Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

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 all Cinderella Stories have a Happy Ending

In a time when it was said that a woman’s name should appear in the newspapers only to announce her birth, engagement, marriage, and death, Rose Parker Stokes was the woman’s name most often appearing in American newspapers between 1918 and 1921.  She was also the subject of a popular novel, Salome of the Tenements, published in 1922.  Within less than a decade, her name disappeared from the public space, while the names of those who were key figures in her life—Eugene Debs, John Reed, Emma Goldman, and others—have never disappeared from scholarly or popular attention.

The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 was followed by a wave of pogroms during which “angry mobs rampage through towns, cities, and Jewish shtetls, or hamlets, raping women, looting shops and homes, and attacking Jews of all ages.”  Pogroms against the Jews in Russia were nothing new.  But the new repression that included new legal restrictions on the daily life of Jews and where they could live resulted in a wave of Jewish emigration to Western Europe and America.

Rosa Harriet Wieslander, an orthodox Jewish refugee from the Jewish shtetl of Augustów, was only 11 years old when she arrived in New York City in November 1890.  Like so many immigrant children, Rosa found employment as cheap labor producing, but not enjoying, the wealth that earned America before World War I the epitaph, “the Gilded Age.”

Rosa spent her first 12 years of employment rolling cigars.  She earned 77 cents for her first week’s work, roughly $22 today.  Later, she earned 13 cents for every 100 cigars she rolled, enabling her to occasionally earn as much as $8 in a week, roughly $240 today.

Immigrants, especially Jews, were looked down on by most Americans.  Senator Henry Cabot Lodge described those from Russia as “inferior people,” and as “dangerous to America as the Goths and Vandals who trampled over Rome.”  The author Henry James, after visiting the Lower East Side of NYC, described the Jews he saw there as “swarming . . . small, strange animals—snakes or worms.”  The future president, Woodrow Wilson, described the immigrants coming to America at the turn of the century as “multitudes of men of the lowest class [possessing] neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”  It was as if, Wilson said, that “the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.”

Rosa’s life took a dramatic turn in 1903.  She was writing articles for the Yiddishes Tageblatt, the nation’s orthodox Jewish newspaper.  She wrote articles calling for an end to “Jew-baiting and Negro-lynching” and calling attention the grinding poverty in which the working classes lived.  One evening in July, she met young James Graham Phelps Stokes, a member of one of America’s wealthiest families.  Despite his wealth, “Graham,” as he was known, was committed to championing the cause of justice for the working classes, and after meeting and marrying Rosa in July 1905, advancing the cause of socialism.

Socialism prior to World War I was not smeared by an association with Bolshevism and communism that resulted from the Russian Revolution in 1917.  It attracted many evangelical Christians and reform minded members of the wealthy classes, who the press sometimes referred to as “millionaire socialists.”  Graham and Rosa joined the Socialist Party of America.  Graham ran unsuccessfully as a Socialist candidate for the New York State Assembly in 1908.

Rosa’s marriage to Graham Stokes was a real-life Cinderella story.  Their residence of Caritas Island off Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coastline became a sort of aviary frequented by the who’s who of intellectuals who identified themselves as socialists, trade-unionists, anarchists, suffragists, poets, etc.  Among those in the circle around Graham and Rosa were, at various times, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, William F. Cochran, Clarence Darrow, Upton Sinclair, John Reed, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jack London, “Mother” Jones, Lincoln Steffens, and many more.  Rockwell Kent referred to Caritas as “the very citadel of the Socialist movement.”

Two events in 1917 doomed the socialist movement in America and eventually were responsible for destroying Cinderella’s marriage to her prince charming.  The first was the Russian Revolution that ended with a Bolshevik victory and the establishment Marist-Leninist totalitarianism.  The second was Woodrow Wilson’s decision to lead the United States into the Great War in Europe to secure a victory for England and France, thus protecting the immense financial investments of America’s bankers and industrialists.

Once the United States entered the war in Europe, Graham became an ardent supporter of the war effort, while Rosa became a fervent defender of the Russian Revolution.  Rosa never wavered in her support of the new Soviet Union, whereas some of her socialist friends who actually visited the USSR—e.g., Emma Goldman—returned totally disillusioned.  Rosa and Graham separated and eventually divorced.  Rosa went to Frankfurt, Germany in February 1933 to undergo a new radiation treatment for cancer developed by a prominent doctor who was an outspoken anti-Semite, who later became an SS officer who gave “a notorious illustrated lecture portraying cancer cells as Jews and victorious beams of radiation as Nazi storm troopers.”

Adam Hochschild is a historian in the best tradition of Barbara Tuchman, Paul Johnson, Bruce Catton, and others who write scholarly researched history in a style than can be enjoyable to read as well as informative.  I have read 2 of his earlier books, King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) and To End All Wars (2011) and adopted them as reading for history courses I taught as a history professor.  When I first heard of Rebel Cinderella, I knew I was in for a great reading experience.  I was not disappointed.  Rebel Cinderella appears at just the right time.  The 2020 presidential election has opened up interest in the history of socialism in America’s history, as well as comparisons of the era known as the Gilded Age and our own time, considered by many to be a second Gilded Age.

As both a retired history professor and one who enjoys a good book, I wholeheartedly recommend Adam Hochschild’s Rebel Cinderella : Rose Pastor Stokes: Sweatshop Immigrant, Aristocrat’s Wife, Socialist Crusader (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020).

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

A Call for Racial Reconciliation Among Christians

 

We are living in a period of our history when it is all the more vital for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ to live out the truth that all human beings are created by God in his image, and therefore entitled to dignity and respect.  We do not have to “like” everyone we meet, but we who follow Christ must acknowledge that we are but one member of one family, one race.  God makes only one distinction between humans and that is between those who have accepted his offer of free grace through faith in Jesus Christ and those who are yet in bondage to Satan.

When it comes to the work of racial reconciliation, meaning the struggle for civil rights for all, especially between African Americans and Americans of European descent, the name of John M. Perkins comes immediately to mind.  No one individual has done more than Perkins to minister the healing balm of the Christian gospel to the centuries-old racial strife in our country, particularly in the state of Mississippi.

I first met John Perkins in the mid-1980’s, when my wife and I went with a group of college students from the Chicago area on a short-term home mission trip to Jackson, Mississippi.  The goal was to spend a couple weeks working with Voice of Calvary Ministry, founded by John Perkins.  Some worked in a secondhand store.  Others painted and worked on repairing homes in Jackson.  Like Habitat for Humanity, helping with Voice of Calvary was a way of actually getting involved in the lives of the people who needed a human touch as well as a helping hand.

In 1993, I took a teaching position at Belhaven College in Jackson.  The life of the college and John Perkins’s ministry crossed paths in many ways over the 23 years I spent in Jackson.  The college has as a vital part of its mission to be a place of racial reconciliation.  Over my 23 years in Mississippi, I got to know John Perkins and the many wonderful people who have worked with him, e. g., Dolphus Weary of Mission Mississippi.

PARTING WORDS TO THE CHURCH ON RACE AND LOVE (Chicago: Moody, 2018) is not Perkins’s first, last, or even “best” book.  He has written many on how to empower the poor by helping them to provide for their families and thus restore in them a sense of pride in who they are as children of God.  His books are a mix of common-sense theology and Bible study, how to minister to the poor, how to build trust and respect between races after centuries of distrust and exploitation, and much more.

Chapter titles reveal the book’s content.  “The Church Should Look Like That,” argues that twelve o’clock on Sunday morning should not be the most segregated hour in America.  “Tear Down This Wall” uses the example of The Berlin Wall that divided the German people from 1961 to 1989 as a symbol of the need to tear down the manmade walls that divide even believing Christians into racial ghettoes.  “Prayer, the Weapon of Our Warfare” reminds us that we must invoke the healing power of God’s grace rather than look to political power to heal our wounds.  Laws can help to control behavior, but laws cannot compel us to love one another.

Interspersed through the book are 4 short testimonies to efforts at racial reconciliation from Little Rock, Arkansas, Monrovia and Fontana, California, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Each chapter is followed by a brief prayer that the reader can participate in as he or she personalizes the book’s message.  At the back of the book is a chapter by chapter Study Guide for personal or group study.

Throughout the Bible we are given a vision of the people of God as a mixed bag of a vastly diverse humanity redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Perkins concludes PARTING WORDS with a few lines from a popular hymn:

“When we all get to heaven,

what a day of rejoicing that will be!

When we all see Jesus,

We’ll sing and shout the victory!”

We need not wait until we get to heaven to experience the fellowship of God’s family.  We who have experienced God’s Grace can, through prayer and works, enjoy a taste of it here on our pilgrimage back to Eden.

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

A “Must Read” Book on the Vietnam War

As one who was in high school and college during the 1960’s, I have always had an interest in the Vietnam War.  I went to two draft physicals, one in 1964 and another in 1969, but managed to avoid being drafted.  I had many friends and family members who were not so lucky.

During my forty years as a history professor, I taught courses on the Vietnam War.  I read many books on the subject and talked to many veterans who served in Vietnam.  They too were lucky, in that they survived.  I have an abiding respect for those who served and morn those who died in a senseless and wasteful episode of the Cold War.  The Vietnam War was but one of a number of proxy wars fought between the two Cold War super powers.

Of the many good books on the Vietnam War, Daniel H. Weiss’ IN THAT TIME: MICHAEL O’DONNELL AND THE TRAGIC ERA OF VIETNAM (New York: Public Affairs, 2019) is the one I would recommend for the general reader who wants some understanding of the war without all the detail included in more scholarly books.

Daniel Weiss, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was deeply moved by the story of Michael O’Donnell, just one of 58,220 Americans and millions of Vietnamese who lost their lives in a war that should never have happened. Weiss lets the reader know at the outset one reason why he chose to write and publish this book at this time:  “I wanted to understand how a democratic government, presumably with all the best intentions and led by people who considered themselves honorable, effectively decided to sacrifice the lives of its own citizens to advance an ill-considered and poorly developed political idea.  If we understand the taking of life to be the ultimate human transgression, we need to understand how such decisions are made—in this case without a substantive understanding of purpose or consequences.”  Perhaps by sharing Daniel Weiss’ journey to understanding, we may be able understand why our national leaders chose during President George W. Bush’s administration to repeat that same error, taking us into the war in Afghanistan.

Michael O’Donnell was piloting a helicopter on a mission in March 1970 to rescue American soldiers trapped inside Cambodia.  After picking up eight, O’Donnell was ascending when his helicopter was hit by enemy fire and exploded in fireball.  Because of the enemy’s strong position in the area, and the fact that “officially” American forces were not operating inside Cambodia, the remains of O’Donnell and those who died with him remained in the jungle where they died until January 1998, when they were finally recovered and returned to the United States for burial.

Weiss does an admirable job of communicating the tragedy, not only of O’Donnell’s death and those who died with him, but of that whole era in American history.  This is a book that should be read by everyone who desires some real insight into that era.  I especially recommend it to those of us who were in high school and college during the sixties and still wonder why it all happened.

After reading IN THAT TIME, I recommend for those wishing further insight two additional books on the Vietnam War:  James Wright’s ENDURING VIETNAM: AN AMERICAN GENERATION AND ITS WAR (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2017) and Christian G. Appy’s PATRIOTS: THE VIETNAM WAR REMEMBERED FROM ALL SIDES (New York: Viking, 2003).

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

 

The Baby Boomers’ War

There are many books about the Vietnam War. Many more will be written. The war was a national trauma that we, the generation who experienced it either as soldiers or civilians, will never really get over. It was a major event during a period when what it meant to be an American was questioned and forever changed.

Historians have written narratives of the war. They have tried to understand how we became involved in a war that others in the world understood was unnecessary and unwinnable. Few Americans could have found Vietnam on a world map; much less had any knowledge or appreciation for the history or the culture of the Vietnamese people.

The nation’s military and civilian leadership were woefully ignorant, as well. Why else would military forces designed to fight a conventional war in Europe be sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia to fight a guerrilla war. High tech weaponry proved no match for the primitive weapons of the Vietnamese guerrillas.

President Johnson in 1965 referred to Vietnam as a “damned little pissant country.” He and those around him believed that America could bomb the Vietnamese into accepting our plan for their future. If necessary, we would bomb them back to the Stone Age. In pursuit of that goal, we flew over 3.5 million sorties over Vietnam, only 8 percent over North Vietnam, and dropped more than 8 million tons of bombs on an area roughly the same size as New Mexico.

By 1969, America no longer saw victory in the war as an objective. So why did the war continue until 1975? The lives of American and Vietnamese soldiers and the lives of the Vietnamese citizens meant little in the drama of American politics. Neither President Johnson nor President Nixon wanted to go down in history as the first American president to lose a war. Eventually, both became victims of the war they could not bring themselves to end.

The real subject of James Wright’s book is not why we fought and lost the war in Vietnam. Rather it is what the war did to the so-called “baby boomer” generation, those who served in Vietnam as well as those (myself included) who by luck or design managed to avoid military service. All of us were to some extent changed by the war.

The extensive research, especially the numerous interviews undertaken by Professor Wright, together with an obvious gift for writing a historical narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages, enables the reader to experience the trauma of the war. We are able to live it, or in some cases no doubt relive it. This is not a book that will leave the reader with a “good feeling.” ENDURING VIETNAM is a book that will enlighten all who read it, but will be especially meaningful for those who came of age during the sixties, those who lived with the war day by day, and for those for whom that experience will never end.

Understanding Martin Luther

 

 

October 30, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses,” considered by historians as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther was not the first to challenge the authority of the Medieval Church.  Peter Waldo, Savonarola, and Jan Hus are but three of those numbered among the so-called precursors, or forerunners, of the Reformation.    Historians, however, like to pick a particular event to mark the beginning or ending of historical periods.  Hence, they generally agree that Martin Luther’s bold act of nailing his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on the ever of All Saints in 1517 was one of the most significant events in Western, if not world, history.

Not surprising, the 500th anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses provides an opportunity for book publishers to release a new batch of books on Martin Luther and/or the Reformation.  It is hard to imagine how, after 500 years, anything new can be revealed.  The field of historical data on Martin Luther and the Reformation has been plowed over and harvested so often that the most today’s reader can hope for is a new interpretation.  Should the author of a new book be a master wordsmith able to write a narrative that keeps the reader turning the pages; well that is icing on the cake.

Professor Lyndal Roper’s MARTIN LUTHER:  RENEGADE AND PROPHET is all that the reader could desire of a new Luther biography.  It is a scholarly book, in that it is well-researched and documented.  Nearly one hundred pages of notes that should not be ignored but read along with the text, and an extensive bibliography testify to the book’s integrity.  Professor Roper’s credentials are impressive.  She studied at the University of Melbourne, the University of Tübingen, King’s College London, and was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford in 2011.  Having some familiarity with the Luther historiography, my expectations were heightened by reading in Roper’s introductory chapter that she studied under the noted Dutch historian, Heiko Oberman.  Oberman’s MARTIN LUTHER-MAN BETWEEN GOD AND THE DEVIL (translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwartzbart [London: Harper Collins, 1993]) is a must read for anyone seeking an in depth understanding of Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Most Luther biographies focus on Luther the bigger than life figure whose troubled spirit led him to a courageous stand against the corruption in the Medieval Church.  So troubled was Luther’s spirit by his inability to understand how he, a sinner, could be loved by God that he risked martyrdom to find the answer and then openly testify to it:  Salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, alone!  That simple doctrine, so simple that even a small child could understand it, struck at the very heart of not only the Church’s authority, but the very fabric of medieval society.  Neither the Church nor the secular authorities could allow it to go unanswered.

Martin Luther was more than just a heroic figure.  He was a human being with strengths and weaknesses like any other person.  He was a person of his time.  Although well educated, his understanding of the world in which he lived was pre-modern, pre-scientific.  For example, there is a passage in LUTHER’S TABLE TALK where he appears to make reference to Copernicus’ assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth.  Luther dismissed the Copernicus’ theory boldly affirming the geocentric theory of an earth centered universe, because he believed it is clearly taught in Holy Scripture (Joshua 10:10-15).

To understand Marti n Luther one must see him as a complete, three-dimensional person.  But more than that, one must understand the social, economic, political, and intellectual world in which he lived.  Any attempt to apply a twenty-first century worldview to Martin Luther is bound to fail.

Professor Roper’s Luther is a complex person who exhibits all the prejudices of his time.  His personality and actions were shaped in part by the fact that he did not come from the cultivated elite, and the fact that apart from a trip to Rome while still an Augustinian monk, he never ventured beyond the area where he enjoyed the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise.  With a price on his head after the Diet of Worms (1521), Luther had to allow his close followers (e.g., Philip Melanchthon) to represent him and defend his teachings at key moments, such as the Diet of Augsburg (1530).   Being sidelined by those he felt not his equal caused Luther much frustration and contributed to his chronic physical ailments.

Luther might be considered a reluctant revolutionary.  He began by seeking a debate among university colleagues concerning the abuse of the doctrine indulgences.  That simple desire for debate among a few university professors ended in the fragmentation of Christianity.  His insistence on the Bible as the final authority on matters of faith and practice left every individual able to interpret for him or herself what was true biblical teaching.  The teaching authority of the Church vanished.  Anarchy followed.  Luther’s questions began the process of the secularization of Western Civilization.

Although Luther rejected the authority of the Medieval Church, he defended the political, social, and economic structure of Medieval Europe.  He abhorred rebellion in every form, except his own religious rebellion.   When the Peasants tried to derive conclusions about social and economic justice from Luther’s teaching, Luther called upon the princes to suppress the peasants with brutal force.  They did!  The only recourse Luther offered the peasants was quiet suffering and prayer.

Professor Roper does not shy away from discussing one of the most disturbing and difficult to understand aspects of Martin Luther’s role in Western history, that is, his strident Anti-Semitism.  Luther devoted two major treatises to the topic of the Jews.  The first, “That Jesus Was Born a Jew” (1523), was sympathetic to them, even generous in its language.  The later treatise, “On the Jews and Their Lies” (1543), is altogether different, and surpassed, if that is possible, the hateful, vindictive tone of “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1525).  By 1543, Luther had obviously given up all hope of the Jews converting to Christianity.  So, he was prepared to assign them, along with the papacy, to the eternal flames.

I hesitate to refer to MARTIN LUTHER:  RENEGADE AND PROPHET as a “psychohistory,” since Erik Erikson’s psychoanalytical study of Luther, YOUNG MAN LUTHER (1958), is one of the most misleading books on Martin Luther.  How can anyone, however informed, ever understand what motivates another person’s thoughts and actions?  But isn’t that what makes history so interesting?  What happened?  When did it happen?   Those are easy questions.  The mystery lies in the “why?”  Why did Luther pursue his cause with such passion in the face of almost certain martyrdom?  Professor Roper demonstrates that the proper application of psychological and psychoanalytical insights can help us “to understand Luther himself . . .  to know how a sixteenth-century individual perceived the world around him, and why he viewed it in this way . . .  to explore his inner landscapes so as to better understand his ideas about flesh and spirit, formed in a time before our modern separation of mind and body.”

There are numerous books on Martin Luther.  Many more will be written in the future.  The reader who desires just a brief introduction to Luther may wish to begin with my own contribution, MARTIN LUTHER:  A BRIEF INTRODUCTION OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS (2005).  It includes an “Annotated Chronology of Luther’s Reformation Writings.”  Roland Bainton’s HERE I STAND:  A LIFE OF MARTIN LUTHER first published in 1950 remains the unchallenged classic biography of this great historical figure.  That being said, I believe that given its scholarship and readability, Lyndal Roper’s MARTIN LUTHER:  RENEGADE AND PROPHET will quickly establish an enduring presence among the “must read” books on Martin Luther.

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

Amazing True Stories from the Space Age

amazing-stories-imageWorld War II ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan.  It was the ultimate display of madness in a war that pushed the limits of man’s inhumanity towards humankind.  The dramatic demonstration of the destructive power of atomic energy did not result in a universal commitment to ban its use in future wars.   On the contrary, both the United States and the Soviet Union, leaders of the two opposing Cold War alliances, assumed that World War III would be fought with nuclear weapons.  President Eisenhower said that in war a nation will use whatever weapons are in its arsenal.

Rod Pyle’s new book, AMAZING STORIES OF THE SPACE AGE (New York:  Prometheus Books, 2017) reveals that what was sold to the public as a “space race” by both superpowers, was in fact an arms race.  Each side expended much energy and wealth attempting to gain the military advantage in outer space.

Since there were no international treaties regarding territorial claims in space during the 1950’s, leaders saw the race to the moon in similar terms to the 15th and 16th centuries voyages of discovery.  The first to reach the moon could claim it, much as the European nations claimed portions of the newly discovered Western Hemisphere.  It was not so much the prospect of valuable natural resources available on the moon that drove the race to the moon, as it was the military advantage of establishing bases on the moon from which to launch attacks on the Soviet Union or the United States, depending on which side you were on.

Rod Pyle has mined a wealth of declassified government documents regarding such government projects as “Project Orion,” a spacecraft that would be propelled by a series of atomic explosions, or “LUNEX,” the construction of an underground Air Force base on the moon.  One plan called for an orbiting mirror, dubbed a “sun gun,” that would concentrate the sun’s rays in a kind of death ray that could incinerate whole cities.

Both Soviet and American military leaders foresaw the militarization of the moon.  Red Army lunar marines and US “space army” units would have bases on the moon from which they would launch attacks against the enemy.  Lunar battles would be fought by soldiers armed with nuclear bazookas and, in the case of the US space army, the M-29 Davy Crockett Tactical Nuclear Recoilless Gun that would fire a nuclear warhead with “the equivalent punch of 10-20 tons of TNT.”

Pyle includes drawings from the declassified documents that illustrate some of the science fiction like government funded projects.  What kept the government from spending even more funds on these bizarre ideas than it did?  Part of the answer is found in the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty that strained available resources and forced concentration on more realistic objectives, like putting a man on the moon.

I found the first part of AMAZING STORIES OF THE SPACE AGE very interesting.  The latter part of the book, the part that chronicles the  journey to the moon, the development of the space shuttle, etc., was not so interesting, at least not for me.  On the whole, the book is a good read, especially for those who have an interest in the history of space exploration.

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