Jews throughout Germany.  The salon owners never revealed to anyone that their employee, whom they so liked, was the daughter of Rudolf Höss.  They chose to see her as a human being, not as the daughter of the commandant of Auschwitz.  Reflecting on his parents’ relationship with Brigitte, their son later commented, “I am proud to be their son.”

Should these so-called “Hitler’s children” feel a burden of guilt for the crimes of their parents or grandparents?  After all, they were only children.  Like all of us who are unrelated to anyone guilty of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, they try to understand how someone can be a loving parent or grandparent, and at the same time be a mass murderer.  After having breakfast with his family, a husband/father kisses his wife and children before leaving for a day’s labor of participating in the murder of men, women, and children.  After returning home and enjoying the evening meal, he plays with his children before seeing them off to bed, wishing them “good night” and “sweet dreams.”  Perhaps he even stands by as they say their good night prayers.  Later in life, how do those children, how do we, understand that?  How do we get our minds around that reality?  The theories offered by social scientists are of little or no help.  It is a part of that perennial human problem of the existence of evil that haunts humanity. 

I have spoken above about those whose father or grandfather was a Nazi war criminal.  But is it any different, should it be any different, for the children whose fathers firebombed German or Japanese cities, incinerating tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, or dropped napalm bombs on Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War? 

I do not have any relatives who were or are guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity.  My father worked in a defense plant during World War II.  One of my uncles served as an army cook, hardly a post that lent itself to the commission of war crimes.  My maternal grandparents immigrated to America from Germany at the end of the 19th century.  Had they remained in Germany, I too might very well be struggling with the fallout from a parent’s role during the World War II. 

We all struggle with a feeling of guilt for crimes committed in the recent or distant past by individuals who chose to participate in evil acts.  We struggle with the question of whether we ought to feel a responsibility to try and atone for the evil committed by past generations of the community of which we are members.  Should American citizens today of European descent feel guilt for the enslavement of people from Africa by European Americans during past centuries of our nation’s history?  If so, what about the genocide of Native Americans or the exploitation of immigrants during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Those who committed those crimes against their fellow human beings in the past are no longer here to atone for their actions. 

The United States of America that came into being following a successful revolution against British rule built an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and eventually beyond.  It did so by conquests that decimated all who stood in its way.  The war with Mexico (1846-1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) are acknowledged by historians to have been wars of aggression, wars of conquest.  Treatment of Asian immigrants mirrored the treatment of African Americans living under Jim Crow.  The history of the United States is written in part in blood and tears, driven forward by greed and racist theories supported by Social Darwinist theories. 

As we struggle with sins committed by our ancestors, should we feel that in some way we must share their guilt as if we, ourselves, committed the sins?  Americans today are coming to grips with a host of institutionalized injustices that are rooted in our nation’s history, but still very much a part of who we are as a society.  We may not be personally responsible for those injustices.  We may not have made the choices that created them, but we must choose to remove them.  We are not “Hitler’s children,” but we are all children of Adam and Eve.  Like Jennifer Teege, we must educate ourselves about the burden of responsibility, if not guilt, that we carry as individuals who are part of a community.  We must live with the consequences that resulted from choices our forefathers made, and we must choose to correct the injustices that still exist in our society, injustices which we inherited from our ancestors. 

Yes, There Really Was a Charlie Chan

Like many who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I enjoyed the adventures of the fictional detective known as Charlie Chan.  I did not know, however, that there really was a policeman whose adventures in law enforcement in Honolulu at the beginning of the twentieth century served as inspiration for great fictional detective.  His name was Chang Apana (1871-1933).  He stood only five feet tall, but at times carried a bull whip with him as he patrolled Honolulu’s Chinatown. 

The story of how Chang Apana became the inspiration for author Earl Derr Biggers’ fictional character, Charlie Chan, is the subject of Yunte Huang’s CHARLIE CHAN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE HONORABLE DETECTIVE AND HIS RENDEZVOUS WITH AMERICAN HISTORY (New York: W. H. Norton & Company, 2010).  Yunte Huang is a distinguished scholar and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He is the author of a number of books praised for their scholarship and readability.

Professor Huang used both archival materials and extensive reading in secondary sources to tell the story of both Chang Apana and Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan.  He documents how Biggers’ creation became one the most popular icons in American popular culture through novels, and even more through movies.  The book includes an extensive bibliography, which, together with the chapter notes and index, makes the book both enjoyable to read as well and a good source for one interested in a serious study of American popular culture during the first half of the twenty-first century. 

Readers who have seen many of the Charlie Chan movies will no doubt enjoy “A List of Charlie Chanisms” in Appendix I.  There are 56 of these gems including:

“Every maybe has a wife called Maybe-Not.”

“The fool questions others, the wise man questions himself.”

“Learn from hen—never boast about egg until after egg’s birthday.”

“Trouble, like first love, teach many lessons.”

Appendix II contains a list of 47 Charlie Chan films produced between 1926 and 1949.  Charlie Chan was played by 5 different actors over the years:  George Kuwa (1926), Kamiyama Sojin (1927), E. L. Park (1929), Warner Oland (1931-1937), Sidney Toler (1938-1946) and Roland Winters (1947-2949). 

In conclusion, I agree with Jonathan Spence’s (author of The Search for Modern China and Return to Dragon Mountain) assessment of Huang’s Charlie Chan: “An ingenious and absorbing book that provides a convincing new mode for examining the Chinese experience through Chinese and Western eyes.  It will permanently change the way we tell this troubled gripping story.”

A Book for the Christian Student’s Backpack

In his new book, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (2021), Michael J. Kruger, President and the Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, attempts to provide a kind of “survival guide” for young Christians leaving their homes and local churches to enroll in secular universities.  The obvious underlying assumption is that these young scholars will be entering hostile territory, where accomplished scholars will, either intentionally without overt intention, do their best to destroy their faith as born-again Christians.  That is a fear shared by many Christian parents who send their children to secular institutions of higher learning.  As one who spent 42 years teaching in 4 different Christian colleges/universities, I feel those young Christian students are more likely to have their faith challenged and destroyed at a Christian college.  But that is another issue better discussed elsewhere.

Professor Kruger tells the reader in the book’s introduction that he, himself, was unprepared for the challenges he faced as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina.  He recalls that growing up, he had received “very limited instruction on the Christian worldview—what we believe and why we believe it—and virtually no instruction on how to respond to non-Christian thinking.”  Indeed, that is a truth that I witnessed again and again throughout my teaching career.  These young Christians, recent high school graduates, often arrive well drilled in some denominational catechism or list of behavioral dos and don’ts, together with a spiritual sounding vocabulary of what can be characterized as “God talk.”  Many can share the “Four Spiritual Laws” or lead a prospective convert down the “Roman Road,” but are unable to give a reasoned explanation of why they believe what they are testifying to.  In short, they are walking into the lion’s den, or so their parents fear, with, as Professor Kruger says of his own experience, “lots of zeal but little knowledge.”   

The book’s title, Surviving Religion 101, implies that the Christian student will be enrolling in a religion class at a secular university.  Why, I ask, would a Christian student attending a secular college/university enroll in a religion (or Bible) course unless he or she was well grounded in a Christian worldview?  Such a course at a secular university is an elective, not a required course. 

I am also left wondering why Professor Kruger chose to present what is a host of good information for a young Christian in the form of letters addressed to his daughter.  I have 2 daughters, both of whom I think would have found such a book more than a little insulting, or at least indicative of a helicopter parent who simply cannot let his adult daughter find her own way.  Better to give her a copy of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, N. T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, or Francis A. Schaeffer’s The God Who is There or He is There and He Is Not Silent.  The Christian student living in today’s postmodern world must have a Christian worldview.  I am not sure that this book is the best choice for that purpose. 

Although I have some reservations as noted above, I do feel this is a good book worth reading. 

American Society and the Great War: A Book Review

The last time I attended a ballgame, actually a high school football game, was in 1957 or 1958. I was in the 8th grade. I snuck into the game along with a friend, not because we wanted to watch the game free, but because we wanted to flirt with the 7th- and 8th-grade girls who would be there. I have never had even the least interest in sports. I do not even know the rules for playing football, baseball, basketball, or any other sport. That said, why would I read a book about baseball?

Randy Roberts’ and Johnny Smith’s WAR FEVER: BOSTON, BASEBALL, AND AMERICA IN THE SHADOW OF THE GREAT WAR (New York: Basic Books, 2020) is a very enjoyable read about America at the end of World War I. The two authors, history professors at Purdue University and Georgia Tech, succeed in giving the reader a real feel for American life during our nation’s two-year experience in Wilson’s war to “make the world safe for democracy.” Not only did Americans go off to war as if on a Fourth of July parade that was soon overshadowed by the realities of modern industrialized mass slaughter, but at the same time had to grapple with the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. Cheering crowds soon gave way to a public transformed by paranoia and fear of enemies within and without who threatened the pristine peace and prosperity of American life. The “war fever” and “Red Scare” that followed during 1919 and 1920 were a preview of what would follow World War II during the so-called “McCarthy Era.”

Roberts and Smith reveal the era through the lives of three individuals: Charles W. Whittlesey, Karl Muck, and George Herman “Babe” Ruth. Whittlesey was an intellectually-gifted young lawyer with a degree from Harvard. He was a great admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, easily inspired and influenced by the Rough Rider’s bombastic and inspiring rhetoric. Whittlesey found in Roosevelt a kindred spirit, an American hero he wanted to emulate.

Karl Muck was the popular and gifted conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Muck was born in Darmstadt, Germany, but became a Swiss citizen at age 21. He won acclaim throughout Europe, where he conducted all of the great orchestras and enjoyed the admiration and support of the cultured elite, including Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. Muck was an artist. He had no desire to become embroiled in the prowar fever fueled by the “yellow journalism” of Joseph Pulitzer and Randolph Hearst.

George Herman Ruth, Jr.’s grandparents were German immigrants. “Babe Ruth,” as he is remembered, and a sister were the only two of eight children who survived infancy. His father, a saloon owner, was unable to control his rebellious son. When George was seven years old, his father enrolled him in St. Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible, and Wayward Boys, where he remained until he was twenty-one.

In April 1917, President Wilson led America into the Great War in Europe to rescue American business interests from financial ruin. War fever in the guise of patriotism seized the American public. Charles Whittlesey joined the American army. In October 1918, he was a major in command of the 308th Infantry, 77th Division, made up largely of New York City recruits who spoke forty-two different languages or dialects.

Whittlesey led a group of 554 men against the German trenches in the Meuse–Argonne offensive. Cut of from supplies and communications, Whittlesey’s command of the 77th Division, later known as the “Lost Division,” earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, he tried to return to the quiet life he enjoyed before the war, but the public adulation and constant demand for public appearances led him to seek escape by taking his own life in 1921, one of many postwar casualties of the “war to make the world safe for democracy.”

Karl Muck became a special target of the anti-German frenzy encouraged by A. Bruce Bielaski, Director of the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), and the American Defense Society, advocates of “one hundred percent Americanism.” Muck’s personal friendship with Count Johann von Bernsdorff, the German ambassador who was trying to prevent war between the United States and Germany, and his resistance to efforts to make the Boston Symphony an instrument of prowar propaganda, made it easy his enemies to accuse him of being a German spy. Muck was arrested in March 1918, the evening before he was to conduct Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. His notations on the music score were alleged to be evidence of pro-German espionage activities. Karl Muck and his wife were deported in August 1919. He continued an illustrious career in Europe and refused all attempts to lure him back to the USA, even for a brief tour.

Although George Herman Ruth, Jr. was the grandchild of German immigrants and grew up speaking German, he did not experience the anti-German paranoia that many other German-Americans faced every day. Babe Ruth was the quintessential American antihero. His mother hated him, or so he claimed. His teammates called him “Cave Man,” “the Big Pig,” “the Baboon,” “Tarzan, King of the Apes,” and “Nigger Lips.” The last implied that he had black ancestry and was therefore inferior and less than a man.

Ruth more than lived up to the negative popular image of him being a throwback to the earlier primates. He drank more booze than any fish did water. He gambled with abandon on horses and cards. He was a regular at the brothels and seemed to prefer women who “would really appeal to a man who was just stepping out of prison after serving a 15-year sentence.” “He ate raw meat, seldom flushed toilets, treated farts as gifts to be admired, and enjoyed telling stories of his sexual exploits.” Babe Ruth was not a sophisticated gentleman.

Ruth was, if anything, a baseball player like none other before or since. America needed a folk hero, and the Babe was the perfect candidate. The sound of Ruth’s bat connecting with a baseball, sending it over the fence for a home run was symbolic of what the average American believed the American army in France would do to the German army, drive it back into Germany and surrender.

Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith do an admirable job of capturing all the excitement and contradictions of American society as it followed blindly Don Quixote into a war to save the Old World from self-destruction. WAR FEVER is written as history should be written, that is, as literature to be enjoyed. They have done their research as evidenced by the extensive notes at the end. As one who taught history for over forty years, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good history book.

Not From Around Here: A Book Review

I do not often read a book twice before reviewing it, but I did this one.  The title is a little misleading.  NOT FROM HERE: WHAT UNITES US, WHAT DIVIDES US, AND HOW WE CAN MOVE FORWARD (Chicago: Moody, 2019), lead me to think it was going to be a book about the clash of cultures in today’s America.  It is that, but not really.  It is more Brandon J. O’Brien’s memoir of being born and raised in rural northwestern Arkansas, attending graduate school in suburban Chicagoland, and finally settling in Manhattan, the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City.  O’Brien’s life experience has enabled him to understand that most obvious cultural division in America, the urban/rural divide.

Americans traditionally characterize their world as being composed of two very distinct cultures, rural and urban, a false dichotomy that overlooks the fact that most Americans live in what are called the suburbs.  This skewed picture of America can be seen in literature, television sitcoms, and advertising.  It is a staple in political campaigns, when politicians promote the notion of a cultural war between “the America of the heartland [which] stands for traditional values and faith and neighborliness and the America of the coasts [which] stands for progressive (probably European) values and secularism and greed” (p. 14).  Politicians in particular encourage this false dichotomy while at the same time insisting that Americans are all, or mostly all, members of the so-called middle class.

Rural Americans are pictured by their urban counterparts as unsophisticated, naive, poorly educated, lacking in social skills, and provincial to the extreme.  Rural Americans in turn characterize urbanites as lost souls in search of true happiness and meaning for their lives that ultimately can only be found in the idyllic world of small towns and green pastures.  O’Brien, who is a Christian writing for a Christian audience, wants to point out that Christians carry these characterizations over into the church.  Where there should be unity within the Body of Christ, there is a culturally imposed diversity that hampers the mission of the Church and hinders true fellowship and joy within the family.

The truth is that we Christians are shaped in part by the cultural environment into which we are born and live.  Being “born again” saves us from the burden of guilt we inherited as children of Adam and Eve, but it does not instantaneously change our personalities.  We are products of our environment—geographic, cultural, social, economic, and so much more.  There are aspects of our “B.C.” personality that will change for the better only through conscious and persistent effort. 

Brandon O’Brien reflects on the cultural shock he experienced moving to suburban Chicagoland from northwestern Arkansas.  He experienced the clash of Christian fundamentalism, a state of mind rather than a theology, and the more academically influenced evangelicalism.  Later he moved his family to Manhattan where the cultural environment was largely secularized.  Back in rural America the fundamentalist response to the influence of modern culture was “resistance and withdrawal.”  In Manhattan the cultural war was already over when the O’Briens arrived, and the Christians had lost.

An important message that O’Brien wants to get across to his readers is that if Christians want to be salt and light in this postmodern world, if we want to, as our Lord has commanded us, witness to the Gospel in a hostile cultural world, we must not withdraw from the world.  We must not expend our energy in pointless battles that cannot be won, and should not be fought.  We must look to and learn from our extended family around the world living in culturally hostile environments.  We must accept the reality that we do not live in one of those gilded ages of church history when the hills, valleys, and cities were alive with great revivals.  We must acknowledge that much of what we identify as biblical Christianity is only excess Western cultural baggage.  Secularization of culture has been a blessing in disguise for the preaching of the Gospel.  As the late Francis Schaeffer taught, we must meet the lost where they are at.  We must present the unaltered, simple good news that the tomb is empty.  “He has risen; He has risen indeed!”

I think that NOT FROM AROUND HERE is an appropriate title for this book.  We Christians are only temporary residents wherever we find ourselves in this world.  We are only passing through, called like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to tell others of what we have seen and heard. 

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