Review: On Immunity

On Immunity–An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays about vaccines, immunity, fears, risks, and related concerns about environmental pollutants and other dangers faced by the human community.

A few caveats at the beginning of this review. One is that this book was published in 2014. So it was not written in the context of our current polemics about vaccines to combat COVID-19. Also, the author is not a scientist but a talented writer who has won a number of literary awards and is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. She is the daughter of an oncolgist. She is also the mother of a child suffering many allergies.

The essays in this work reflect her background as an academic, writer, child of a doctor, and a mother. It is evident that she extensively researched this work. She explores the history of vaccination from which we learn that the term comes from the Latin name for the cowpox virus, from which the vaccinated developed immunity to smallpox. She explores how the understanding of immunity developed over the years, earlier issues with the safety of vaccination, and contemporary research and reporting systems that confirm the high level of safety and rarity of risks.

She makes an important point that the effectiveness of vaccines isn’t simply for individuals but for the communities within which they live and travel. Vaccines limit or eliminate infections when a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At one point she challenges the flawed reasoning that one doesn’t need to get vaccinated because others are. This only works when very few think that way, and an ethic that you can’t commend universally runs afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative. She observes, “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

But she is also a mom who wants to do the right thing for her child. Her personal concerns lead her to a sympathetic examination of the fears of others, the sources of reports about autism, and various contaminants in vaccines. She both acknowledge the continuing influence of these reports and how extensive research studies have refuted all of them. She explores the question of risk, and how highly unlikely risks, like a rare side effect that may be attributed to a vaccine, and the much more prevalent and often more serious risks of the disease vaccines are meant to prevent. In the end, she comes down on the side of vaccination–but hardly in an unthinking, “sheeple” fashion. She gently challenges being more afraid of inoculation than disease, and the luxury of entertaining fears that most of the world can’t afford.

She considers other chemicals in our environment from triclosan in our liquid soaps to plastics in our foods, drink bottles, and mattresses. She comes to recognize that there is no absolute immunity we can confer on ourselves or our children from all that could render harm. She experiences this herself when she required transfusion after nearly dying from an inverted uterus during childbirth, and has to trust the safety of the blood she is given. She balances this sense of our vulnerability with our amazing immune system, that can handle multiple vaccines at once because it responds to thousands of threats every day. She asks hard questions, reviews research and doesn’t simply accept authority, but also acts on the best evidence of the science.

The book wanders a bit. It is a collection of essays, not strictly a scientific or history piece. But it is also a human piece, rather than a clinical account or research paper. Biss does what we all need to do–listen, ask questions, be the parent, and learn to discern between flawed and reliable information, and make the best decisions one can. In many ways, this may be a helpful read for those with concerns about vaccines. It challenges us to make decisions not from a place of narcissism but enlightened self interest that also considers the common good. It is written from outside the current polemics, but reflects the concerns so many of us have.

What Makes A Great Series?

The books I’ve read so far in Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” series

Many readers love a good series, no matter what genre. I think of Orson Scott Card’s “Enders” series in science fiction, Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” in fantasy, Sharon Kay Penman’s historical fiction, Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” books, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, just to name of few. Louise Penny’s “Chief Inspector Armand Gamache” has provided a welcome diversion during the months of the pandemic–I’ve gotten through eleven of the seventeen books currently in the series.

What makes a great series? I think there are a number of factors. Here are some that are important to me.

Characters. I think this is foremost to me. Overall, I need to like the characters, especially the lead character or characters. In a series, I’m going to spend a lot of time with them. Would I enjoy having them to dinner or driving across country with them? I might not like all of them, but the chemistry of the ensemble is important. The one thing that is hard is when an author kills off a character we’ve come to care for.

Relationships. It is not only that we like individuals, but we like the relationships, such as between swashbuckling Jack Aubrey and the intelligent and somewhat mysterious Maturin. Of course, there is the classic relationship of Holmes and Watson. In Elizabeth Peabody’s Amelia Peabody series, you just have to love the relationship between Amelia and Emerson. In the Gamache series, there are multiple relationships–Armand and Gamache, Beauvoir and Ruth, Olivier and Gabri, and of course, Ruth and Rosa.

Setting: From the world-making of fantasy to the physical setting of a mystery series, setting matters. Louise Penny has created a fictional village many of us wish really existed. Good thing it doesn’t because we’d all move there and ruin it. Rivendell, and much of Middle Earth seems like the ideal place to live.

Development. I think of characters and plot. Do the characters grow? It doesn’t have to be linear. It can be fun when they surprise us. Part of what makes a good series as opposed to simply a collection of books with the same characters is a developing plot line, or even several plotlines. The corruption in the Surete in the Gamache stories and the development of Clara’s art, and the implications for Peter and others. This often means layered writing, where several plots are developing, with at least one coming to some kind of closure.

Stand-alone stories. I’ve read books in series that really felt like they were just serving as bridges to a subsequent book. While series work best when read in order, that doesn’t happen. I read #11 in the Gamache series because that is the one I first acquired. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was persuaded to go back to Still Life and read the series in order. I’m now up to #11, The Nature of the Beast, which I will re-read to see how it reads a second time.

Writing. Most series writers are not literary giants. What is helpful is prose that doesn’t get in the way. Some do this by page-turning action. Others are more “mental” and draw us into the psychology of characters. Some achieve a gradual build-up of tension that keep you reading.

They know when to end. For one thing, writers are mortal. Sometimes they write when they are past the peak of their powers. Sometimes they die before they finish, notably Robert Jordan in his “Wheel of Time” series. I thought Elizabeth Peters’ last books weren’t up to the standard of her earlier ones. Perhaps it is a human thing for one’s reach to exceed one’s grasp. And we don’t always know when death is coming. Sometimes the series itself needs to end, and it is best to go out strong rather than write one more subpar book.

I think a series appeals to the longing of every reader to know there are more good books to read than just the one in your hand. When I started over on Gamache, it was delightful to think that there were fourteen more (then fifteen and now sixteen) to go, hopefully each better than the last, or at least revealing new aspects of one’s favorite character’s persona.

Review: Majority World Theology

Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Context, Edited by Gene L. Green, Stephen T. Pardue, and K. K. Yeo. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A global collection of scholars discuss the major doctrines of the Christian faith considering the history of doctrines, the scriptures, and cultural contexts.

Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Newman, Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkhof, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Henry, Erickson, Bloesch, Hauerwas. These were some of the formative influences in my theological thinking. All male. All White. All Europeans or Americans. Many of my generation thought, and may still think that what they produced is Christian theology.

The global Christian church has gone through a massive transformation over the last fifty years as the locus of Christianity has shifted both south and east. Equally, in the American context, Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous theologians are speaking, teaching, and writing of the bearing of Christian theology on their distinctive cultural contexts. Many women have joined their male counterparts. What those of my generation, race, and gender thought was the conversation increasingly is part of a much larger conversation. As a student, we prayed and mobilized to reach the nations with the gospel. Now, increasingly, the nations are evangelizing the West and both challenging and enriching our understanding of the faith. I’m delighted I’ve lived to see this, which is what makes me so excited to review this significant volume.

This actually represents a compilation of six books, representing six annual gatherings focusing on the major theological categories of Trinity, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Each of the six sections is introduced with an overview of the contributions for that section. This is followed by chapters written by theological scholars from every part of the world, eight chapters per section except for the final section on eschatology which has seven. The first chapter in each section surveys the historical tradition, usually the only one written by a Euro-American. The contributors affirm a commitment to scripture, tradition, and their own cultures. Having worked through this massive volume, my general sense is that the contributors hit all three of these marks and stretched my own thinking about such things as the honoring of ancestors and the meaning of one’s land. Due to length, I cannot discuss every contribution but I thought I’d highlight some of those I most appreciated from each section.

Part One: The Trinity Among the Nations: The Doctrine of God in the Majority World

Gerald Bray’s chapter on the Trinity is a masterly summary of outstanding clarity. It was delightful to read Randy Woodley offering an Indigenous American perspective, considering Indigenous ideas of deity and offering a framing of the Trinity as a “community of the Creator, existing eternally in shalom relationality.” I appreciated the care of Natee Tanchanpongs in evaluating various Asian Reformulations of the Trinity, holding orthodoxy and cultural formulations in a creative tension.

Part Two: Jesus Without Borders: Christology in the Majority World

Several of the chapters evaluated various Christologies from each continent. I appreciated Stephen Ezigbo’s discussion of African christologies by the categories of neo-missionary christologies, ancestor christologies, and revealer christologies. The second half of this section is more topical. Aida Besancon Spencer offers a sensitive discussion of the veneration of Mary vis a vis Christology. I also appreciated Yohanna Katanacho’s chapter on reading John through Palestinian eyes and the themes of holy space, holy time, holy experience, holy people, and holy land.

Part Three: The Spirit over the Earth: Pneumatology in the Majority World

I especially valued the articles that bookended this section by Amos Young and C. Rene Padilla (who recently passed). Then Wei Hua offers a thoughtful discussion of how ancestor commemoration may be integrated into Christian faith through the transforming work of the Spirit.

Part Four: So Great a Salvation: Soteriology in the Majority World

Milton Acosta offers a thoughtful discussion of salvation in the Latin American context where material and spiritual concerns often clash in “From What Do We Need to Be Saved? Reflections on God’s Justice and Material Salvation.” Elaine W. F. Goh’s “Qohelet’s Gospel in Ecclesiastes: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; 7:15-22; and 11:1-6” draws together solid exegesis, tradition and Asian cultural insights in a credible argument for reading the gospel out of Ecclesiastes.

Part Five: The Church from Every Tribe and Tongue: Ecclesiology in the Majority World

Peter Neyende offers a thought-provoking reading of Hebrews centering on the church as the assembled on Mount Zion, which he believes a far more compelling model for the church than the family. Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking essays of the whole volume was Munther Isaac’s “Ecclesiology and the Theology of the Land: A Palestinian Christian Perspective.” speaks powerfully of what it means to be a church in an occupied land and a vision of living on a land “where people of all ethnicities and social backgrounds are treated equally.”

Part Six: All Things New: Eschatology in the Majority World

James Henry Owino Kombo’s “The Past, the Present, and the Future of African Christianity: An Eschatological Vision for African Christianity” considers how eschatology addresses concerns of ancestors, life, death, the intermediate state and Christian hope. Finally, Shirley S. Ho, in the concluding chapter discusses the affinity for Judeophilia of the Taiwanese, and how this misses the focus on the victory and reign of Christ.

This book might serve as a good text or supplementary text for a Christian doctrine or systematic theology sequence. It is also a helpful introduction for many of us educated on a diet of white, male, Euro-American theologians. It introduces us to scholars who are in vibrant conversations, whether we are listening or not. A strength of this work is its engagement with rather than wholesale rejection of the theological traditions of the church. It also explores cultural issues that are becoming increasingly relevant in the multi-cultural West. It models cross-cultural conversations about theology that evidence both our common faith and rich diversity. And it is a one-volume introduction to the global theological voices with whom we may want to become better acquainted.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Dragon’s Teeth

Dragon’s Teeth (The Lanny Budd Novels #3), Upton Sinclair. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published 1942).

Summary: As Irma’s fortune wanes, Lanny uses his art dealings both for income and to secure release of the Robins, who are swept up in the anti-Semitism of pre-war Nazi Germany.]

This is the third of eleven books Upton Sinclair wrote around young, well-connected Lanny Budd, set in the years between the two wars and World War 2. In my review of book #2, I noted a Matthew Arnold quote about “Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born.” and hoping the wandering would end with this book. If anything, Lanny and Irma’s wanderings around Europe seem more pronounced with yacht trips and migrations from Bienvenu on the Riviera to Paris, Berlin, and Munich.

If there is a plot line, it revolves around the Robin family, a Jewish financier and his sons, Hansi and Freddi and their spouses. Hansi and Freddi were swept up into Lanny’s “pink” socialism, while Johannes had cultivated a business relationship with Lanny’s father, a gun manufacturer. Johannes thinks his affluence protects him and his family. It turned out otherwise. Lanny negotiates the family’s freedom with Hermann Goring, at the cost of the Robin fortune. But Freddi is left behind, and eventually reported in Dachau. Much of the story revolves Lanny’s efforts to get him out of Germany.

Under his trade as an art dealer, he goes in and out of Germany, holding shows of his step father, Marcel Detaze’s paintings. He mutes his socialism and cultivates ties with Goebbels, Goring, and even Hitler, who he meets twice. Throughout, the question is really who is using who, but a significant part of the narrative is an expose’ of the growing persecution of the Jews, the “disappearings,” and the ambitions of the Fuhrer.

Lanny and Irma make a glamour couple with her fortune and his looks, though that fortune is “declining” due to the crash of the market. In this book, one senses increasing tension between the daughter of capitalists and the socialist Lanny. Each indulge to a point the wishes of others, but Lanny’s efforts to rescue his Jewish, socialist friends at the risk of his life clearly strains the relationship as Irma sees more clearly who she married, and Lanny wrestles with the circuits around Europe, seeing and being seen. Irma wants to host a salon. Lanny wants to find some greater purpose, preferably resisting the rising Nazi threat, whose measure he has accurately taken.

This book won a Pulitzer in 1943. I personally wonder what this says about other published works of that year. Most of the action and excitement happens in the last 100 pages of a 600 page book. The rest is hundreds of pages of wanderings around Europe whose main purpose is to show Western society’s last flurry’s as Nazism arose–the dissolution of the French government against the backdrop of a German society buying order and prosperity at the cost of the suppression of the Jews and the rise of tyranny. I do think Sinclair could have cut at least 200 pages out of this book without harm either to the plot or Sinclair’s polemic purposes.

Reviews of previous books in the series:

World’s End

Between Two Worlds

Review: Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987

Seamus Heaney Selected Poems 1966-1987, Seamus Heaney. New York: The Noonday Press, 1990.

Summary: A selection of the poetry of Seamus Heaney from previously published works between 1966 and 1987.

My one previous encounter with Seamus Heaney was his rendering of Beowulf, a powerful version of this Old English heroic narrative. I’ve long wanted to explore his poetry and a while back picked up this collection, gathering a number of poems from the first half of his writing career (subsequently, an edition covering 1988 to 2013 was released).

The poems in this selection come from the following works:

  • Death of a Naturalist
  • Door in the Dark
  • Wintering Out
  • Stations
  • North
  • Field Work
  • Sweeney Astray
  • Station Island
  • The Haw Lantern

How does one summarize and review all this? One reviewer described reading Heaney as “muddled clarity.” I would agree with this assessment. Heaney demands multiple readings and this was merely my first taste. In the middle of a poem, you wonder what he is saying, and then a phrase leaps out and rivets your attention.

His work evokes the land–the bogs and trees, the fields and hedges, the broagh or riverbanks, that together create a sense of place. He captures the people–the farmers, the roof thatcher, and the Tollund Man, a mummified corpse found in one of the bogs. He remembers the dead, from Francis Ledwidge, who died in World War I to his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney (“M.K.H”) in Clearances that evoke all the memories of a loved one, the parting of death, and the awareness of our mortality.

The violence present in Northern Ireland is a frequently present backdrop to his poetry as is the imagery of Irish Catholicism from missals to masses. Much of this comes together in the last poem in this collection, The Disappearing Island:

Once we presumed to found ourselves for good

Between its blue hills and those sandless shores

Where we spent our desperate night in prayer and vigil.

Seamus Heaney, p. 261.

The collection includes selections from Sweeney Astray, Heaney’s version of the Irish poem Buile Shuibhne, the Glanmore Sonnets, and Station Island.

One should have a phone or computer handy to look up words and references that may be obscure to one. Perhaps some day, an annotated version of Heaney’s works will do this work for us. But for now, we are left to do the work for ourselves. Some will pass this up, but some of the richest readings are the ones that have required me to dig. Heaney’s works seem to me to be among these. In this we join Heaney who compared his work to that of his potato farming father:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests

I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, “Digging,” p. 3.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Clyde Singer

Screenshot of Vindicator art critic Clyde Singer via Google News Archive, September 12, 1971.

This is how I saw Clyde Singer when I was growing up in Youngstown. He wrote articles about new art shows at the Butler. I noticed them but cannot say I paid much attention. What I did not realize was his role at the Butler nor his body of work as a celebrated American artist. In researching him online, I discovered that one of his paintings, “On 14th Street” was sold by Christie’s for $50,000 on October 27, 2020.

Singer was a native Ohioan, born in 1908 in Malvern, Ohio, a small village in Carroll County, about 15 miles southeast of Canton. He was an artist from childhood, and much of his early art captured scenes and people from everyday life around Malvern. After high school, he worked for a time as a sign painter and then went to art school in Columbus before returning to Malvern. In 1933, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, where his teachers included John Steuert Curry, Thomas Hart Benton, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Ivan Olinsky.

His style was characterized as Social Realist. While in New York, he painted in some of the same places famous painters of his time like George Bellow and John Sloan, including McSorley’s Saloon. But when he finished his studies, he returned to Ohio with $1.10 in his pocket. Soon, though, he received $500 for a large canvas exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute in 1935. Other exhibitions followed, but a steady income can be elusive for an artist.

In 1940, Joseph Butler III offered him a job. He was able to marry Bernice Shimp, an art student in 1941. Apart from war service from 1942 to 1945, he worked at the Butler until his death in 1999. He rose to the position of associate director. He also took on the work of writing articles for the Vindicator introducing new art shows at the Butler. He contributed a column every week.

He kept painting. He loved painting the blue-collar workers of Youngstown and the scenes of their lives. In all, he painted over 3,000 paintings, many in his basement studio in his home in Boardman. The Butler owns about 75 of them. He helped the Butler acquire a number of important works in its collection. He taught art classes at the Butler. And he made yearly trips to New York.

The advent of Abstract Art spelled the end of Social Realism and Regionalism in the art world. He tried his hand at this, sold some, but returned to what he loved because of his passion to capture everyday American life. The basic character of his paintings, including his humor, did not change–only the clothes–miniskirts and hippies replaced earlier styles.

He lived simply. He didn’t drive, his clothes looked like gifts and hand-me-downs. He could hold his own with other Social Realists but when the Butler acquired a painting of Kenneth Hayes Miller, Lou Zona, Butler director describes what happened in these words:

“He came in one morning, and I said, ‘I want to show you something.’ Instead of another electrical failure or a hole in the roof, the kind of things you have to deal with in an old building, I walked him over to the Kenneth Hayes Miller painting. He looked at it and his eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

His reputation has only grown since his death in 1999, purchased by collectors around the country. He is contribution to the cultural life of Youngstown during his nearly 60 years in the city is immeasurable. By the same token, the city and its people contributed so much to his work. In 2008 PBS Western Reserve filmed the video above on the occasion of a joint exhibition at the Butler and the Canton Museum of Art. It is a wonderful tribute to this man who did so much for Youngstown while creating a body of work that makes him one of America’s great artists.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

The Wonder of a Library

Photo by Element5 Digital on

The Reuben McMillan Free Library near downtown Youngstown is a beautiful old building erected in 1910 (and currently undergoing renovations). It was partially funded by a grant from Andrew Carnegie, as were many libraries around the country. The first time my father took me there as a boy, I was somewhat in awe of its Classical Revival architecture as I approached the big doors of its front entrance. I had been so excited to learn how to read, but most of the books around our house were too advanced for this young reader.

The real joy came when we went downstairs and I saw the children’s library. We went to the librarian’s desk and I was signed up for a library card. I think at the time you were allowed to check out up to six books at a time. It was wonderful to go shelf by shelf, run my fingers along the spines as I read the titles, and looked for books that I wanted to read.

I loved adventure stories. I remember reading the Adventures of Robin Hood. I also loved science books, and loved reading about space and rockets. Then there were baseball stories. I read about my heroes. Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and about great baseball teams of the past.

We went every couple weeks. Dad would go upstairs where the adult books were while I turned in my books and selected new ones and checked them out and then showed my dad what I had selected. It was not only exciting to anticipate the joys between the covers of the books. It was a special shared moment between my father and me. This, along with observing my mother’s love of reading, cultivated a love of books that has endured six decades later.

How grateful I am for Reuben McMillan, Andrew Carnegie, and all those librarians who recognized and encouraged my love of books. How grateful I am for the public funds that have made possible all the libraries I’ve used over the years in every town where I’ve lived. I still find myself delighted to read the titles of newly arrived books at our local library. How grateful I am for all that libraries have done to expand e-book lending during the pandemic and other safe options for borrowing books.

I realize I’ve written only about books, but I am amazed at the array of services our local libraries offer, including COVID tests! Even when our libraries were closed, local residents could park nearby and use the wi-fi, an important benefit if the family budget doesn’t permit broadband connections. There are reference librarians to help with any information request, homework help, language classes, computer and printer access, and so much more. Children’s librarians not only offer creative programs but work with children to help them find books they will love.

I have a hard time thinking of another organization which does so much for my community and does it with excellence. My library wins “Five Star” awards yearly and awards for financial reporting excellence. It’s the one part of my property taxes I have no problem paying, or increasing when it is needed. I also realize state and federal funding is an important part of library funding. If you believe encouraging lifelong learners is a worthy investment, I think this is one of the best ways to use public funds that will bring a great return on investment.

One can talk about programs and benefits of libraries. But perhaps the image to remember is that wide-eyed child getting his or her first library card and getting to borrow an armload of books. I was once that child. Were you?

Review: We the Fallen People

We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An argument that we have witnessed a great reversal in American history from an assumption of fallen human nature to the inherent goodness of people, which the author believes could jeopardize its future.

“America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often misunderstood, if it has been read.

While there is a good amount of material about Tocqueville here, the real concern of this book is about a Great Reversal that occurred in American history concerning American goodness. He begins with the Founders and the writing of the Constitution. The young nation just wasn’t working. Dependence upon the good will of the states to contribute to the upkeep of a national government just wasn’t happening and the national government had no way to compel it. They were depending on virtuous behavior and it was not forthcoming.

In writing the Constitution, the framers started from a different premise, “taking human nature as they found it.” In biblical terms, they assumed a fallen people. On one hand, they created a federal government with a strong executive office to implement the laws passed by Congress. Congress had two houses, one that represented local interests, and one representing broader concerns to balance each other. They could override the executive’s veto. At the same time a third branch, the judiciary, could check laws that overreached the power of the Constitution. It both guarded against excessive influence of popular power, and any concentration of power within the government. They wouldn’t trust anyone too far. They assumed human fallibility and fallenness.

McKenzie proposes that a Great Reversal occurred with the election of Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as the people’s president. He represented himself singularly as the people’s representative. He described his victory as “a triumph of the virtue of the people.” The great reversal in all of this was a growing belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and those they elect, an assumption that has continued to the present day. Accruing great power to himself, he encouraged the abrogation of treaties with the Cherokee people and their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In a lesser discussed move, he worked to end the second Bank of the United States. Tracy sees in this Jackson’s use of populism, the People versus the Monster, although the Bank had engaged in no wrongdoing. It is this extension of the power of democratic majorities, a “we versus them,” where “they” are not worthy, that is deeply disturbing. Democracy provides no protection from abuse of power when unchecked by the structures and the underlying premises behind those structures conceived by the founders.

It was this that was Tocqueville’s concern, writing during this period. Tocqueville witnessed the rise of partisan politics in which Congress failed to check Jackson’s moves, nor did the judiciary. While he recognized the great energy and productivity of the country, and the breadth of freedom its white male citizens enjoyed–greater than in Europe–he also recognized how democracies could be turned to ill, depending on how majorities wielded their power. He recognized how people could exchange liberty and justice for safety.

At the same time, Tocqueville finds that it is not virtue but self-interest that can be a safeguard–the temporary denial of benefit for long term profit that produces a kind of discipline, and counters individualism with collaboration on shared self-interests like good roads. Tocqueville also believed religious piety of importance, not because of his religious views, but as an early sociologist and political thinker. Belief in an afterlife in which one gives account can serve as a partial, not total, restraint on egregious evil. Tocqueville saw the separation of church and state as a good thing, recognizing the loss of spiritual force churches experienced when intertwined with political power.

All of this challenges the rhetoric of American goodness and greatness. McKenzie believes there can be great danger in being blind to human depravity, whereas the recognition of this gives reason for the countervailing powers of government and punctures the pretensions of political leaders. In his concluding chapter, he not only applies this to our current political scene, but if anything, even more forcefully speaks to his concerns for the ways the church has allied itself with political power.

This also explains to me the efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history, expunging our sorry dealings with native peoples, our involvement with slavery from our earliest settlements, and the structures that continued to oppress blacks, other minorities, and women even after Emancipation. None of these things ought surprise those of us who believe in human fallenness, who also believe in the biblical remedies of repentance, just restitution, and reconciliation. But those who must hold onto the myth of our inherent goodness cannot admit these things–the only solution is suppression–a strategy that has been a heavy burden on our nation

This is a vitally important book for our time. It not only takes a deep dive into the Great Reversal of the Jackson presidency but also uses Tocqueville to challenge the stories we tell about ourselves. It calls us to be clear-eyed about the future of our democracy, and questions the naïve notion of our inherent goodness. Perhaps a severe mercy of the pandemic is that it has challenged such illusions. But do we still hide behind them by attributing wickedness to “them”? Or will we learn from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts delegate in a ratification convention in 1788, to whom McKenzie introduces us. He declared, “I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature” and gave for the basis of his doubt “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.” Will we suspect our own hearts and put our trust not in rulers but in the God who searches hearts?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Community Doesn’t Stop At Your Feet

Photo by Lukas on

I’m in the middle of several long books, hence fewer reviews in recent days. So I thought I might share one interesting idea from one of the books I’m reading. In Majority World Theology, theologians from around the world write on the major themes of Christian theology. The situation of various writers offers unique perspectives. One of these was from some Christians from Canada’s indigenous peoples. Writing about community, one writer observed that land for indigenous people was considered part of their communal life. For indigenous peoples, separating people from the land, as occurred with the Cherokee tribes who traveled (and died along) the Trail of Tears in U.S. history, is devastating

Certainly this was true of ancient Israel as well, and part of the grief of exile was the parting of people from their land. I wonder if this is actually true of many people in the world. It makes me think that many of us modern urban Euro-Americans may be the anomaly. We live on land but often think little about it. We live in places from which we draw our life but often think little about its care or future.

Even the quarter acre on which I live is vibrantly alive and I’m part of a complex community of microbes, creatures in the soil (including the grubs of the seventeen year cicadas who emerged this summer and created cacophony), and insects and spiders. Hundreds of species of vegetation draw nutrients and water from the soil and the air and return them as they decay. Squirrels, chipmunks, the occasional skunk, rabbits, possums and raccoons and birds from sparrows to vultures visit our property.

St Francis of Assisi spoke of the animals as his brothers and sisters and preached to the birds. Hildegard of Bingen commented, “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity.” John Paul II loved to ski and hike in his native Poland and urged an “ecological conversion.”

I wonder if our own lack of connection to the land and community with its creatures makes us less sensitive to those around the world who face displacement from their homes, and what a wrenching decision it is to flee one’s home. Even if they leave as a family, they leave a “family” behind, a part of themselves. As sea levels rise, as temperatures and drought in some areas, or inundations in others displace these “climate refugees,” will they find those who grieve with them or will we close our doors to them?

I’m struck that many of our burial rites even sever our relationship to the land. Where at one time, we committed the remains of those who died to the earth, now we keep them in columbariums, or even on a shelf in our homes. We believed “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). In past days, churches had graveyards, where we remembered the “saints of old,” a communion of land, and people past and present.

Might a renewed awareness of our community with the land around us begin to teach us to love the wider world? And might that awareness help us care for those displaced, including those our own forebears displaced? I’m reminded every time I hear the name of a river in my state, and even the name of my state that people lived here long before it was “discovered” and “pioneered.” Many of our roads began as their trails. They left their impact on the community in which I live, even as I will for another generation. And the land ties us together.

When a Book Ends Differently Than I’d Like

Photo by Samson Katt on

Have you had this happen? You wanted a story to end a certain way, or you hoped it would. And it didn’t. Maybe it was something you didn’t want. Or maybe it was a surprise, like “I never saw that coming…”

How did you react? Did you throw the book across the room? Vow never to read another book by that author?

This happened to me recently. I just didn’t see the ending coming, and let’s just say, it was not what I was hoping for. I found myself going back and reading the key ending passage again, just to be sure I hadn’t misread it. And I just stopped.

And I realized afresh the reality of the reader’s relationship with the author (except in children’s “choose your own adventure” stories). The author gets to tell the story their way–or however they find the story writing itself–as is sometimes the case.

I sat with the ending for a while. Turned it over in my mind. I realized that there was something truer and richer that occurred than if it would have ended as I hoped. It was also more real to the broken conditions of human life and the arc of the story.

I found myself admiring the mastery of the author who pulled together strands of the plot and characters in ways that surprised me, disturbed me, and made me think afresh about the human condition at its worst and best. I found myself glad that the author didn’t just make me happy.

And I found myself thinking about our stories. We want them to turn out happy. We pray our lives go “smoothly”–a favorite word I find people (and myself) using in our prayers. Yet life doesn’t always go this way. Sometimes, things go badly sideways in an instant. And sometimes a choice “against the grain” plays itself out over years in pain and heartbreak–a nursed grudge or jealousy, a habit over which we lose control.

Perhaps in the end, what is better is not a happy end but a good one. How is that possible? All I have figured out is trusting the Author of our lives at whatever point we find ourselves. Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache teaches all his officers four statements that actually make a lot of sense in this regard:

“I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help.”

I don’t think this will result in a “smooth” life, but rather one lived “with the grain” of how our life’s Author would write our story.