Review: Less of More

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Less of MoreChris Nye. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that the American dream is making us miserable and that the vision of the kingdom turns the American dream upside down, leading us to a truly rich life.

Chris Nye proposes that the American dream is killing us. Visions of unlimited growth are pressing up against the operating limits of the only place where we can live. Depression and suicide among the young are rising. Our politics are mired in discord pitting groups who share a common citizenship against one another. Nye writes, “we never had more than we do now, and we’ve never been more depressed about it,”

Nye’s challenge in this book is the counter-cultural message of Jesus that we must lose our lives to save them. He contends that the American dreams of growth, self-sufficiency, fame, power, and wealth are gained at the cost of our souls. In chapters on each of these “dreams” he articulates the alternative the gospel of Jesus offers.

He speaks to our infatuation with growth, especially the infatuation among Christians with church growth and measuring goodness by bigness. He counters that the message of the gospel is one of “pace,” of keeping pace with God’s often slow but certain work of transformation. He challenges the hyper-individualism of our culture and the idea that we are more connected than ever with the reality that many are more isolated than ever. He observes the gospel alternative of the connectedness of the welcoming table. He contrasts the quest for fame and gaining a name for oneself with the practice of hiddenness and the downward journey exemplified by Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier at the L’Arch Communities.

The culture defines greatness in terms of power. Nye proposes the humble and vulnerable community, where we reveal rather than hide weakness, and stoop to serve and protect each other. Finally we define ourselves by how much we are worth, by the wealth we have accumulated. Nye invites us to discover that while saving might feel good, giving feels great.

Nye concludes with a pointed challenge. Despite dreams of American greatness, history tells us that the American Epoch will end, the Empire will fall. Christian hope has survived the fall of every empire and challenges us to consider to which we have given our allegiance. He writes, “To follow Jesus is to follow him out of America and into the kingdom of God, from our own weak, man-made houses and into the mansions he has built that await us.”

I wouldn’t be surprised that there is pushback to this book (and perhaps this review). We want both the American dream and to have Jesus to as our eternal insurance policy. It seems to me that Nye is on good ground here in arguing that these are diametrically opposed to one another and that we can’t have both. Jesus himself said that we can’t have two masters, and the truth is that both the American dream and the call of the kingdom of God are a call to serve a master. But Nye goes further. He names the things that make are making us miserable, and the alternative life of the kingdom that restores wholeness. Nye diagnoses our American sickness. The question is whether we will recognize our dis-ease, and what can make us well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Zedaker’s Farm and Pony Rides

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Zedaker’s Anjon Acres, photo by author, taken June 22, 2019.

Did you ever go for pony rides at Zedaker’s? Riding lessons? My wife and her girl friend (still friends 60 years later!) remember going for pony rides as kids. They lived nearby in Brownlee Woods, so it was very convenient. We never made it over there from the West side.

I was reminded of this recently when we drove by what is now called Zedaker’s Anjon Acres a few weeks ago. [The Anjon combines the names of Ann and John Zedaker who owned the farm together until John passed in 2010.] Then this week, I saw  an old coupon from “Zedaker’s Pony Farm” posted in the “I Grew Up in Youngstown” Facebook group. I decided, I have to write about that!

According to Joseph G. Butler, the Zedaker family was one of the pioneer families of Youngstown. John Zedaker moved to Youngstown from Pennsylvania and fought in the War of 1812. They originally owned land near what is now Zedaker Street on the South side of Youngstown. Later the family acquired farmland in Boardman Township where Jacob Zedaker was born. His son, Marcellus W. Zedaker, acquired the land, 100 acres, where the present farm is located, in 1864, on the border of Boardman and Poland Townships, on the Poland side of the line.

Marcellus, his son, and grandson (“Jack”) farmed the land, growing hay and corn, and raising dairy cattle. When Jack developed arthritis, he decided to convert the farm to a horse farm, beginning in 1948. John Campbell Zedaker III, gave his first riding lessons that year at age 11 For years they offered pony rides with ponies led by young workers at the farm, as well as riding lessons. Ann was one of John’s students and they married in 1969. In the 1970’s family members sold off parcels of the farm for development. John and Ann took over ownership of the remaining 11 acres in 1977. They continued the pony rides until 1984 when John’s mother retired.

In the late 1990’s Ann and John renamed the farm Zedaker’s Anjon Acres. They remodeled the barn, adding an indoor arena, enabling them to give year-round lessons. They also offer a Therapy Alpaca program and riding lessons for those 8 years old and above. They teach English as opposed to Western riding, a style relying on posture and form. In addition to their own “very gentle” horses, they offer facilities for boarding. John’s great niece, Mia, offers lessons as well as the Therapy Alpaca program.

In addition to his work with the farm, John Campbell Zedaker III was a member and captain of the Mahoning Valley Polo Club for over 40 years, the corporate secretary of Moore Peterson Insurance, and a board member of the Potential Development School for Autism. But perhaps his greatest contribution was the delight he gave generations of children on his ponies, and the skill and self-confidence he instilled in the many riders he instructed. After his death from lymphoma in 2010, Ann has carried on the business. The website describes her role in the business as follows:

“Ann has extensive experience showing and training hunters and jumpers and more recently has logged thousands of miles competing in competitive trail and endurance rides. She coordinates the lesson program and barn activities, and also has a real knack for diagnosing and treating horse ailments including lameness.”

In a time when so much has changed around Youngstown, it was delightful to drive past and still see the Zedaker name and an active operation on the site so many remember for its pony rides.

You may contact them at:

Zedaker’s Anjon Acres
5375 Youngstown Poland Rd.
Poland, Oh. 44514
Ph: (330) 757-3445
anjonassoc@aol.com

 

Review: Fall of a Cosmonaut

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Fall of a Cosmonaut (Porfiry Rostnikov #13), Stuart M. Kaminsky. New York: Mysterious Press, 2000.

Summary: Chief Inspector Rostnikov and his team are charged with investigating three cases, a missing cosmonaut, a stolen film, and a brutal murder in a Paranormal Research Institute, only the first of the murders in the course of the story.

My son often manages to find books I probably never would have noticed that end up as fascinating reads. This book was such a case. It is actually the thirteenth installment in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series and the real find here is the character of Rostnikov who combines the savvy political instincts necessary to survive in a cutthroat Russian bureacracy with an intuition about human behavior that leads him to surround himself with shrewd associates, and solve crimes.

In this installment, there is not one, but three cases that his boss, the Yak, has assigned him, expecting results. One is a cosmonaut that has disappeared, along with secret knowledge of events on the Mir space station, knowledge that others have already died without revealing, the most recent by a swift injection from an umbrella-bearing man that is following Rostnikov and his son Iosef, as they travel to the village where Tsimion Vladovka grew up.

In the second case, a movie director, Yuri Kriskov has just completed what is adverted to be a great epic on the life of Leo Tolstoy. Then he receives word that the movie and its negatives have been stolen, and are being held for a ransom that if not paid will result both in the destruction of the movie and the death of Kriskov. It turns out that this is a plot of an assistant, Valery Grachev who is in love with Vera, Kriskov’s wife, and Vera, who wants to be rid of Yuri. Sasha Tkach and Elena Timofeyeva are assigned to this case, trying to find the manic genius who has stolen the film, and is seeking a way to kill Yuri.

The third case involves the gruesome death by claw hammer of a sleep and dream researcher at a Paranormal Studies Institute. Emil Karpo and his understudy Zelech are assigned this one. Zelech is sidetracked by a woman researcher who suspects him of special abilities. Karpo collects shoes, finds a suspect who is a reclusive researcher who claims he is framed, and homes in on a jealous fellow scientist good at covering tracks.

Rostnikov has the skill to adeptly counsel each both on the cases and their personal lives. Karpo needs a personal life. Tkach is estranged from his wife. Elena and his son Iosef are engaged. Zelech is single. They eventually unravel each case, but not before others die and their own lives in several instances are endangered. The cases also provide “information”  that “the Yak” can use to advance his own ambitions, and his ability to control and manipulate others.

I mention all the figures associated with the cases because, like any good Russian novel, keeping track of the names and who is doing what is more than half the battle! The narrative keeps moving back and forth between the cases briskly enough that we don’t lose the thread of any of them as we move to the climax and resolution of each.

Altogether, there are sixteen numbers in Kaminsky’s Rostnikov series. I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading all of them, but I did pick up another one as a result of reading this. I think one of the most intriguing thing about mysteries is the distinctive character of the detectives–Holmes, Poirot, J. B. Fletcher, Kay Scarpetta, Robicheaux, Maigret, and Rostnikov–each seems a world different from the others and the delight is as much in the depths of these characters as in the resolution of these cases. I think I’m going to have to modify the bibliophile’s complaint and say, “So many series and so little time!”

Do We Need to Fight Over Books?

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Image by RyanMcGuire via Pixabay

A couple of interesting things came across my screen today that suggest that even book lovers may act in very unlovely ways toward each other. One was an article on Literary Hub titled “Chuck Wendig on the Time He Enraged a Bunch of Tolkienites.” It seems that the author committed the unforgiveable sin of admitting on Twitter that he just could get through The Lord of the Rings. He learned that you don’t question this holy trilogy of books. Angry Tolkienites even made YouTube videos in response. I read that and thought, “These people need to get a life!”

Now I am a fan of LOTR, having read the books five or so times over the course of my life. But I have many friends like Wendig–and we are still friends! A friend of mine saw this story and commented, “I just don’t understand people’s rage against someone who likes different books, movies, etc than they do.” Truth is, I don’t either. This is like getting into a spat over what flavor of ice cream is best. It seems to me far more fun to celebrate how good ice cream is in all its flavors.

It seems to me that it ought to be that way among lovers of books. I’ve hosted a Facebook page over the past year liked by over 2000 lovers of books. I like the thought both that there are so many like me who delight in this wonderful gift of what we find between the covers of a book (or on our e-reader) but also how different we all are. As I write, people have been responding to a question I posted on how they organize their books. It is fun to see the differences between those who have highly organized systems and those who say, “organize?” I’ve enjoyed times when people could disagree without becoming disagreeable, and discover different perspectives. For example, a recent discussion explored whether you could help a reading averse college grad to come to love reading. There were those who said “impossible,” those who suggested ideas from their own experience, and a few who said, “I was once one of those people and now I love books.”

That brings me to the other thing that crossed my screen. I’m in another Facebook book group, and saw a post from an admin who apologized for an individual who was bullying others in the group, and informed everyone that the individual had been “blocked.” I’d seen similar messages elsewhere on Facebook, but never in a book group. I did not see the offending posts so have no idea what was said, but I guess people can be trolls, or at least very obnoxious, anywhere. I appreciate admins like this one who act promptly to keep pages or groups from going toxic.

It is ironic, and frankly puzzling to me, that there are people who love reading, but haven’t had their minds opened enough by their reading to discover that people see the world differently, have good reasons for doing so, and that people like different things. I suspect it has to do with wounds in other parts of their lives that take more than books to heal. Sometimes it is the case that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, NIV). Sometimes all you can do is block continued abusiveness online, and celebrate all the others who enjoy the common love of books, and all the different ways we love them. That’s actually pretty good, and often, pretty good is good enough.

 

Review: Cultural Apologetics

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Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted WorldPaul M. Gould, foreword by J. P. Moreland. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.

Summary: Contends that in our disenchanted post-modern world, the apologist needs to engage in a culturally aware apologetic that appeals to goodness, truth, and beauty.

One thing anyone engaged in Christian witness for any length of time in a western cultural setting will tell you is that the landscape has changed. While the message of the gospel has not changed, the culture in which the message is shared has. Paul Gould’s one word description of that change is “disenchantment.” From a world shot through with the presence and majesty of God, the embrace of materialism and naturalism as all-encompassing accounts of the world results in a sense of the absence and irrelevance of God, and a culture that is sensate, focused on the physical senses, and hedonistic, focused on our desires. I found this intriguing, particularly considering the growing fascination with dystopian apocalypses, and conversely,  with fantasy and alternate worlds, that might suggest a longing for re-enchantment or despair of its possibility.

Gould contends that in this context, there is still a place for apologetics, but not that of past generations, focused exclusively on rational evidences, although these still have a place in Gould’s proposal. Gould contends for what he calls as cultural apologetics. By this, he means the “work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying (italics in text).”

The author believes that a cultural apologetic that does this appeals to a universal longing for truth, goodness, and beauty. It is an apologetic that appeals to the longing of truth through reason (voice), that appeals to the longing of goodness through conscience, and that appeals to the longing for beauty through the imagination. The aim of this to foster the awakening of desire (satisfying) and a return to reality (truth) that constitutes a “re-enchantment” eventuating in the decision to trust and follow Christ.

Gould focuses a chapter each on imagination, reason, and conscience, employing C.S. Lewis’s approach of both “looking at,” and “looking along,” the latter considering the reality to which truth, goodness, and beauty point. The chapter on imagination draws upon Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care (reviewed here), that makes the case for how beauty may open the hearts of people to faith, exemplified in Masaaki Suzuki’s recognition that the music of Bach is a kind of “fifth gospel” that has led to interest in or the embrace of Christianity among many Japanese. The chapter on reason contends there is a case to be made for recovering the lost art of persuasion and sounds at first glance the most conventional of the three. However, Gould moves beyond classic arguments to appeal to the plausibility structures and sacred cores of one’s hearers. The appeal to conscience addresses the longings for goodness, wholeness, justice, and significance and seeks to demonstrate in practice and examples how Christianity has made the world a better place and why that is so.

Addressing barriers to belief is an important part of this approach. It includes the internal barriers of anti-intellectualism, fragmentation, and unbaptized imagination within the Christian community. It also involves the external barriers of the belief that science disproves God, that objects to the exclusivity of Jesus, that believes God is not good, and considers the ethic of the Bible archaic, repressive, and unloving. Gould offers brief responses to each of these barriers and then describes the “journey home” from initial enchantment through disenchantment to re-enchantment as we join the “dance of God.”

One of the things I appreciated about this work amid the strains of anti-intellectualism in significant swaths of evangelicalism was the affirmation of intellectual leadership. He writes, “If we are to be strategic in our cultural apologetic, we must work to cultivate Christian leadership and a Christian presence within the halls of the academy. The perceived reasonableness and desirability of Christianity depends upon how effectively we accomplish this task” (p. 143).

I also appreciate the integrated appeal to goodness, truth, and beauty. It seems that we often prefer one of these to the inclusion. If reasoning about truth alone is not helpful, abandon it for beauty or goodness. Gould recognizes that to be human means we long for all three. Also, the posture of culture care, as opposed to culture clash assumes that people are drawn by desire rather than overcome by arguments.

Finally, Gould reframes rather than retreats from the apologetic task. It seems to me that this is vital in an age where many are not merely indifferent to Christianity but vigorously opposed, and willing to make a case against the Christian faith. He reframes apologetics in a way that challenges the church to live into its heritage: to abandon trivial banality for a rich artistic imagination, to abandon a slovenly anti-intellectualism for vibrant intellectual engagement, and to abandon moral compromise for a fragrant goodness. It seems to me this would be good both for the church and the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Counterfeit Books on Amazon

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Did you buy this book from a third-party seller on Amazon? It is very possible you purchased a counterfeit copy, and a rather poor knock-off at that. You also robbed the book’s publisher of revenues and the book’s author of her royalties.

The story about this broke today on Christianity Today. The book is Liturgy of the Ordinary, a book by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren on encountering God in the ordinary of everyday life–from making beds to peanut butter sandwiches to hunting for lost car keys. It was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year in 2018. The publisher was InterVarsity Press [in the interests of full disclosure, I work for IVP’s parent organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA]. The publisher revealed today that they have discovered that at least 15,000 copies of the book were sold on the Amazon site by third-party sellers that were counterfeits. The retail value of these sales would have been $240,000. I do not know the details of the author’s contract, but suspect this represents a loss in the neighborhood of $20,000 in royalties. Only after Christianity Today contacted Amazon in connection with this story were the third-party sellers of Warren’s book removed from the Amazon site.

The New York Times reported on this practice on June 23, 2019. They reported a hands off attitude by Amazon. While Amazon warns against the sale of counterfeit products on their site, they do not screen third-party sellers apart from responding to complaints. A seller that sells enough copies, which appears to be what happened with Warren’s book, becomes the default seller, taking over the “buy” button. When I first read about this in the NYT article, it just confirmed my low estimate of Amazon’s business ethics. I’ve long observed the practices of paid reviews, read reports of treatment of workers in their warehouses, and the pressures they’ve placed on vendors. When it came to print publications and other physical products, I’ve long ago decided to buy only from brick and mortar vendors.

Today it became personal. Amazon allowed my friend to be stolen from, and not just for a few bucks or a few copies of her book. Tish Harrison Warren was a former colleague in campus ministry, and following publication of her book she offered a workshop for some of those I minister with. She is an gifted and thoughtful writer and speaker. Amazon claimed in the NYT article that counterfeiting wasn’t a big problem. I think my friend would beg to differ.

One of the problems with counterfeits is that while you probably saved some money, you not only unknowingly participated in theft from my friend and her publisher, you likely received an inferior product. Warren posted a list of defects found in counterfeits of her book, and separately posted images of these defective copies including differences in the colors on the cover. Here are some of the specific issues she noted:

-Annotation numbers throughout the book being in full size font, not superscript. This is not consistent—the copy I’m looking at has a large 1 on page 18, followed by superscript 2 and 3 later on the page.

-Condensing of words—the best example of this is Greg Jao’s name on the endorsements page. It looks like GregJao without the space. I can also see it on the subtitle at the start of chapter 2 on page 25.

-Incorrect running headers: The left page should always have the chapter title, the right page should always have the chapter subtitle. The copy I’m looking at has the previous chapter’s subtitle on the left page (p. 26)

-Missing character glyphs—the best example of this is on page 74 in the chapter title. The Y in “my” (Fighting with My Husband) is missing the lower part of the letter

-Darker section breaks (the little graphics throughout the chapters) are darker, like nearly black. In one of our copies, they should be a pale gray.

Warren recommends these steps if you are one of those who suspects they purchased a counterfeit:

1. If you believe you have received a counterfeit edition, please return the book to Amazon and ask for full credit.

2. Please note the seller from whom you purchased the counterfeit edition and send that information to AuthenticEditions@ivpress.com. We are attempting to stop the sales of these editions through Amazon’s marketplace re-sellers.

3. Please rate the seller experience low on Amazon. This will help decrease the visibility of the re-sellers who have made counterfeit editions available.

4. If you desire to ensure you are buying authentic editions, visit the following URL: www.ivpress.com/real-liturgy. This will allow you to buy from InterVarsity Press at 40% off plus free shipping for all addresses in the U.S.

5. If Amazon refuses to grant a full refund for the purchase of the counterfeit edition, please email AuthenticEditions@ivpress.com and IVP will be in touch with you on a special price for us to replace the counterfeit editions at the best possible price.

You might look for similar defects and pursue similar remedies with other counterfeits. Good luck! Just another instance where the old axiom caveat emptor comes into play. If you are not buying from Amazon itself, read the ratings, report poor service and counterfeits. Amazon relies on you to “drain the swamp” (do you like the idea of doing Amazon’s work for them?).

I personally love the fact that the publisher is offering the book at such a discount, which is available for anyone who wants to purchase the book. Here is the Bob on Books review, if you want to learn more about the book before you buy, helping the author retrieve lost royalties (don’t use the publisher link in the review).

As I mentioned, I’ve long ago decided to buy books and other physical products from local vendors. Sure, I will shop for good prices like anyone, but I want to sustain the businesses committed to my community, booksellers and others. Can you tell I’m pretty fed up with Amazon? It seems to me that the only thing they respond to is customer behavior and perhaps well-publicized negative publicity, and perhaps not even that. As someone who not only reviews but loves books, appreciates the people who write them (including a number of friends) and the skilled professionals who publish, distribute and sell them through legitimate channels, I am against anyone who undermines the flourishing of the book trade. I’m against those who undermine local commerce. Allowing the unscrupulous to steal from my friends is just about the last straw.

How about you?

Review: Presidents of War

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Presidents of WarMichael Beschloss. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of eight American presidents who led the nation into war, how they coped with its stresses, and the consequences of their actions with regard to presidential power.

As recent tensions (I write in July 2019) with North Korea and Iran underscore, the potential and power of a U.S. president to lead the nation into war is great, and brings solemn consequences in terms of loss of life, ongoing entanglements, or the ultimate cataclysm of nuclear conflict. Michael Beschloss, in this work, studies eight American presidents who led the nation into war. The presidents are James Madison (War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican-American War), Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam).

It is fascinating to see pretexts and concealed motives for conflicts. For example, Madison took a poorly equipped nation into conflict with Great Britain over impressments of American sailors and the high-handedness of George III, while entertaining ambitions to invade and seize Canadian territory. James Polk, similarly had territorial ambitions to annex territory in the southwest from Mexico and used clashes on the disputed Texas-Mexico border to seek a declaration of war. The fall of Fort Sumter was the flashpoint of the simmering conflict between North and South that both knew was about slavery. Yet until the summer of 1862, Lincoln spoke of the war as an effort to restore the Union. The sinking of the Maine, likely caused by a shipboard accident, served as the cause for the Spanish-American War, allowing the McKinley administration to seize the Philippines and achieve “regime change” in Cuba. Critical intelligence was not passed on to fleet commanders at Pearl Harbor, and the catastrophic Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt the mandate he needed to lead a reluctant nation into war. Dubious attacks in the Tonkin Bay in response to covert US activity resulted in a congressional resolution that served as the basis for Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

Beschloss also chronicles a tension inherent in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution entrusts the sole power to declare war to Congress, Article II, Section 2 names the President the commander in chief of armed forces, entrusting to him the power to launch and direct military operations and deploy our forces, important in the event of attacks upon the country. In this work we see not only how presidents used various pretexts to argue for war declarations up through World War II, but also how Presidents avoided seeking such declarations in the case of Korea and Vietnam, actions that turned out to be unpopular with the American people. Beschloss notes that today’s all-volunteer armies and the lack of a draft make this easier.

Presidents used war to push the limits of presidential power, whether in the suspension of habeas corpus, in executive orders, in harnessing civilian industry to war aims (such as Harry Truman’s takeover of a strike-plagued steel industry), or even the Emancipation Proclamation, effecting an end of slavery without constitutional amendment. At the same time, failure in the exercise of these powers brought new curbs or temporarily weakened the presidency, such as the 1973 War Powers Act, after Vietnam, and the weakened administrations of Ford and Carter, post-Vietnam.

Beschloss also studies how different presidents coped with the pressures of war. Madison seemed not to cope well at all, offering indecisive leadership and being routed from Washington. Polk was the first president who paid a toll with his health for fighting a war, barely surviving his presidency in broken health. Lincoln admitted, “This war is eating my life out” and he had a strong impression that he would not live to see its end (he barely did before an assassin’s bullet struck him down). McKinley turned to his Bible and justified the seizure of the Philippines as a trust to bring Christianity to the archipelago. His life was also ended by assassination while in office. Wilson suffered a stroke after fighting for his Fourteen Principles, the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt also suffered a fatal stroke on the eve of the allied victory and Johnson’s health was seriously impaired with his death coming within five years of leaving office. Fate is not kind to most war presidents.

This work is an excellent survey of many of America’s wars, and of presidential leadership, both in taking the nation into war and leading the country through them. It is disturbing how many times the country is deceived or deprived of critical information in being led into war, and how often fervor substitutes for a sound basis for war, perhaps most notably in 1812 and in Vietnam. Given the high stakes of modern warfare, Beschloss’s work suggests that questions of character, demonstrated leadership, and the mental and physical fitness of the holders of the office of President should weigh heavily in our electoral processes. It also suggests the critical role of Congress in the exercise of its War Powers, and its role of requiring a President to make the case for war to the American people. The fate of a nation, or even the world, may rest on how our President, and our elected representatives act.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown – Tod House and Tod Hotel

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Realty Building and the Tod Hotel, from an undated vintage postcard.

I was alive when one of the great hotels of Youngstown, the Tod Hotel, was razed in 1968 for “urban renewal.” I’m sure I saw it on visits to downtown, but unlike the Hotel Pick Ohio, I cannot remember it and never was inside of it. But for nearly a century, first as the Tod House, and later as the Tod Hotel, it was one of the premiere places to stay in the city.

The first Tod House was built on the southeast corner of Central Square in the 1860’s by Henry Tod, son of governor David Tod, and John Stambaugh, Jr. P. Ross Berry, the storied African-American bricklayer and architect, did the bricklaying work for the hotel. It was a four story structure managed by Captain O. Sackett and holding its own with other first class hotels. Howard C. Aley recounts a humorous story in the life of the old Tod House:

“Tod House waiters accustomed to observing gourmets with gargantuan appetites stow away unbelievable quantities of food, were puzzled beyond words when a very small woman entered the dining room, ordered seventeen dishes including seven different kinds of meat and proceeded to consume the entire spread. Witnesses solemnly attested that her input was equivalent to that of two men engaged at hard labor.”

The old Tod House lodged a number of famous individuals including William F. Cody, William Jennings Bryan, the famous liberal democrat, Cleveland industrialist Mark Hanna, as he worked to put one-time Poland resident William McKinley into the White House, and boxer John L. Sullivan. The old Tod House closed with a farewell banquet on June 30, 1915.

The new Tod Hotel opened the following year on the same site, built at a cost of $375,000 and costing $50,000 to furnish. The formal opening was on October 26, 1916, and the first guest to register was John P. Hazlett, who had been a 25 year resident of the Tod House. According to Hotel Monthly, the spacious lobby featured leather furniture and marble wainscoting. A 5,000 square foot dining room could be entered from the lobby. It featured blue carpeting, ivory, blue, gray, and gold finishings, blue and gold window hangings, and a mezzanine gallery partitioned for private dining. The bar and cafe featured leather furniture and a Rip Van Winkle panel over the back bar. The basement level included a billiard parlor, a barber shop, a Turkish bath accommodating 40, and a lunch room with glass topped tables that could serve 1,000 meals a day.

Tod Hotel Lobby

Tod Hotel Lobby, from Hotel Monthly, September 1917.

The sleeping rooms featured “oil cloth in cretonne pattern,” a different color for the rooms on each floor. Of the 180 rooms, 100 had baths and 80 showers. The rooms featured mahogany furniture, monogrammed bedspreads, and combination dresser desks. All of this elegance could be had for $1.50 a day and up.

The Tod was owned at this time by the Tod House Company, whose president was John C. Fitch. Interestingly, the hotel was managed by Mark C. Hannan, who also managed the Tod’s nearby competitor, the Ohio. The resident manager was B. F. Merwin, who came from managing hotels in Toledo and Akron.

The Tod Hotel flourished through the end of World War II. By the 1950’s, movement was to the suburbs and out of town guests often stayed at the newer hotels and motels opening up on the outskirts of the city. It also faced competition from the nearby Voyager Motor Inn, which opened in 1963, but closed in 1974, outlasting the Tod Hotel by only six years.

Recently, a Doubletree by Hilton has opened up in the renovated Stambaugh Building, recalling the days when downtown Youngstown was the home to elegant hotels. On occasion I have stayed in great old hotels that have preserved the elegance of the period when the Tod Hotel was built. The Tod represented the name of a great Youngstown and Ohio family, and a vision of refined hoteliery of an age gone by.

Review: Balm in Gilead

balm in gilead

Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, edited by Timothy Larsen and Keith L. Johnson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of presentations from the 2018 Wheaton Theology Conference, discussing the work, and particularly the fiction, of Marilynne Robinson with contributions from Robinson.

It is not unusual at an academic conference to discuss the work of a particular author. What is perhaps more remarkable is to discuss the work of a living author with the author present and contributing. The subtitle of this work calls this “a theological dialogue with Marilynne Robinson, and this is true in two senses. The various essays do engage the theology, particularly the Calvinism of Robinson’s work. But the conference also engaged Robinson, with a presentation by her (“The Protestant Conscience”) and a conversation between her and Rowan Williams, and an interview with Wheaton College President Philip Ryken.

Most of the essays focus on some aspect of the theology found in Robinson’s work. Timothy Larsen considers the main character of her fiction, Reverend John Ames, his heritage as the grandson of a staunch abolitionist in the mold of Wheaton’s Jonathan Blanchard, his reaction against that as a pacifist, and the mindset of the 1950’s Christian Century which he and fellow minister Boughton regularly discussed. Han-luen Kantzer Komline explores Ames “heart condition,” both physical and spiritual, and his struggle to forgive and extend grace to Jack Boughton, the wayward child of his friend. Timothy George explores the unusual, for an academic and a writer, embrace of Calvinism by Robinson, with its doctrine of predestination, emphasizing grace and undercutting human presumption. George notes the central focus of Robinson on Christ and so does Keith L. Johnson in a discussion of Robinson’s metaphysics. Here he teases out Robinson’s understanding of the significance of the cross as the demonstration of the love of God for us rather than on its sacrificial character, a focus Robinson engages and differs with.

Lauren Winner focuses on the preaching of John Ames–the 67,500 pages and 2,250 sermons in the course of his pastorate in Gilead and his conclusion that “they mattered or they didn’t and that’s the end of it.” One of the most intriguing essays for me was that of Patricia Andujo on the African American experience in Robinson’s works. She explores how these works reflect the attitudes of mainline white churches in the 1950’s, a kind of passivity in the face of racism, even while raising the uncomfortable issue of Jack Boughton’s inter-racial marriage, and the lack of response when the town’s black church burns down and the congregation leaves.

Tiffany Eberle Kriner’s essay on “Space/Time/Doctrine” raises the intriguing idea of the influence of Robinson’s understanding of predestination, and the shifts backwards and forwards in time in her novels. Joel Sheesley, a midwestern artist, focuses on the landscape of Robinson’s novels. In the penultimate essay Rowan Williams explores the theme of the grace that is beyond human goodness. He writes:

“Grace, not goodness, is the key to our healing. To say that is to say that we’re healed in relation not only to God but to one another. Without that dimension, we’re back with toxic goodness again, the goodness that forgets and excludes. Lila’s problem in the novel is that the instinctive warmth, the human friendliness, the humanly constructed fellowship that characterizes Gilead cannot allow itself to be wounded and broken open in such a way that the stranger is welcome, whether that stranger is the racial other, or simply the socially marginal and damaged person like Lila herself. But to be wounded in our goodness, to learn to have that dimension of our self-image and self-presentation cracked open, is the beginning of where grace can act in us” (pp. 163-164).

The final essay is Robinson’s on “The Protestant Conscience,” in which she defends not only the freedom of conscience of religious believers but argues that the Protestant idea of conscience defended the freedom of all rather than enforcing a Christian conscience upon all through means of the state. This presentation is followed by conversations with Rowan Williams, and an interview with Philip Ryken. In this collection, I found these diverting, but not nearly as substantive and satisfying as the various essays. Perhaps a highlight was the difference between Robinson and Williams on the literary merits of Flannery O’Connor, of whom Robinson is no fan.

This is a great volume for any who, like me, love the work of Marilynne Robinson. It helped make greater sense of some of the themes I’ve seen in her work, particularly her Calvinism. It served to invite me to a re-reading of her work in its exploration of themes of place, race, and grace. Robinson’s presence by no means muted the critique of her work, and yet I saw no defensiveness in her comments, which bespeaks the evidence of grace in her life. All in all, this is well worth acquiring if you have followed Robinson’s work. For those who have not, read the novels first, and then you will appreciate this volume!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Priscilla

priscilla

Priscilla, Ben Witherington III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An imaginative rendering of the story of Priscilla, a companion of Paul, as a dictated narrative recorded by her adopted daughter Julia, as she faces possible trial before a Roman tribunal.

Priscilla (or Prisca) is one of those fascinating minor characters we meet in the book of Acts and several of the letters of Paul. Often mentioned before her husband Aquila, she is described as a tentmaker, who works with her husband and Paul to support their mission efforts. When Paul writes the Corinthians, he sends their greetings along with his own. Later, in the letters to the Romans and the second letter to Timothy, he sends greetings to them. Perhaps most significantly, Priscilla and her husband instructed Apollos, who became a noteworthy preacher, in the truth of the gospel.

This book is an imaginative filling out of her story, and that of the early Christian movement. As the story opens, Priscilla is a woman of 80, still proprietor of a tentmaking business in Rome. Her nightmares about the early Neronian persecution of Christians, during which she lost her husband, result in her determining to tell her whole story to her adopted daughter Julia, who takes it down on wax tablets to copy to papyrus.

She traces her Christian journey from the day of Pentecost, when she and her mother became followers of the Way, and were expelled from their home. Eventually, they take up tentmaking in Rome. Prisca meets Aquila, another believer. She describes persecutions of Jews in Rome and their banishing to Corinth, their encounter with and travels with Paul, their instruction of Apollos, to whom she later. attributes the Letter to the Hebrews.

Witherington creates an urgency to the account. Shortly after beginning the narrative, Priscilla receives a summons to appear in a month before the tribunal of Domitian, who has resumed the persecution of Christians. The theme of persecution runs through the narrative–the brutalities of Nero, who illuminated the city with burning Christians, banishments, the trials of Paul, of Peter and many others.

Priscilla’s narrative incorporates descriptions of everyday life, often assumed in scripture, and makes connections that help flesh out the development of the early Christian movement–the ministries of Peter, James, and John, and their writings, along with the gospels of Luke and John Mark.

The account also chronicles the ideal of Paul about Jewish-Gentile relationships in the church, and the struggle, and ultimately failure to achieve this ideal as differences separated these two and the number of Jewish followers of the Way declined. There were both external pressures from the rest of the Jewish community, and the struggle to grasp the new covenant realities that made inclusion of the Gentiles possible.

Finally, the portrayal of Priscilla and the discussion of women and their roles in the church and the world helps us understand both cultural limits and the gospel possibilities Paul envisioned. This commentary by Priscilla, responding to a question from Julia reflects Witherington’s understanding of Paul on women:

” ‘That’s true, but Paulus’s pastoral principle was ‘start with them where they are, and lead them where you want them to go.’ He knew the places Timothy and Titus served were male-dominated, especially on Crete, but if you carefully read the first letter Paulus wrote to Timothy, he mentions female deacons. Those texts were never meant to exclude women from praying or prophesying or teaching or whatever they were gifted and called by God to do so. Paulus view was to change those in the body of Christus over time rather than change society at large.’ “

Sadly, Priscilla probably didn’t envision that two thousand years later the church would still be wrestling with this one.

There are times when the incorporation of explanations of daily life seem a bit artificial, and the use of Latin or Greek terms, and then explanation, while helpful from a historical perspective, seems unnatural in a conversation. Nevertheless, the narrative reflects Witherington’s extensive understanding of the New Testament and its Mediterranean context, and helps us return to the biblical narratives with fresh eyes. The extensive use of illustrations to complement the text add to the reader’s understanding and interest. The use of the impending appearance before the tribunal adds narrative tension, and offers the opportunity for a discussion of the realities of Christian hope that have strengthened believers facing persecution in every age. This is a book both to inform and encourage!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.