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American Society and the Great War: A Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not From Around Here: A Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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