Thursday, December 30, 2010

See Abigail Ski!

So Ab and I went to Ski Sundown today. It was her first time to go skiing. After her lessons, I took her up to the top of the mountain. She skied down like a champ. Watch out, Lindsey Vonn!

We had to take a break every once in a while. . . .

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Six New Books. WooHoo!!

So Michele's parents sent me a Barnes and Noble gift card for Christmas, and my folks gave me some cash. So I took myself book shopping this afternoon. Here's what I came home with:

1. The Kennedys Amidst the Gathering Storm: A Thousand Days in London, 1938-1940, by Will Swift.

2. American Heroes: Profiles of Men and Women Who Shaped Early America, by Edmund S. Morgan.

3. Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, by William F. Buckley Jr.

4. American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, by Jon Meacham

5. The Crowd Sounds Happy: A Story of Love, Madness, and Baseball, by Nicholas Dawidow.

6. The Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens.

Now, which one to read first?

Coming soon to Frankly Speaking: My 10 Best Books of 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

Suffering in Second Timothy

Suffering and sacrifice just aren't a part of God's plan for you. True Christianity is all about having peace and prosperity and everything you want, or at least most of what you want most of the time.

No, I wasn't speaking for myself there. Yes, I was trying to give expression to what I hear a lot of these days. Sickening, isn't it?

For a few months now, I've been teaching a Wednesday-night adult class that's surveying the New Testament. A couple weeks ago, getting ready for our time with Second Timothy, I sat down and spent about fifteen minutes or more slowly (and I mean slowly) reading through this short letter. Here's some of what I noticed, or noticed again. . . .

It seems that by the time he writes this letter, Paul has managed to get himself into prison in Rome (1:16-17). At an earlier stage in his life, when he wrote to people like Philemon and the Philippians, Paul told them to get a room ready for him. Even though he was confined for awhile, he said he would soon be coming to see them (for example, Philippians 1:12-26 and Philemon 22-23) But this time around, usually referred to as his "second Roman imprisonment," he doesn't seem to be hopeful about getting out (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

Timothy, on the other hand, is apparently at Ephesus (1:18), which is where Paul had left him according to 1 Timothy 1:3. From the first letter, it seems like Timothy was having to deal with a lot controversy. The second letter continues this theme. In a situation like that, says Paul, Timothy must teach his people to avoid disputing over words (2:14). Timothy himself must have nothing to do with these stupid, senseless controversies. And, he must avoid falling into the trap of becoming quarrelsome. He should be kind to everyone (2:23-24).

Apparently, handling this sort of assignment will not be easy for Timothy. Why? Because he is not one for taking the bull by the horns, so to speak. Running all the way through 2 Timothy is the hint that this young evangelist is very uncomfortable with conflict. At the beginning of the letter, for example, Paul says that he remembers Timothy's tears (1:4). What Timothy had been crying about is not clear. But what does seem clear is that Timothy is prone to being timid. Paul needs to remind him that the Spirit that God gave to us is not one of fear, but one of power, love, and self-control (1:7). Paul goes on to tell Timothy not to be ashamed. Neither he, Paul, nor his helper, Onesiphorus, were ashamed (1:12-17). From there, Paul goes on to issue several related examples and words of encouragement:
  • be strong (2:1)
  • take your share of suffering (2:3)
  • I am suffering (2:9)
  • I endure everything (2:10)
  • You have witnessed my persecutions and sufferings. Now you endure (3:10-15)
  • endure suffering (4:5)
These add up to a powerful testimony about the necessity for Christians, and especially their leaders, to endure hardship for the Lord's sake. So here are some questions we started out with in class. Before I asked these questions, I told the group that it wasn't my intention to bring everyone down. I was my intention to cause them to think about some things that are inevitable:

1. What is the most difficult thing you've ever had to endure? I'm not asking about just anything that was hard or painful. I'm thinking about enduring hardship for the sake of someone else, or for the sake of something that was important to you.

2. What is the most difficult conflict you've ever had with another person or group of people?

3. In those circumstances, what helped you or inspired you to hang on?

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Southwestern Wedding

So last weekend, Michele and Aubrey and I drove down to El Paso for a wedding. Eddie Cartagena and Marissa Hernandez (Michele's niece) got married.

It was a nice ceremony, something I would have said even if Michele's father didn't preside. He also conducted our wedding back in January 2004.

I don't think I'd like living in the desert southwest. But I did enjoy the warm weather in December.

The whole time we were there, I kept thinking about how, when we were there three years ago, it was safe for us to walk across the bridge over into Juarez. We found ourselves in a big crowd of out-of-towners who had come to El Paso for the Sun Bowl football game. What a difference a few years can make. Nowadays, you'd probably be safer in Baghdad or Tehran.

While I sometimes wondered about life on the other side of the Rio Grand, I also felt blessed to be on this side with my wife.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Day the World Ended (1955)

I promise. This post has absolutely nothing to do with the previous one. I'm not poking fun. Not being deliberately ironic. It just happened like this.

On his way to becoming Hollywood’s king of low-budget movies, in 1955 a young Roger Corman produced and directed Day the World Ended. It was one of his earliest films. Dozens more would follow in the years to come. But in his 1998 memoir, Corman remarks that it was this movie that established him as a director in the science fiction genre (p. 31).

The film’s opening title card announces, What you are about to see may never happen. . . . but to this anxious age in which we live, it presents a fearsome warning. . . . Our Story begins with . . . . THE END!

Next we see an example of that now-familiar stock footage of an atomic explosion, and we hear the narrator, Chet Huntley. His voice has been modified to sound tinny with a bit of reverb, a convention that signals to the viewer that these words come from the Bible. (The same thing turns up in the Jule Miller evangelistic film strips). The narration interprets the nuclear holocaust with words taken from 2 Peter 3:10 according to the King James Version: . . . and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. (Note: This passage is often cited as biblical proof that Christian eschatology expects the fiery destruction of the created order. Few people are aware that this verse includes a notoriously difficult textual problem. In fact, the KJV rendering quoted above is not an accurate English translation of the autograph of Second Peter. In all likelihood, the original document said that the earth and everything in it would be “revealed” or “found,” not “burned up.” For a discussion of the questions raised by the various extant Greek manuscripts, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed. [Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994], 636-37).

As survivors of World War III emerge through the smoke, the narrator tells us, “Man has done his best to destroy himself. But there is a force more powerful than man. And in his infinite wisdom, he has spared a few.” Those few soon begin showing up at the home of Jim Maddison (Paul Birch). Maddison and his daughter, Louise (Lori Anderson, pictured below) are safe, at least for the time being. Their house is in a valley protected by high winds, and by hills all around that contain lead-ore. Jim, a veteran of the U.S Navy, had long suspected that the worst would eventually happen. Ten years before it did, he carefully chose where he would live and stocked everything he would need in order for his family to survive. The lovely Louise has a fiancĂ©, but we soon discover that he is among the victims.

The survivors who take refuge at the Maddison’s include a small-time crook Tony Lamont (Touch Conners, before he became Mike Conners of Mannix fame) and his girlfriend, an aging stripper named Ruby (Adele Jergens). A geologist named Rick (Richard Denning), who carries on his shoulders a man named Radek (Paul Dubov), follows them. Nearly dead, it seems, Radek has a bad case of radiation poisoning. Finally, a crusty old gold prospector, Pete (Raymond Hatton) shows up with his burro, Diablo, in tow. Thrown together by circumstance, the group spends the next several weeks waiting for the radiation to dissipate. Everyone stays inside for the most part, except for Radek who often wanders out at night and whose high roentgen count leads Jim and Rick to wonder why he’s still alive.

Eventually, they discover that Radek is some sort of partial mutant who kills and eats contaminated game during his nighttime ventures. As Rick describes things, Radek has survived because he’s the victim of “an entirely-new set of laws that we know nothing about.” But soon, Radek the hunter becomes prey. Stalking the valley is a full-blown mutant, actually Paul Blaisdell wearing one of the cheapest, most-pathetic monster suits in cinematic history. Soon after this monster with the huge head, bird beak, three eyes, and a 34-inch waist kills Radek, some of the other characters begin to kill off themselves or each other. Having grown impatient, Pete climbs out of the valley and onto the radioactive ridge. Tony, with his sights now set on Louise, stabs the jealous Ruby and throws her body off a cliff.

But Tony isn’t the only one interested in Louise. With the monster psychically calling to her, she wanders into the woods. When Rick discovers that she’s not in the house, he goes looking and finds her in a pond just out of the reach of the mutant, which seems to be afraid of the water. When Rick fires his rifle at the mutant, he discovers that it’s bullet proof, and he is also forced to take refuge in the pond. Just then, it begins to rain for the first time since the war. Immediately the monster begins to cringe, and it quickly dies. Louise tells Rick that, for some strange reason, she feels sorry for the mutant. And since it “spoke” only to her, viewers are left wondering if the monster was in fact Louise’s fiancĂ©! (Usually, the man turning into a monster is something that happens after the wedding, right?). At any rate, as Rick and Louise return to the house, Tony plans to kill Rick so that he can have the girl for himself. At the last moment though, Jim, lying on the couch with a fatal case of radiation poisoning, pulls a hidden pistol and kills Tony. Afterwards, Rick, Louise, and Jim try to make sense of everything that’s recently happened. Jim says of the monster, That thing was created to live in a poisoned world. The rain came, and it was pure. Louise: Man created it, but God destroyed it. He brought the rain and the fresh air. Moments later, Jim dies, leaving only Rick and Louise. The final scene shows the couple healthy and smiling as they hike out of the valley arm-in-arm.

Of all the nuclear-war films that have been made, it would be hard to find one that is more explicitly religious than Day the World Ended. As my synopsis indicates, while the story acknowledges that humans are responsible for the event that brings them to near extinction, it also firmly places this event under the sovereign power of the God of the Christian Bible. Likewise, the end clearly asserts that humanity’s ability to survive and even flourish in a newly-cleansed world is also the result of the providential care of this God. To underscore all of this, midway through, the movie includes a Bible reading. In the previous scene, Jim and Rick wander through the woods. The men are perplexed by Radek’s strange behavior and by the question of what the fallout might have done to the environment. Jim asks his new friend, “What can we do, Rick?” An earlier scene revealed that Rick’s brother, who was instantly killed in the nuclear attack, was planning to become a minister. Rick replies to Jim’s question, My brother believed that the Bible gave strength and revealed a plan for everything. Jim responds, Then I hope I find it before I lose my mind. Back at his home, Jim holds a Bible and reads to the group:

. . . for I am with thee to save thee and to deliver thee, saith the Lord. And I will deliver thee out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem thee out of the hand of the terrible (Jeremiah 15:20b-21).

This raises a number of unanswered questions. Why has Jim made his way to the end of Jeremiah 15? Who does he assume that “the wicked” and “the terrible” might be? What sorts of applications is the viewer expected make? My last question leads back to Lou Rusoff, the author of the screenplay. But it’s really not that complicated. According to the story, Jim just happens to have found and read a passage that promises him—or at least his descendants through Louise—eventual rescue from radioactive monsters and nuclear fallout, not to mention Tony. Yes, it is a greeting-card understanding of the Bible. It’s also a very popular approach in Christian history and American culture.

In these ways, then, Day the World Ended assumes the existence and benevolent care of the God of the Christian Bible. Consequently, in this movie although humanity is responsible for World War III and the near extinction of life on Earth, the providence of God ensures that there are survivors. It also provides for a natural cleansing of the planet so that survivors then have the prospect of repopulating the world.

Some Sources:

Corman, Roger. How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.

Kaufman, Gordon D. “Nuclear Eschatology and the Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51 (March 1983): 3-14.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. 2d ed., Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Date is Set for Christ's Return


Just in case you hadn't heard, Jesus is coming back . . . . on May 21, 2011. Be sure to mark your calendars.

My favorite part of the story: The article begins with, There are 24 shopping days left till Christmas. And 171 days left until Jesus' second coming. I looked through the comments section for this story. Here are some of the more interesting lines:

What? Jesus is coming back right after graduation? I'm SO done working!

Where are we going? And why are we in this hand basket?

Dangit! That's my dog's birthday. I'm totally going to have to change the theme for her party!

Does this guy also predict winning lottery numbers?

Isn't this strange? What do you think? Is it all a publicity and marketing campaign? Or do you think the people making this prediction are sincere?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Seven Days in May (1964)

I've been trying to work on a number of different historical projects lately. I know, I really should focus on just one. But I get distracted. Anyway, one of those projects has to do with feature films of the Cold War era. Here's a review of one of my favorites so far. Spoiler Alert! The first half of what follows is a full synopsis:

Seven Days in May Directed by John Frankenheimer
Novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II
Screenplay by Rod Serling
Seven Arts Productions and Joel Productions
118 minutes

Seven Days in May begins with a riot in front of the White House. It's the late 1960s and U.S. President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) has recently signed a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Now, demonstrators for and against the treaty are coming to blows. The populace is afraid. The military-industrial complex feels betrayed. And the president’s approval rating has sunk to 29 percent.

In one of the opening scenes, the president talks with a sympathetic friend, Senator Raymond Clark (Edmond O’Brien). He explains his reason for making the pact. Sure, the U.S. could have maintained “a nice, cushy feeling that we’ve got a bomb for every one of theirs. But . . . there’d have come one day when they’d have blown us up, or we’d have blown them up.”

President Lyman’s most forceful opponent is Air Force General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Scott is a highly decorated war hero who never misses a chance to denounce the new treaty. In one scene, he tells a congressional panel, “There’s not a single piece of paper in history that’s ever served as a deterrent to a Pearl Harbor.” The next day, at a televised rally with thousands of veterans cheering him on, he rails against “the cynics, the one-worlders, the intellectual dilettantes,” those who believe that “patriotism is old-fashioned” and that “love of country is out-dated.”

Scott’s aide at the Pentagon is Marine Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas). Casey admires Scott and shares his mistrust of the Soviets. But unlike the outspoken general, Casey stays clear of any public criticism of the administration. A series of clues leads Casey to an uneasy suspicion about his boss, and he requests a meeting with the president. At the White House, Casey reports what he has recently seen and heard. Finally, when President Lyman presses him to speak candidly, the colonel tells him, “I’m suggesting, Mr. President, there’s a military plot to take over the government.”

The president regards the conspiracy theory as possible, and he calls together a small group of trusted aides and officials, including Casey, to investigate. Casey approaches Scott’s former mistress, Eleanor Holbrook (Ava Gardner). Though he is genuinely attracted to her, he visits Holbrook at her apartment in order to find out what she knows about the general. Casey leaves with a stack of love letters written by Scott, letters that can be used against him. The rest of the team discovers that General Scott is, in fact, planning a coup. The scheme is impressive. Scott has set up a clandestine military base near El Paso where unknowing troops are training for seizure. A scheduled alert exercise in a few days will serve as the pretext for mobilizing the military and isolating the president. The armed forces will commandeer nation-wide communications, including the television networks. Almost all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a key member of the Senate, Frederick Prentice (Whit Bissell), are in on the plan. A popular television newsman, Harold McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) will manage the media in the replacement government.

At first, President Lyman intends to derail the conspiracy by exposing it. But General Scott’s team, well organized and determined, prevents the president from assembling the evidence he needs in order to make his case to the public. Then he learns that Scott has rescheduled the alert for late Saturday night, instead of Sunday morning. With time running out, the president phones the Pentagon and demands to see the general immediately. At the White House, Lyman confronts Scott, accuses him of treason, and demands his resignation. The general first denies the plan and then defends his motives. As he leaves, the president vows to fight him.

The next day as the president holds a televised press conference, he receives word that a key piece of evidence exposing the junta has been discovered. Soon, he reports that members of the Joint Chiefs have tendered their resignations. On hearing the news, General Scott tells his driver to take him home.

The film ends with President Lyman speaking to the nation. He declares that in spite of the negative national mood, “the whisperers, the detractors, the violent men are wrong.” The United States is still a strong nation, “strong enough to be a peacemaker.” It is still a proud nation, “proud enough to be patient.” He concludes with the rousing prophecy that “we will see a day when on this earth all men will walk out of the long tunnels of tyranny into the bright sunshine of freedom.” As he leaves the podium, the press corps stands and applauds.

One of the truly great movies depicting the Cold War, Seven Days in May captures so well what seems to have been its cultural context, the attitudes and the atmosphere in America at the time. In 1960, Nixon and Lodge, who nearly won the election, had used a slogan that could have been part of the script: “They Understand What Peace Demands.” Two years later, in October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis heightened the nation’s awareness that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union possessed a large arsenal of incredibly powerful nuclear weapons, and that even an accidental first strike would likely result in retaliation leading to full escalation. In 1964, the year the film was released, such fears were the basis of a clever response to a slogan used by the Republican presidential nominee. The Barry Goldwater campaign declared, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Supporters of Lyndon Johnson responded with, “In Your Heart You Know He Might.”

More than that, the film also editorializes by presenting a vision of the sort of Americans who can guide the nation to survival and even prosperity. The film “takes a side” in a vital debate during the Cold War. But it also attempts to make room for the opposing side. For example, during his televised press conference, President Lyman assures his hearers of their right to dissent. Viewers overhear him say:

Americans traditionally and historically have given vent to their views. On the date that this government does anything arbitrarily to stifle those views, it will have to change form. It will cease to be a democracy. And I can state quite frankly that this day will not come.

Earlier, when he faces off with the general, the president never suggests that his opponent’s militaristic views have no merit. Although he disagrees with Scott, Lyman does not debate the general’s position. What he objects to is Scott’s attempt to circumvent American rules and procedures. When General Scott professes “an abiding concern about the survival of this country,” President Lyman responds:

Then, by God, run for office! . . . You want to defend the United States of America. Then defend it using the tools it supplies you with, the Constitution. You ask for a mandate, General, from a ballot box. You don’t steal it after midnight, when the country has its back turned.
Colonel Casey, a third alternative, personifies a hawkish position that at the same time defends duly elected civilian authority. When the president meets with the colonel at the White House, he asks him what he thinks about General Scott’s militaristic views. Casey answers:

I agree with General Scott, Sir. I think we’re being played for suckers. I think it’s really your business, yours and the Senate. You did it and they agreed. So, well, I don’t see how we in the military can question it. I mean, we can question it, but we can’t fight it. . . . We shouldn’t anyway.
From the vantage point of the film, Lyman and Casey are ideal Americans. They are strong enough to act responsibly and to show respect even while they believe that they are in the right and that others are wrong. Seven Days in May seems to assume that strength and purity of character combined with uniquely-American institutions will always generate a way for the United States to prevail. Thus, the film reflects and encourages the values of that religion or folk philosophy that has been called "Americanism."

Sources

Farber, David, and Bailey, Beth. Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

The Internet Movie Database. “Seven Days in May (1964).” http://www.imdb.com/ title/tt0058576/

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Kennedy Imprisonment, by Garry Wills

Wills, Garry. The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1982).

Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian, wrote this book in the wake of Senator Ted Kennedy’s unsuccessful run in 1980 for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like a political observer trained in family psychology, the author attempts to explain the unique privileges, burdens--and now failures-- of the youngest Kennedy son.

He describes it all as the result of the family’s development and abuse of power over many decades. For example, in “Part One: Sex,” Wills tells a number of stories about the philandering father, Joe Kennedy Sr. He suggests that John Kennedy, also a compulsive womanizer, was both acting like his father and trying to compensate for his own weak constitution. Only years later would the moral weight of this “masculine” family habit fall squarely on Ted’s shoulders. His lonely and damaged wife, Joan, and the candidate’s obvious reluctance to come close to any woman in public were just two of the pitiful consequences of a pattern of immorality spanning two generations.

In subsequent parts, Wills likewise depicts Ted as the prisoner of “Family” and “Image,” and “Charisma.” To devastating effect, he describes a Joe Kennedy Sr. obsessed with the goal of portraying his children, especially his sons, as a group of indomitable winners. For example, working behind the scenes Joe began with John’s senior paper at Harvard and managed to have it padded, reworked, and promoted as a noteworthy book, Why England Slept. He also saw to it that the story of PT 109 was carefully crafted and publicized so that John emerged as one of the best-known heroes of World War II. Again, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Years later it was not John Kennedy, but Ted Sorensen assisted by Jules Davids, who wrote almost all of Profiles in Courage, a book that, incredibly, garnered for JFK a Pulitzer Prize. Of course, the decades-long tradition of deception and empty credentials would inevitably come crashing down. But again, in this tragedy of Shakespearean proportions the older Kennedys experienced the pride. It was Ted, in so many ways alone, who would know the fall.

In the last major section of the book, “Power,” Wills sets out to demolish, among other things, the American myth of the Cuban missile crisis. One by one, he takes out each pillar holding up the structure: Notwithstanding the attempts to spread the blame, only President Kennedy could have launched or prevented the Bay of Pigs. With a mixture of hubris and ignorance, he opted to go with the plan, in part because it was clandestine, unconventional, and high brow, “a James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by Ph.D.s” (231). And why not risk it? The president had been so lucky up till then.

The early, conventional portraits of the Kennedy administration suggest that not only did JFK learn several important lessons from his humiliating defeat, it was this new found wisdom that supposedly enabled him to act so effectively during the missile crisis. But Wills insists that the facts speak otherwise. He says that after the Bay of Pigs, the president never questioned the general purpose and plan of the scheme. To the contrary, he increased his dedication to an anti-bureaucratic approach that specialized in things like paramilitary assaults, counterinsurgency, and guerrilla warfare. In other words, after the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy did not change his course. Instead, he became more devoted to the prospect of unseating Fidel Castro, this time by means of the secretive Operation Mongoose. Plans designed to topple the Cuban dictator were well known by both Castro and Khrushchev. Thus, the reason why Castro reluctantly agreed to have Soviet missiles sent to Cuba was because he wanted a deterrent against an invasion by the US. When Cuba and the USSR made this claim during the crisis, they were telling the truth.

And what of the legendary restraint shown by Kennedy during the crisis? Wills answers that the president’s claim that he made “every effort” in order to provide room for his adversary is “demonstrably untrue” (265). Among other things, Kennedy ruled out open diplomacy from the very beginning of the crisis, insisted that the removal of the Jupiter missiles from Turkey must not be seen as a quid pro quo, and eventually gave the Russians a 24-hour deadline along with his proposal, a move that actually increased the likelihood of war.

Wills says that by acting in such unrestrained fashion, Kennedy helped to precipitate the fall of Khrushchev, a relatively-easy opponent who was replaced by a Soviet hard-liner. Having been treated this way once by the US, leaders in the USSR were in no mood to make compromises later. Not only that, Kennedy’s behavior in the crisis established a pattern of insisting that the US always deal with adversaries from a superior position, instead of as equals. For these reasons, Wills concludes that the Cuban missile crisis was not, in fact, a great victory for Kennedy and America.

The Kennedy Imprisonment was intended for a general, non-academic audience. It is extremely well written and reads easily. Nevertheless, any book making so many counter claims, several of them audacious, really should be accompanied by documentation. There was no good reason for this work to be published without some sort of notes. Their absence significantly weakens the credibility and usefulness of what might have been a convincing, as well as telling, critique.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Preachers Who Are Not Believers

Some church ministers have a secret. A big one: they no longer believe what they preach. They no longer accept the tenets of the faith that their congregations are committed to.

1. Here's the article that Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, "Preachers Who Are Not Believers."

2. Dennett also published a shorter, popular-level article in Tufts University Magazine, "The Pastor's Secret."

3. Here's the page at ABC News.com that highlights a recent segment they did, apparently as a spin-off from these articles. Only there's a problem here: the text on the page is a match, but the videos that accompany the story are not a match. Not sure why. "Atheist Ministers Struggle With Leading the Faithful."

Anyway, although I haven't read it all just yet, I think this story is fascinating. All of my adult life, I've worked as a preacher and now as the director of a Christian Student Center. By experience I've always known that ministers have doubts and unanswered questions about the faith they teach and practice. In fact, I don't really trust the ministers who claim they don't have those questions. I suspect they're either lying or that they don't do much thinking, a major problem either way.

On the other hand, it's an entirely different thing for a minister to secretly reject the basics of his or her faith and stay in a ministry position, preaching week after week.

Somewhere in the middle, I'd say, is the minister who hasn't rejected basic Christian beliefs, but who doesn't share the congregation's commitment to group identity markers: like a Reformed pastor who doubts Calvinism, or a Pentecostal preacher who thinks tongue-speaking might be mumbo jumbo, or a preacher in the Churches of Christ who doesn't think instrumental music in Christian worship really matters to God. (Not that there are any preachers in that last category. It's just an example, okay?).

All of this raises a number of questions for me. Questions like:

1. What is the legitimacy and role of doubt in Christian life?

2. What sorts of unorthodox possibilities may a Christian leader seriously consider? What unorthodox convictions might be permissible for a Christian leader to develop? My question is, Where's the line that divides acceptable unorthodoxy from the unacceptable?

3. If a minister were to confess, or a church were to discover, that the minister harbors deep-seated doubt or an agnosticism about the Christian faith, what would be the right way for the church to handle that? (According to one story, a preacher publically confessed atheism and was asked by the congregation to stay on until his successor was named).

4. What is the minister's responsibility to the church with regard to these questions? That is, when is a minister who harbors doubt justified in maintaining his church-staff position? At what point does the unorthodox minister become a sort of religious prostitute?

5. Are churches places where people are afraid to ask their questions or express their doubts for fear of rejection? I know, to ask is to answer. But what's the right way for church leaders to handle what have to be many, many wide-ranging questions in the congregation?

6. Is the biggest problem here dependency on money? It has to be the case that the main reason why disbelieving ministers refuse to be honest is because, if they were, they'd lose their income. Is a Christianity that is strongly tied to institutional forms at the root of this question?

What do you think?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Meaning of Shutter Island

Okay, so the other night Michele and I watched the movie Shutter Island. Maybe you've seen it. If not, you probably saw the promos. The film was released back in February of this year. It was directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who routinely turns in great performances, with no exception here.

Afterwards, I went to see some of the online discussion. What I found was a big disappointment. Not that I went looking for very long, but of the reviews I did come across none of them talked about the political dimension of this film. Why not? (spoiler alert!)

For those who haven't (yet) seen this movie, here's one reviewer's quick take on how it begins: Two U.S. marshals, Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule, are summoned to a remote and barren island off the coast of Massachusetts to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a murderess from the island’s fortress-like hospital for the criminally insane.

As the story unfolds, viewers encounter a common narrative device: the difference between perception and reality. Things aren't as they seem, which raises the challenge of distinguishing the two.

But here's what I found really strange about most of the interpretations and reviews that I read about this movie. To a one, they all considered Shutter Island a psychological study of the main character. I saw it much more as a political allegory.

Why? Well, for one thing, at least three characters on Shutter Island make references to things like atomic weapons and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Not to mention that at an earlier time in his life, the main character had been one of the American soldiers who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. Several other related parts of Shutter Island convinced me that this story isn't so much a "psychological thriller" about Teddy Daniels, the main character. Instead, it's more like a parable about the craze-inducing responsibility of being the United States of America, the world's superpower.

For example, why is it significant that the main character was a U.S. soldier in WWII, one who liberated a death camp no less? Sounds like American guilt to me. . . . Sure we got involved in the War. But that was only after Pearl Harbor dragged us in kicking and screaming. By then it was way too late for millions of European Jews. And it wasn't like we hadn't heard news about their plight. We just didn't want to believe it.

The good news, of course, is that we--the good guys with right on our side--successfully ended the war, . . . by dropping atomic bombs on two cities. But we would make up for any sins of omission or commission, we told ourselves. Or at least we could prevent those sorts of ugly things from happening again. How? By becoming vigilant. So vigilant, in fact, that at one point in the 1950s we were more than ready to see a Communist behind every tree. Of course, almost all of these people protested that they weren't Communists. But what would you expect them to say?

At the end of the film, Teddy Daniels, the DiCaprio character with a history he barely knows, has a question: Which would be worse? To live as a monster, or die as a good man? That's the question that won't leave the U.S. alone. Even when America exercises its power with the best of intentions--and our intentions are never so pure as that--it's not uncommon for many thousands of people inside and outside this country to experience our actions as nothing short of monstrous. The movie insinuates that if your American patriotism reacts with thoughts like: "But what about our commitment to international freedom and liberty?" and "What about all of the good that we do?" then you're Teddy Daniels, the man who knows only one part of his story, only one side of his identity.

But what other alternative is there, except for the monster to cease to exist? The ending of the movie insinuates that that is exactly what will happen in the future. The moral order, the law of sowing and reaping will eventually neutralize the United States.

Did anyone else see the film this way? Or should I be committed to the island?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Been Readin'


Cold War Fever

So maybe you've guessed by now. These days I'm focused on the Cold War; especially that episode called the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred in October 1962. My previous two posts are short reviews of some important sources about the crisis. One, Robert F. Kennedy's Thirteen Days, is an early, first-person report that was polished up and published not long after his assassination in 1968. The second, Sheldon Stern's The Week the World Stood Still, is based on the author's transcripts of the tape recordings of meetings held in the Cabinet Room and in the Oval Office during the crisis. In addition to those two books and a few others I'm currently reading, I've recently come across a few articles you might find interesting. . . .

The Calvinists are Coming!

Something I've noticed about Religion majors at Amarillo College: many of them are Calvinists of sorts. A recent issue of the Economist magazine contains an article about how this phenomenon is impacting the Southern Baptist Convention: Southern Baptists: the new Calvins.

The Sunday-Night Slide

I always enjoy taking a look at Christian Century magazine. For many decades now, it's been the voice of mainline Protestantism in America. It's like the Christianity Today magazine for people who are to the left of evangelicals. Anyway, a recent issue contains an article about something I've mentioned here before: Sunday night services a fading tradition.

A Scholar of the Classics Reads Paul

I can still remember the shock. I had just started reading Philo. He was a Jewish leader who lived in Alexandria, Egypt about the time Christianity first began. My Greek wasn't good enough to read Philo in the original. I had to settle for an English translation. But even then, on nearly every page I came across phrases and expressions that reminded me so much of Paul. It was overwhelming evidence of something I'd never really understood before: Paul's rhetoric was hardly unique. In fact, in many ways it was typical. Wanna see? Check out Philo for yourself. Anyway, more recently, a real scholar of the Classics, Sarah Ruden, has published a book on the Apostle called Paul Among the People. I haven't read the book yet, but enjoyed John Wilson's interview with Sarah Ruden, which showed up in a recent issue of Christianity Today. The article is titled The Apostle of the Golden Age.

So, what are you reading these days? Anything especially good? . . .

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Week the World Stood Still

Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.


From 1977 to 1999, Sheldon M. Stern served as Historian of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. In 2003, Stern published Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press). The author describes that book as a “full-length” account based primarily on tape recordings of meetings that were held in the Cabinet Room and Oval Office of the White House during the crisis. Two years later, in 2005, Stern published The Week the World Stood Still, the book under review. In his “Acknowledgments,” he explains that this later work is a “revised and condensed version of Averting ‘The Final Failure’,” designed especially for “students and general readers.”

In Chapter One, “The JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes,” Stern describes both the delight and the frustration of listening to the recordings of the meetings. He relates the tedium of using the tapes, often incomplete and sometimes poor in quality, in order to identify who was speaking and what each person said. He also tells some of the story behind the production of the tapes: of JFK’s request for a recording system in the White House, the system itself and how it worked, etc. Finally, he disputes the notion that because only President Kennedy and his brother Robert knew that they were being recorded, the tapes fail to capture honest dialogue, but instead record the Kennedys posturing for posterity. In defense of his assertion, the author notes that a freewheeling conversation among fifteen bright people would be impossible to manipulate. Besides, like Richard M. Nixon a decade later, President Kennedy never imagined that anyone else would ever have access to his tapes. Above all, Stern reminds the reader that at the time of the crisis, as the meetings were being recorded, no one knew for sure how it would all turn out.

In Chapter Two, “The Making of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” the author sets the stage with a short, well-written, and helpful overview of the historical realities leading up to the crisis. Stern describes the Cold War and U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and with Cuba. He also tells us, with remarkable insight, about John F. Kennedy. Stern quotes letters written by JFK when he was a junior naval officer serving in the Pacific during World War II. Here, the reader gets to listen in as the unsuspecting future President candidly talks about the unspeakable ugliness of war and the comic ineptness of at least some military leaders. Stern closes the chapter with something that I found especially helpful: a brief, professional biography of each of the “Key Members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council.”

Chapter Three, “The Secret Meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council,” makes up more than three-quarters of the book. Here Stern recounts the significant events and meetings of each day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, beginning with Tuesday, October 16, 1962, and continuing through Monday, October 29. Throughout, the author weaves together description and direct quotation in order to produce a continuous narrative. Without hearing the tapes themselves, the reader gains a strong sense of how the meetings went, the personalities involved, the attitudes of the participants, who spoke most frequently, and the specific decisions that President Kennedy had to make while under incredible pressure.

Stern’s account provides plenty of high drama. A good example comes from JFK’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday morning, October19. A few days into the crisis by this point, the deliberations of the Executive Committee had convinced the president of the terrible hazards and possibly-tragic consequences of a full-scale attack and invasion of Cuba. Kennedy favored something less drastic, a naval blockade of Cuba. But the JCS stoutly opposed him:

General LeMay, giving no indication that he had understood the dangers raised by the president, turned JFK’s Berlin argument on its head: “I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba they’re gonna knock off Berlin.” The Soviets “are gonna push on Berlin and push real hard” if the U.S. fails to take military action against Cuba, since they would feel “they’ve got us on the run.” Kennedy interrupted to ask about Soviet reprisals after a U.S. attack on Cuba. There would be no reprisals, LeMay asserted confidently, as long as you tell Khrushchev again, “If they make a move [in Berlin], we’re gonna fight.” The self-assured general moved in for the verbal kill: “This blockade and political action I see leading into war. . . . This is almost as bad as the appeasement in Munich. . . . I just don’t see any other solution except direct military intervention, right now” (pp. 67-68).
Passages like that one typify Stern’s account. From beginning to end, the reader is able to perceive the emotional ebb and flow of the meetings, as well as the political, military, and diplomatic questions that the president had to answer. The chapter ends not long after Nikita Khrushchev made his surprise announcement, on Saturday, October 27, that the Soviets would dismantle and remove their offensive weapons from Cuba.

“Epilogue: The November Post-Crisis” describes the tentative character of the agreement that the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. had reached. There were still many loose ends to tie up.

In his “Conclusion,” Stern reflects on the ways in which his experience with the tapes radically changed his perspective on the president and the crisis. Like most everyone else during the late 1960s, Stern says that he took it for granted “that John Kennedy had been a tough and relentless Cold Warrior.” However, in spite of his hard public rhetoric and his desire to see Castro eliminated, during the crisis Kennedy "repeatedly acted to prevent, postpone, or at least question the wisdom of” more than a dozen “potentially provocative measures” (216). In doing so, he “often stood virtually alone against warlike counsel from the ExComm, the JCS, and the leaders of Congress during those historic 13 days” (217). It seems clear that the author continues to esteem John F. Kennedy as a hero. Only now, he has different reasons.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Bobby Kennedy on the Cuban Missile Crisis

Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Introductions by Robert S. McNamara and Harold Macmillan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969.

At the beginning of Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy relates something of what it felt like when he and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and several other high officials of the U.S. government first heard the facts. On Tuesday, October 16, 1962, experts from the U.S. Intelligence Community revealed to the group that the Soviet Union was building a missile base on the island of Cuba, and that atomic weapons and large missiles were already there. During the weeks leading up to that meeting, Soviet representatives, including Chairman Nikita Khrushchev himself, had consistently assured American leaders that they had no intention of sending surface-to-surface missiles or offensive weapons to Cuba. Remembering the moment when the truth became clear, Kennedy writes: "Now, as the representatives of the CIA explained the U-2 photographs that morning, . . . we realized that it had all been lies, one gigantic fabric of lies." There at page 27, I was hooked and kept reading to the end. What a riveting story, told so well.

From there, Kennedy describes some of the initial deliberations of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the "Ex Comm"). He tells about the competing recommendations they offered, which invariably led to the excruciating decisions that finally only the President could make. The first major decision took up the question of an appropriate initial response. After President Kennedy rejected the plan of a military strike and adopted the idea of naval blockade of Cuba, there were other questions to answer. Many of these were related to the task of striking a balance. On the one hand, it was imperative that the U.S. forcefully confront Khrushshev over the treachery and provocation of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it was also necessary to leave room so that the Chairman could retain honor and respectability while backing down. As Kennedy describes it, this balancing act was performed by the President as he stood between the implicit threats from the Soviets on one side, and calls from U.S. military leaders and hawkish members of Congress for at least a strike, or even a full invasion of Cuba, on the other side.

Kennedy relates a number of nail-biting episodes as the crisis unfolded. He tells, for example, about the President meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko two days after U.S. officials became aware of the build up, and how Gromyko denied any such activity. He also reports how, at his brother's request, he made a visit to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin who, like Gromyko, held to the same official line: no long-range missiles had been delivered to Cuba, and the Soviet government had no intention of doing any such thing. Kennedy gives the reader a good sense of what it was like for the President to hear from the Ex-Comm about every possible contingency before making day-to-day and sometimes minute-to-minute decisions that brought with them huge consequences. Finally, Kennedy relates the official agreement according to which the Soviet Union would remove their weapons systems from Cuba and the United States would end the quarantine and pledge not to invade the island nation.

In addition to a sense of relief, I had several reactions as I finished this book. First, I was impressed at how well it is written. Throughout, Kennedy exhibits a crisp, easy-to-read style, the eloquence of precise and clear language.

Second, I was struck by the consistent humanity of this unique story. For example, if they go on long enough, even the most grave circumstances get interrupted by humor and the ridiculous. The Cuban Missile Crisis was no exception. Kennedy relates some of this. For example, upon realizing that something would have to be done in response to the aggression and deceit of the Soviets, Robert passed a note to his brother saying, "I now know how Tojo felt when he was planning Pearl Harbor" (31). And I had to smile when reading the story of how, instead of traveling in a long line of limousines which would have tipped off the press, ten men crammed into Kennedy's car for a ride to the White House (43).

Third, I felt suspicious whenever I sensed that Kennedy's own presidential aspirations and his natural desire to preserve his brothers' dignity overwhelmed the narrative. For example, he chalks up the Bay of Pigs debacle to a failure to solicit a variety of competing opinions. That action was precipitated by a unanimity of thought, says Kennedy, which closed off the possibility of a better decision (112). It also seemed more than a coincidence that Kennedy never mentions his official title, U.S. Attorney General. From beginning to end, he casts himself primarily as the President's brother, close advisor and assistant. An uniformed reader might be forgiven for concluding that Robert was the Vice President, instead of Lyndon Johnson to whom the author grants nothing more than a cameo appearance.

Most of all, I was glad I had read this book. In it, Robert Kennedy accomplished exactly what he set out to do: to tell the incredible story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from his own singular perspective.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Restoration Roots, by Lynn McMillon

McMillon, Lynn A. Restoration Roots: The Scottish Origins of the American Restoration Movement. Henderson, TN: Hester Publications, 1983.

Armchair historians of the American Restoration Movement immediately recognize the names Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. In fact, the religious saga in which they play the two leading roles has more recently been named the Stone-Campbell Movement. Students of this story also know the names of other heroes, especially Thomas Campbell, Alexander's father and mentor, and Walter Scott, one of the movement's great evangelists in the early 1800s.

However, if you were to ask, "Who came before them?" most of their spiritual descendants would look all the way back to the sixteenth century and mention Martin Luther and John Calvin. A gap would separate the reformers of the sixteenth century from the restorers of the nineteenth century. Restoration Roots: The Scottish Origins of the American Restoration Movement was written to fill in part of that gap. It traces some of the lines that tie the Reformation in Scotland to the eventual movement that, under the leadership of Stone and Campbell, sought to restore primitive Christianity on American soil.

Like several other fine works of history, this little book is the revision of a doctoral dissertation. McMillon completed it at Baylor University in 1972 under the guidance of Professors Glenn O. Hilburn, John Davidson, and Robert Reid. The original title was Quest for the Apostolic Church: A Study of the Scottish Origins of American Restorationism. In the early 1980s, the author, a long-time educator and leader among the Churches of Christ, made a few minor changes and republished the book as Restoration Roots.

The "Introduction" in the current edition was written by Earl West. Well known among the Churches of Christ for his multi-volume history of the American Restoration Movement called The Search for the Ancient Order, West offers some penetrating insights about McMillon's topic.

Chapter I sets the stage by reviewing the history of the Reformation in Scotland. Beginning with the influence of Oxford scholar John Wyclif, an Englishman who flourished in the late 1300s, McMillon identifies a strong Scottish attraction to the doctrine of sola scriptura (scripture only), a teaching that was later advanced by men like Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, above all John Knox, and Andrew Melville.

Chapter II, one of the more interesting and significant parts of the book, shows how the Anabaptist branch of the Reformation, though sometimes overlooked or minimized, actually made a vital contribution to what would finally emerge as restorationism. For unlike those who sought merely to reform the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, Anabaptists used the language of the restitution of the true church, an idea that compares much more closely with the later concept called restoration. Too, the Anabaptist tradition was consistent with English and Scottish Congregationalism in its demand for the autonomy of individual churches, also a hallmark of future restorationism.

Chapter III tells the story of John Glas (1695-1773), who began as a minister of the Church of Scotland. In the 1720s, young Glas argued against the arrangement of the national church of which he was a part. Reminding his hearers that Jesus had said His kingdom was not of this earth, Glas advanced the idea of the separation of church from state. He rejected both presbyterian and episcopal forms of church government insisting on the autonomy of every congregation. After he was deposed by the Church of Scotland, Glas served as an independent church leader and encouraged the practice of congregationalism for the rest of his life. Glas espoused the singular authority of the Bible, the restitution of primitive Christianity, the leadership of a plurality of elders in each congregation, and weekly observance of the Lord's Supper not as a sacrament but as a memorial.

Chapter IV describes the early life and ministry of Robert Sandeman (1718-1771), who became John Glas's son-in-law and his most illustrious protege. In fact, it was the fiery Sandeman who extended the "Glasite" movement from its native Scotland into England and Wales. He did this largely through the publication of Letters on Theron and Aspasio. Sandeman's book was a direct response to an earlier one by minister James Hervey called Theron and Aspasio. Hervey's book breathed the warm, revivalisitic Calvinism which was popular in that day. Sandeman held up an alternate view of salvation, one that began with gospel facts in the mind rather than strange stirrings of the Spirit in the heart. His teaching made sense to many people, and established Sandeman as an important religious thinker of the time. As a result, many people in Great Britain became interested in Christianity as it was taught and practiced among the Glasite churches.

Chapter V continues the story of Robert Sandeman who came to America in 1764 preaching and planting churches in the Northeast. The most prominent of these congregations was at Danbury, Connecticut, where Sandeman died in 1771. His results in America were mixed. He was opposed by several prominent ministers. Also, many people who agreed with him on the basic question of salvation did not go along with the holy kiss, footwashing, and the strict discipline, etc., practiced in the Sandemanian churches. Above all, because of their non-participation in politics, the fledgling congregations appeared to be siding with the Tories and were consequently ostracized and persecuted at the dawn of the American Revolution.

Chapter VI advances to the next generation and the work of Robert and James Haldane. As the author explains, though they were also Scotch independents who learned much from their predecessors, compared to Glas and Sandeman, the Haldane brothers were a different sort of restorationist. They placed much more emphasis on openness, evangelism, Christian unity, and the training of preachers. McMillon writes: "The Haldanes were theological descendants of Glas and Sandeman, but the brothers were more broad-minded in their dealings with persons of differing beliefs. They also exhibited a more dynamic evangelistic zeal than did Glas and Sandeman. While the Haldanes might be characterized as aggressive evangelists, Glas and Sandeman were teachers who tended their flocks" (76). Something else at this point in time is different. By now, Alexander Campbell has been born in Northern Ireland (in 1788) and eventually has direct contact with the Haldanes and their associates like Greville Ewing.

Chapter VII, the last section, takes up "Alexander Campbell and the Restoration Roots." Although he sometimes pointed out the differences between himself and his predecessors, Campbell shared much the same outlook as did the Anabaptists, and Glas, Sandeman and the Haldanes. It seems that two ideas that all of them espoused were a commitment to Bible authority and some concept of the restitution or restoration of primitive Christianity. McMillon ends by telling the story of Campbell's visit to Great Britain in 1847, and his meetings with those who had influenced him, and who he had more recently taught through his journals and books.

So what did I think of this book? One of the first things I noticed is that McMillon writes very much like his former teacher, Earl West, mentioned earlier. He focuses on facts and provides simple description. The subject is religious history. Where he absolutely must, the author takes up political and philosophical contours of the story.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot from it. Because I'm interested in the subject, I would have liked it even more if it had been longer. And what else might have been included? I realize that the decisions of an author never end, and that writers have to make choices about what to include and how far to go with a certain sub-topic. That said, I would have liked more by way of political, social, and religious backgrounds and sidebars, and fuller coverage at certain points. For example, the book barely mentions that a significant part of the growth of Sandemanianism in England was due to the conversion of whole congregations that were originally associated with Methodist preacher Benjamin Ingham. Also, the substance of the theological debate between Hervey and Sandeman is fascinating and deserves, I think, more description than McMillon provides.

That aside, Restoration Roots is nonetheless an important book, one of the few that's been written on its subject. It has been and will remain a significant contribution to the study of the antecedents of the Stone-Campbell Movement and will be enjoyed by those who are interested in this part of the history of Christianity.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's Been at Least This Bad, Usually Worse

Historians: I suppose they develop other maladies in order to compensate. But here's one problem they don't have: they don't live with the illusion that once upon a time, in the not-so-distant past, there was this wonderful, easy world, and that if we could just get back to that place and time, all would be right. The other side of this illusion relates to the present. It's baaaaad. Really, really bad. In fact, there's hardly ever been a time that was worse. If you ever doubt any of this, just ask a real expert like Glenn Beck.

Compare. Summarizing they way things were in England during the period from 1307-1471, the late Norman F. Cantor wrote:

For two hundred years there was chronic instability; change was vast, enveloping, and inescapable. Wherever we look are panic, brutality, violence in the streets. This is an upside-down world; a troubled, feverish world. . . . Even the most superficial account of the history of great aristocrats is a record of conflict, treachery, killing, beheading, and murder—even the surface pattern is one of general and extended violence. And underneath this surface lies a general dissatisfaction and unhappiness, and a tremendous yearning. . . . It is a time characterized by a prevailing apocalyptic feeling—the deep and haunting belief that the world is coming to an end. The English: A History of Politics and Society to 1760. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), pp. 251-52.

Makes many of our problems seem downright easy, doesn't it? Oh, I know. But they're our problems.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

John Lewis Gaddis on the Nature of History

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

What do historians do? How do they conceive of and go about their work? And what's the value of it? In this series of eight lectures, originally delivered at Oxford during the 2000-01 school year, John Lewis Gaddis responds to these and other basic questions. A native of Texas, Gaddis made his reputation by writing landmark books about the Cold War. He is currently the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University.

To make his discussion of theory easier to follow, he constantly uses illustrations, analogies, and quotations. He borrows these mainly from the worlds of art, literature, and popular culture. Even the book’s cover art, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, sets up the first of many metaphors that Gaddis puts to work in order to communicate what he wants to say.

Throughout the book, Gaddis also interacts with two illustrious predecessors who raised similar questions: Marc Bloch, who wrote The Historians Craft, and E. H. Carr, author of What Is History? He also brings in the observations of other historians—most notably William H. McNeill, R. G. Collingwood, and Thomas Babington Macaulay—and, significantly, one evolutionary biologist, the late Stephen Jay Gould.

The references to Gould the scientist are significant because they underscore one of Gaddis’s most fundamental conclusions: historians should at least try to attain, like scientists, “a consensus of rational opinion over the widest possible field” (38). Conversely, biology’s acceptance of punctuated equilibrium (as opposed to the old expectation that the fossil record should be uniform), and a general scientific awareness of change and development (as opposed to old notions of timelessness in a static universe), mean that scientists have become increasingly historical. The comparison of the two disciplines comes out most clearly in Chapter Three where the author makes the case that the processes by which historians develop, study and test their theses is comparable to methods used in the “hard” sciences.

But, notes Gaddis, to say that history should in some respects be like science, and that science has become more historical, is not to say that history belongs in the classification of “social science.” For unlike social scientists, Gaddis rejects the assumption that historians should be able to isolate an independent variable, which can then be used both to identify a historical cause and to forecast the future. The complexity of reality, historical or otherwise, simply won’t allow for the identification of independent variables. In fact, reality is full of interdependent variables. In a world like that, also full of processes, “so much depends on so much else” (55).

So, then, what is the proper work of historians? Gaddis answers that they “interpret the past for the purposes of the present with a view to managing the future” (10). But no sooner does he give that straightforward answer than he adds a caveat. The real trick is to do this “without suspending the capacity to assess the particular circumstances in which one might have to act, or the relevance of past actions to them” (11). In other words, to employ the “lessons of history” requires us to do other things, like perceiving how the present is like the past and how it’s different.

Even before that, though, historians have to do the work of making a map, a favorite metaphor of Gaddis’s. That is to say, historians must represent the past in a way that both corresponds to the terrain of historical reality and that proves useful to people who might want to actually use the map. This business of map-making, he notes, leads the historian to feel both masterful (he’s the one, after all, who exercises power by simply describing) and insignificant (the terrain he describes is vast and ancient and will long outlive him, etc.).

In addition to the question of history as a social science, Gaddis also deals with the advent of postmodern thought and the questions that it puts to historical research and presentation. Here we see him both embracing and rejecting postmodernism. On the one hand, he notes that historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means you’ve learned “that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of the past” and that “the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience” (10). On the other hand, he rejects the extreme conclusion that because “we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space” we therefore “can’t know anything about what happened within them” (34).

So what were some of my impressions of the book? I might say that I could have done without so many specific references to Oxford and Great Britain. A lot of them didn't register with me. I also found myself rolling my eyes at some of the wisecracks, often a little sappy or overdone. I sometimes detected slight errors. For example, a light year is not a measurement of time, but of distance (27). A sentence on page 55 should end with “form an ecological view of reality,” not “from . . . .”

But to say things like that would be quibbling. The fact is, Gaddis has produced a short, brilliant introduction to some of the most important questions that historians can ask themselves regarding what they do and what it means. And he’s done it with a good bit of flair and success.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Stealthy Strength of History

Went out for doves yesterday with my hunting mentor, David Jones. The water source that we were counting on to draw them in near sundown had completely sunk into the sandy soil. So we didn't shoot a lot of doves. But we got a few and got to spend a nice evening outdoors.
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In dealing with the past, our guard is down, because we start off thinking it is over and we have nothing to fear by taking it all in. We turn out to be wrong, because its immediacy strikes us, affects us before we know it; when we have recognized this, it is too late--we have been moved.

--Howard Zinn, The Politics of History, p. 39.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Bombs Away

About a month ago, I mentioned some plans for a project in history, something I wanted to complete before the end of this year. I didn't mention it at the time, but my aspirations were related to a graduate course I'm taking this semester at West Texas A & M.

As it turns out, I don't have that much say when it comes to what my paper will be about. The course begins with us students reading some of the prominent secondary literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then, during the second half, we do some research and then write up something that deals with a sub-topic related to that event.

So, here's my new idea: I'm thinking about a project at the intersection of the Cuban Missile Crisis and American Dispensational Premillennialism. I don't know much about this yet. But with the coming of the nuclear age, end-of-the-world scenarios began to assume that the Battle of Armaggedon would feature nuclear weapons. So, in what ways did the Cuban Missile Crisis ramify specifically among American premillennialists and their visions of the end time?

I'm interested in what you can tell me about things like must-see sources, for example. I know, the professor, the good folks at the WT library, and my course of study will do a lot of this. But here at the beginning of the race, I can use all the help I can get. So whaddaya think?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Thousand-Mile Walk, 500 Years Later

I was intrigued by a short article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last month. The writer, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, and her husband have decided to take a long walk together. To be specific, exactly 500 years after the father of the Reformation marched from Erfurt, Germany all the way to Rome, they're going to do it too. The piece is titled, "A Thousand Miles in the Footsteps of Martin Luther." As they go, the couple are writing up their experiences and posting some pictures too. Their blog is called hereiwalk.org.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Lifting Our Hands

I know, August is over and all month not a single post here at Frankly Speaking. I regret that. A long trip that made stops in Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and Connecticut kept me busy. Plus, school started at Amarillo College last week. Good classes so far. More about them another time.

Anyway, so here's something: Amarillo Bible Chair, where I'm the director, publishes a print bulletin that goes out once a month. We send it to our contributors and to other interested people and churches. Almost every month, I write up a little something that belongs in the church-bulletin editorial category. Most of these articles are pretty tame. Decent stuff, I like to think. But not even close to controversial. Every once in a while, though, I address something that I know is (or could be) a debated question.

I published the following piece in last month's bulletin. As I see it, the article is about something that neither I nor anyone else should have to write about. Yet among some people in the Churches of Christ I talk to, there seems to be some anxiety on the subject. So I put something together. Since then, I've gotten a little bit of "push back" in the mail. Here's what I wrote . . .

"I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 2:8, NIV).

Paul penned those words to emphasize that the prayers of the church should be offered by people who are at peace with each other. But he also mentioned the practice of lifting hands. Why? According to the Old Testament, lifting one’s hands in prayer was common among the ancient Jews:

“I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:4).

“When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the Lord, he rose from before the altar of the Lord, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:54).

1 Timothy 2:8 simply shows that at least some of the earliest Christians, many of them Jews, continued this way of praying. This might lead someone to ask, “Should Christians today lift their hands when they speak to God?”


The Bible clearly teaches that this is matter of personal choice. The Scriptures report occasions when people acceptably prayed while standing (1 Samuel 1:26), sitting (2 Samuel 7:18), kneeling (1 Kings 8:54) and lying face down (Matthew 26:39).

From these examples, we can gather that in 1 Timothy 2:8 Paul was not making the case for a certain prayer posture. He knew that his readers typically prayed that way. His point to them was that, when they prayed that way, the hands they lifted up were to be holy hands. If he were writing to contemporary American Christians, Paul might demand that we “bow holy heads.” In order to pray as we should, it’s vital that we bring pure hearts to the Lord. “If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear” (Psalm 66:18). It is the prayer of a righteous person that “avails much” (James 5:16).


Some people today like to pray and sing with their hands lifted up. That is not necessarily more spiritual; neither is it wrong. I've talked with some people in the Churches of Christ who regard lifting hands as a concession to Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement. Why? The fact that charismatics enter their buildings through the door doesn’t mean we have to start crawling in through the windows. The same Scripture that permits me to bow my head surely permits my neighbor to lift his hands. Rules made by man are just that. Let us be at peace and offer holy prayers.

The response that I got in the mail basically said that people who raise their hands in worship (and sometimes sway) probably do so out of motives that are ego-centered, or because some church leader unsatisfied with the status quo has encouraged them to do that.

Maybe so. I suspect that there must be someone who attends church, speaks up in Bible class, kneels, bows his head, closes his eyes, tosses a check into the collection plate, etc., all out of some truly unspiritual motives.

But my question is, How would I know that about him? The point is, my neighbor stands or falls (or lifts his hands) before the Lord, not me. If he's out to make a spectacle of himself, then shame on him. But that's not my call. Just like it's not for me to say to someone, "You shouldn't say 'Amen' during the sermon. You're just trying to call attention to yourself."

I for one don't raise my hands when I pray or when I sing. Even if I attended a congregation where that was the norm, I probably still wouldn't do it. It's just not a natural prayer and praise gesture for me. For someone else, that might be or become a gesture that is natural.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

More From Alexander Campbell's Lectures

I'm taking my time reading through Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch. A few highlights from numbers V and VI:

In Lecture V, Alexander Campbell speaks to the men at Bethany College about the superiority of man, and the wonderful wisdom and goodness of the Creator, as manifested in the closing acts of his six days' labor (pp. 89-90).

"Trinity" Used in the Sense of Three-ness

In an earlier post, I mentioned AC's aversion to theorizing and, thus, the unlikeliness of his using the term "Trinity." However, he does speak of God's triune character (90), and he does believe that the plural pronouns of the creation account refer to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. He even speaks of their plurality (or three-ness) as the trinity (90).

Man's Superiority as a Moral Creature

The superiority of man is strikingly developed by comparison. Wonderful and grand are the qualities that distinguish man from all things else; for there is no creature beside man, on the face of the earth, capable of being inducted into the conception of a moral idea. You may impart different kind of instruction to animals . . . . but you can never communicate to any animal the idea of moral obligation (91). So far, I've come across nothing that even begins to sound like the depravity of man. The anthropology is high. Adam was the universe in miniature. He is not only the pinnacle of Creation, he's way up there.

"Soul" and "Spirit"

It may be enough for us to know, that there is an animalism in the soul of man, but that there is none in his spirit. The spirit of man is the glory of man, and the special emanation from God (92-93).

Necessity of Knowledge

And we claim, that if a man would enjoy himself perfectly, that is, if he would derive all the pleasure possible from the healthy exercise of all his faculties, he must possess a complete knowledge of his mental and physical, moral and spiritual constitution and character, together with his surrounding circumstances. Such knowledge will not only comprehend the whole outward and inward man, but it will radiate, and lead off the inquiring and ever active mind, into all the branches of material and social science (95).

The Week Has No Type in Nature

In Lecture VI, Campbell begins by emphasizing the uniqueness of the week as a measure of time: This ordinance of time, depends entirely upon absolute will for its origin. The cessation of the creative labors of God on the seventh day, gave rise to this division of time; for which there is no type in nature. There is a type, or some symbolic mark, for every cardinal institution of the divine economy, except the week, and that has none. . . . . The week culminated in the seventh day--at the end of creation of the world--and that being a day of rest for man, is commemorative of God's ceasing to create, and the term rest is disposed of, on the ground that it is simply a figurative expression, so far as God is concerned, signifying, merely, that he ceased to act at the end of the week, but by no means indicates that the Almightly stopped to rest--to recover from the exhaustion of labor (96-97).

Uniqueness of the Fourth Commandment/Sabbath Remembrance Forever

Keeping this subject-matter under consideration, we invite attention to another remarkable fact, bearing upon this interesting question. It is this : Every one of the ten commandments begins with the phrase, " Thou shalt" or " shalt not" do this or that, except the fourth, and that begins with, " Remember." This is quite peculiar, and its significance is worthy of notice. Why this variation in the form of expression, as introduced at this particular command ? May we not presume or affirm, that it is because the Author had in his mind the fact that there is one day above all others in importance ? It was of extraordinary regard, because God had ceased to work on that day, and for this reason man is especially commanded to "remember" (always) " the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." On that day of days, God terminated the creation of the heavens and the earth, and retired into the solitude of his own infinity. Out of respect for this great truth, this important event, it was meet that man should cease to work on the same day, for the purpose of commemorating the great termination. (98). So, does Campbell believe that the Sabbath is to be remembered always, or not? Would he make a distinction between remembrance and observance? Interesting. And what a blessing to get to hear him "speaking" in this book.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A History Project

Starting in about one month, I plan to dive head-first into one of the following historical studies: Some aspect of . . .

1. Quanah Parker and the Comanches, Texas, and Oklahoma

2. The King James Bible

3. John Glas, Robert Sandeman, and the Sandemanian movement in Great Britain and America

4. Alexander Campbell and his Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch

5. Italian immigration to the United States in the late nineteenth century.

So what sounds interesting to you? Which one would you pick? Is there a certain bit of history you'd love to explore and just haven't yet? Or maybe you're in the middle of something like that right now. Tell us about it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Alexander Campbell on Genesis 1-3

In Lectures III and IV of Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch, Alexander Campbell comments on different parts of the first three chapter of Genesis. Lecture IV is, more specifically, about the first Adam and the last Adam, Jesus Christ. Here are some of the highlights:

Study hard to read well

Convinced of the unique quality and character of the Bible, Campbell asserts that it requires more and better learning to read a chapter of Holy Writ, as it should be read, than to read one of Cicero's orations; or that in European colleges honors are awarded to the best readers. We find much in the sacred volume that appears very simple to undeveloped minds, but it grows in value and importance as men become riper in years and understanding. It often requires hours of study to enable us to read a verse or chapter in the Bible as it should be pronounced (p. 75). I'm not convinced that many readers at church put in "hours of study" beforehand. A few minutes of study and practice would have improved some of the readings I've heard.

The serpent showed up as a human

For reasons that I don't completely understand, Campbell seems intent on the interpretation that the serpent of Genesis 3 actually showed up in human form: In the third chapter, the serpent is presented for our consideration. We call him serpent, as Moses did, but we presume that was not his name originally. The word serpent means creeper. He fell into this condition because of the deception he practiced upon the inhabitants of the garden. I presume he was originally very like man. I do not mean man as he is at present, but as he was originally. Men have become greatly humanized, and in this, our day, some are to be found scarcely distinguishable from the lower animals (78-79). . . . I entertain no doubt that the serpent was incarnated in the human form (80).

God's gracious protection of sinners

In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve became the first sinners, they were driven from the Garden of Eden and prevented from eating of the tree of life. What Campbell gathers from this is that God expelled Adam from the garden, lest he should eat the fruit of the tree of life, and become immortal in misery, with no hope of changing or dying. Therefore, like all the acts of the All-wise and Beneficent Creator in dealing with man, it was gracious (82-83). That's a common approach to the passage, which makes perfect sense. I quote it here simply because I love Campbell's expression.

"Let us" in Genesis 1:26-27

In this connection, keeping in mind the form "let us," it will be well to observe, the peculiar and characteristic style of the language employed, which clearly indicates plurality; the doctrine and existence of three persons in the Godhead (84-85). Campbell did not accept all aspects of Trinitiarianism; which is not to say that he didn't accept the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. He did. But I suspect that he didn't use the term "Trinity" in a positive way, and that he didn't because it is not a biblical word.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Alexander Campbell on Genesis 1:2

For the longest time, I've been meaning to read Alexander Campbell's Familiar Lectures on the Pentateuch. He delivered them at Bethany College during the school year of 1859-60, when he was in his early seventies.

Campbell is an important member of my extended spiritual family, to say the least. And I've always wanted to find out more about how he handled the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. According to Campbell, how should the church put the Old Testament to use as holy scripture? Here, I suppose, he will answer that question not so much in theory, but in practice. So I'm looking forward to what will follow.

So far I've read the first two entries. Lecture I is introductory. Campbell highlights the necessity of the Bible for any education worthy of the name. He speaks against human theories, contrasting them with facts from the Bible. As I read this lecture, I thought about how members of the Churches of Christ, conservative heirs of Campbell, who have pursued higher education have almost always been "facts people." That is, they've typically studied history and languages, above all the Bible; but not so much philosophy or systematic theology. To get a feel for why that's the case, one would need to go no further than Lecture I, where Campbell says: The failure of popular systems of education . . . presents to us, very impressively, the truth that facts, and not theories, realities and not speculations, are essential to the true intent and meaning of education (p. 63). And where are the facts to be found? Where do we meet up with realities? Above all, says Campbell, in the pages of the Bible.

In Lecture II, Campbell covers the first two verses of Genesis 1. He presents running commentary on words and phrases. Up to this point in the Lectures, he hasn't made reference to specific Hebrew words. But he does mention the sense or the gist of the Hebrew text. In this lecture, I was especially intrigued by Campbell's reference to contemporary geology versus the biblical creation account. Here is part of his discussion of Genesis 1:2:

The second verse is especially important, inasmuch as it has to do with the many dates entertained by geologists, in regard to the antiquity of creation. But as already remarked, we take the Mosaic account, against all the world of authority of whatever nature--always accepting however, the geological history, so far as it accords with the inspired record. In this verse Moses presents us with a statement of the condition of things, in that undefined period, anteceding all the acts in the drama of creation, presented in the sequel of this chapter. How long a measure of time is assumed in this series of facts, is beyond the mental scrutiny of mortal man. (p. 71).

Here Campbell clearly states that when human theory goes against something the Bible affirms, then he will side with the Bible every time. Nevertheless, he notes, Genesis 1:2 does not give a time frame for that period during which the earth was without form and void. I don't know if the so-called "Gap Theory" had been formulated as early as Campbell's day. What is clear is that he leaves open the possibility of a huge gap in time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:3. In spite of his loyalty to the Bible, I wonder how much he was concerned that the Creation account match up with modern geology. Either way, he makes it a point to emphasize the indefinite period described in Genesis 1:2. Interesting, don't you think?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Mexico, Comanche Bands, and the Culture of Texas

Among my summer reads, I'm especially enjoying S. C. Gwynne's new book, Empire of the Summer Moon. As readers have learned to expect, it's the subtitle that tells you what this one is about: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History.

It's like David McCullough wrote a book about the Comanches. It's that good.

But the book isn't just about Quanah Parker and his father's tribe. It also relates a good bit about other Indian tribes, the Spanish in the American Southwest, and the early days of Texas. The following passage is a good sample and relates something that I think is very important about the history and culture of the Lone Star State:

Texas was never supposed to be its own sovereign country. After their victory at San Jacinto the vast majority of Texans believed that their territory would be immediately annexed by the United States. There were a few would-be empire builders like Mirabeau Lamar and James Parker (who volunteered to fulfill Lamar's grandiose vision by conquering New Mexico) who had other ideas. But mostly everyone else wanted statehood. They were soon disappointed. There were two main reasons it did not happen. First, Mexico had never recognized the Independence of its renegade northern province. If the United States added Texas it risked war with Mexico, something that, in 1836, it was not prepared to do. Nor could it easily admit a slave territory.

Texas was thus left alone, broke and militarily punchless, for ten years to confront two implacable enemies: Mexico on the south, and the Comanche nation on the west and north. The fledgling country would never know peace. Mexican incursions persisted; the city of San Antonio was captured twice by large Mexican armies in 1842. Raids were constant, as was the the predation of itinerant bandits from across the border. And Texas's western frontier was the scene of continuous attacks by Comanches. It is interesting to note Texas's peculiar position here: Neither of these enemies would have accepted peace on the terms the new republic would have offered them. Even more remarkably, neither would accept surrender. The Mexican army consistently gave no quarter, most famously at the Alamo. All Texan combatants were summarily shot. The Nermernuh, [i.e., Comanches] meanwhile, did not even have a word for surrender. In plains warfare there was never any such thing; it was always a fight to the death. In this sense, the Texans did not have the usual range of diplomatic options. They had to fight. (p. 131, emphasis is original).

One of many priceless passages.