Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

Pride Comes Before Destruction, Or Does It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Witness of John’s Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding One’s Place in a Post-Christian World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Story With a Happy Ending

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

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

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

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

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

Where Jesus Walks the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure.  Who don’t?”

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

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

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

After a pause, he continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a book that needs to be read.

 

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Making of the Jazz Age

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a key figure in the history of the Roaring Twenties. It was Fitzgerald, or “Scott,” as he was known to by his friends, who coined the term “Jazz Age” to describe the period. His best known novel, The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925, is a must read for anyone interested in America during the 1920s.

I have read The Great Gatsby several times and seen both the 1972 film version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and the 2013 film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  The former is a classic that never disappoints, no matter how often viewed.  The latter is a paltry attempt to update a classic.  One would think that after many attempts Hollywood would learn that a remake seldom meets, much less exceeds the standard set by the original.

I am reading a number of books on the Roaring Twenties in preparation for an upper level American history class I will teach during the spring semester.  In order to get a “feel” for the era, I spent hours watching videos and listening to music from the twenties available on YouTube.  I decided to read some of the classic literature of the period, including a 1951 reprint of the original 1920 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s first novel.  It is a coming-of-age story based on his early life.  He began writing it in 1917 shortly after accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in the army.  Joining the army was a ruse to divert attention from the fact that he was flunking out of Princeton University.  The finished manuscript, four chapters in length and titled “The Romantic Egotist,” was rejected by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1918, but with the suggestion that he rewrite and resubmit it.

Scott undertook a frantic rewriting of “The Romantic Egotist” in 1919.  He was in love with a beautiful Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, member of a prominent Montgomery, Alabama family with deep roots in the Old South.  He was sure he would soon be a rich and famous author; he only had to convince her.    Only then could he win the hand of the fair Zelda.  She was not the sort of girl likely to marry a man with great dreams only.

On September 3, Scott fired off the typed manuscript to Max Perkins at Scribner’s and returned to his mundane job roofing freight cars at Northern Pacific Railroad.  This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920.  The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out in just three days.  Eleven additional printings followed during 1920 and 1921 for a total of just under 50,000 copies.  It was a phenomenal success.

Scott telegraphed Zelda to join him in New York.  On April 3, 1920, barely a week after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Scott and Zelda were married in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, following which they set up housekeeping in an apartment on West 59th Street.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became the poster couple of the 1920s. The romantic image we have of the Roaring Twenties as an era when life was one never-ending party, a dizzying swirl of jazz, flappers, bootleg booze, and gangsters is a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his fiction and the lifestyle he and Zelda lived, he created and gave life to the theme of a “Lost Generation” searching hopelessly for meaning in an existential world created by the horrors of the Great War.

The post-World War I era was a period of spiritual emptiness.  Western Civilization was in its “golden age” during the decade and a half before an assassin’s bullet struck down the heir to the Austrian throne on June 28, 1914 in the picturesque Serbian town of Sarajevo.  In the four years that followed, the glamorous fairytale world portrayed in the popular BBC television soap opera, Downton Abbey, was shattered by images of a troglodyte world of muddy, rat and lice infested trenches filled with frightened and hopeless young men waiting for the command to “go over the top” into the face of rapid-firing machine guns and near certain death.

Those who survived the “war to end all wars” could not forget the stench of rotting bodies scattered about “no man’s land,” some hanging silently on rolls of barbed wire, a smorgasbord for overweight rats.  They couldn’t rationalize it.  They couldn’t believe, as did many, that it was possible to go “back to normalcy,” that is, “Ye Good ol’ Days.”  They knew that what was lost could never be restored.  Unlike Scarlett O’Hara in that closing scene from the movie, Gone with the Wind, they knew there was no going back to Tara Plantation.   They sensed that at least for them, there was no future.

In their novels and poems T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and later Ernest Hemingway portrayed a postwar world that was a material and spiritual “waste land.”  Fitzgerald not only depicted it in his short stories and novels, especially This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, he and Zelda lived it in full public view, like stars in a reality television show.  “Sometimes,” Scott once commented, “I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.”

Can one find anywhere in the literature of the 1920s a better description of the lost generation than these closing lines from This Side of Paradise?

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light – and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all God’s dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself – art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria – he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights…

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth – yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams.  But—oh, Rosalind!  Roaslind! . . .

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed…

“He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“’I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.’”

The ordinary American knew nothing of the new world inhabited by the so-called Lost Generation.  They did not read the literary works of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Eliot, Hemingway, and a host of others that are covered in American literature classes today.  Their names and the titles of their novels are known to a select group of educated person today, either because they have seen a movie based upon one of the novels, or, perhaps much less likely, actually read one or more.

A cursory glance at the lists of bestselling novels in the United States during each year of the 1920s reveals that not one of the authors commonly included in a list of the lost generation is included.  That’s right, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The popular authors of the twenties included Gene Stratton-Porter, Harold Bell Wright, and especially Zane Grey.

Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise sold approximately fifty thousand copies in 1920, while Harold Bell Wright’s The Re-Creation of Brian Kent, also published in 1920, sold close to a million copies.  Wright was the first American author to sell a million copies of a single novel, and the first to become a millionaire from writing fiction.  Five of his novels each had sales equal to one percent of America’s population at the time.

To illustrate further how different were the reading habits of the literate masses during the 1920s from those who read the works of the lost generation writers, I need only mention that the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs sold more copies than those of Stratton-Porter, Wright, and Grey combined.  Burroughs’ Tarzan adventures and other bestselling fiction were not considered serious enough to be included in the Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling novels.

Was the decade of the 1920s really what is portrayed in the fiction written by Fitzgerald and his compatriots, or is the “jazz age” merely a bit of a self-appointed intellectual elite’s nostalgia for a mythical past no more connected to reality than the antebellum South found in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind?

Odd, isn’t it?

Sundar Singh, A Christian Mystic?

Sadhus, or holy men, are as Indian as curry. They are part of what gives charm, or an aura mystery, to the subcontinent of India. We sometimes think of them as dirty, clothed in rags, their faces covered in paints of various colors, perhaps demon possessed, smelly, long-haired men wondering about begging for food, or sitting in lotus position in a trance for hours, days, perhaps even years. From time to time they are known to utter words of wisdom, or so they sound to those not accustomed to thinking deeply.

I suppose the Indian holy men are in some way or other unique among the genre, but India does not have a monopoly on religious mystics. They are to be found around the world, among all cultures, in every religion. Yes, they are to be found even within Christianity. The anchoritic monks who populated the Egyptian deserts during the early centuries of Christianity come quickly to mind. Like the Indian sadhus, the anchorites abstained from bathing, clothed themselves in rags, and lived as hermits, all in an effort to earn special favor with God by mortifying the flesh.

WISDOM OF THE SADHU: TEACHINGS OF SUNDAR SINGH, compiled and edited by Kim Comer (Plough Publishing House, 2000) gives us some insight into the life and teachings of Sundar Singh, and Indian sadhu who is considered to have been a Christian mystic. The book is a collection of parables, aphorisms, and other fragments from the teachings of Sundar Singh.

Sundar Singh was a mystic, perhaps even a Christian mystic. But was he a Christian? Of that I am not wholly convinced. In its review of WISDOM OF THE SADHU: TEACHINGS OF SUNDAR SINGH, the Library Journal refers to Sundar Singh as one “who found his way to a kind of Christianity based on his own mystical experience of Jesus.” I am not sure how to understand that conclusion, but I cannot agree with the comment that Sundar Singh’s mystical faith as revealed in this collection from his teachings is somehow “a deeply authentic Christianity.” I do agree with the conclusion that the book should be of interest to “spiritual seekers, Christian and non-Christian alike.”

I enjoy reading books, even novels, written by individuals who are wrestling with the question of how to find meaning and purpose in life, if there is any. That is what drew me to WISDOM OF THE SADHU. It is also what drew me to Thomas á Kempis’ THE IMITATION OF CHRIST and other similar books. Wisdom of the Sadhu is a good read. The sampling of Sundar Singh’s teaching is very interesting, and the writing style is music to the ears.

I love books. They are to be enjoyed for their own sake, not just for the pleasure they give to the reader. Plough Publishing is to be commended for publishing a book that is a pleasure to hold as well as read. The quality of the paper, the print, even the cover all communicate to the reader that Wisdom of the Sadhu is a book to be enjoyed, not just read.