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National Library, Vienna, Austria

Eternity, A Book Review

It has often been said that there are only 2 things for certain, death and taxes.  As we all know, the latter is not certain, since many pay no taxes.  Death however is something that none of us will escape, that is, if past history is a reliable guide to the future.   And in this case, it is. 

Understandably the question of what, if anything, happens after death has fueled the careers of many philosophers and theologians.  Life is much like an unfinished novel left behind by a deceased author.  Many try to complete the novel with their own idea of how it should end.  Interesting.  But no one can really know how the author intended to end the story.

What happens after we die?  It seems absurd to assume that this brief material existence is all that there is.  The material body decays and eventually returns to the vast repository of elements from which it was composed.  But surely something–call it consciousness, spirit, soul, or whatever—continues on in some form or other.

Recently, while serving as a volunteer usher at local theater, I listened in on a discussion about the theater’s resident ghost that apparently chooses to manifest himself from time to time.  One individual assured her audience that a colleague swears to have seen him while closing one evening.  Others claim to have seen the ghost, also.  As the discussion continued, it became clear that there are rumors of ghosts hanging out in a number of the old mansions and downtown buildings.  It is, after all, a very historic city.  I hesitate to name the city for fear that our relatively quiet community might be suddenly invaded by ghost hunters and others attracted to locations of reported paranormal phenomena.  Having ghosts sighted may be as destructive of a community’s tranquility as a visit from extra-terrestrials.  Need I mention Roswell, New Mexico?

The above is a rather lengthy introduction to a short review of a rather brief book by Tony Evans, ETERNITY: UNDERSTANDING LIFE AFTER DEATH (Chicago: Moody Press, 2016, 80 pp.).  Dr. Evans is a much-respected evangelical Christian pastor and author of a number of books dedicated to helping Christian lay people understand their faith in the Gospel, or good news, that Christians have testified to throughout history since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I have benefited from reading several of his books.  We need servants in the Church like Tony Evans, Francis Schaeffer, Tim Keller, and many others who can communicate profound truths in prose that the average lay person can understand.

ETERNITY has the appearance of being a summary of what was perhaps a sermon series on the question of what awaits the individual after death.  For the Christian whatever knowledge is available on that question must come from the Christian Bible, which Christians affirm is the only reliable and infallible truth regarding all matters of faith and practice.  But it is more complicated than that.  It is easier for us to agree on the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy than it is to agree on what it reveals or teaches.  Since the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, there is no agreed upon authority to which the individual believer can turn for a definitive interpretation of the Bible on any particular issue.   

Dr. Evans presents his interpretation of various Bible passages that together provide a picture of what eternity holds in store for the believer.  The event we refer to as “death” is a conjunction, or bridge, “between this life and the life to come” (p. 7).  From the moment we begin our life in a physical body, we are on our way to a destination, a place where we will spend eternity.  For the believer, that means eternity in the presence of God, eternal fellowship with our risen Lord Jesus Christ, and the saints, all those believers who preceded us or will follow us.  It is a specific place, prepared for us by our Lord, where we shall truly live as we never have here, in our resurrected bodies.  It is not some mysterious, shadowy realm of disembodied spirits or winged angels in white robes sitting on puffy, white clouds while playing harps. 

I find Dr. Evans’s description of eternity interesting.  I have heard other descriptions in sermons from the pulpit.  They vary.  Some have believers eternally gathered around the throne praising God along with the heavenly host of angels, cherubim, etc.  The truth is that none of us know exactly what awaits the believer after death.  We know that death, called the last enemy in the Bible, was defeated when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  We know that we will spend eternity in his presence in a place he has prepared for us.   Beyond that, we can only speculate on what certain verses may mean. 

I am of the opinion that Dr. Evans takes too much liberty with the biblical text, taking as literal what is most likely only figurative language.  Eternity as described by Evans is a place where there are class distinctions, where some live in the heavenly Jerusalem and others reside outside and only make pilgrimages to Jerusalem as Muslims do to Mecca in this fallen world, and where those who “go into eternity after the millennium” will enter with “physical glorified bodies, not spiritual glorified bodies like we will have, because they did not experience death and resurrection” (p. 45).  The latter are the “millennial saints” who will require constant nourishment provided by “the leaves of the tree of life. . . as they carry on life as we know it, except without sin, as they fill the earth” (p. 46).  I am sorry, but I find much of this rather bizarre speculation unjustified by the text cited.  The notion of a thousand-year millennium itself is questionable, being considered by many Christians more a theological construct than biblical teaching. 

Dr. Evans concludes with a description of Hell, which is also generously seasoned with his own speculation of what may be.  At one point in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus makes a reference to hell, he describes it as a place where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
    and the fire is not quenched,”

a reference to Isaiah 66:24 in the Old Testament.  Are we to assume that the souls in hell are literally being gnawed on by worms and burned by flames for eternity?  Or, is Jesus using figurative language to describe an existence forever separated from God’s presence?  I think that all we can say with certainty, based upon images used in the Bible, is that heaven is a beautiful existence of eternal fellowship with our Lord and fellow saints for those who accept God’s free gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and hell is just the opposite.  The former is desirable, a wise choice.  Hell is a most unpleasant place to be avoided.

So long as one understands that Tony Evans’s ETERNITY: UNDERSTANDING LIFE AFTER DEATH is one person’s idea of what the Bible teaches concerning eternity, it is worth reading.  Whether this 80 page “sermon” is worth the purchase price is another matter.

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

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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.

 

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Robert E. Lee and the Southern Dilemma

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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?