Review: How To Make A Vaccine

How To Make A Vaccine, John Rhodes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Summary: A concise handbook discussing the science behind vaccine development, including an explanation of the different types of vaccines, including the various COVID-19 vaccine candidates.

There have been endless polemics for and against vaccines, especially in the years of COVID-19. This book is not one of those. Rather, it represents what I believe is good public science–explaining in terms that a thoughtful layperson may grasp the science behind vaccine development, particularly as it bears on the COVID-19 vaccines. John Rhodes is a research scientist from the UK who has held positions at both Cambridge and the NIH as well as working as director of strategy in immunology at GlaxoSmithKline from 2001 to 2007. Writing from outside the U.S. context he takes the reader step by step through the science while not drawing policy or personal conclusions for us, giving us space to step back from the debates and become learners.

He begins by discussing the pathogens vaccines fight, in this case, the coronavirus that causes COVID. In particular, he focuses on the target, ACE2 proteins to which the spikes on the virus affix themselves, and how this target of attack affects the body. Then he discusses the array of cells that make up our immune system including surveillance cells and different kind of B- and T-cells and how they interact both with pathogens and each other, and how the body manufactures cells with the specificity to kill each pathogen. We learn about the thymus, an organ that disappears in adults and its critical role in ramping up our immune system. And Rhodes discusses the crucial role of adjuvants in the vaccine material, chemical or microbial agents delivered with whatever form of vaccine material that helps the body identify it as foreign and intensifies the immune response, enhancing vaccine effectiveness.

Rhodes then turns to vaccines proper, and their discovery through the immunity relatively harmless cowpox confers on those exposed to smallpox. The name vaccine even arises from this, as vacca is the Latin for cow. The basic trick of every vaccine since is triggering the body to produce antibodies against an infection without introducing that infection. Two main ways (until recently) this was done was to either use dead virus or live attenuated virus, as was the case with the polio vaccines that turned summer from “polio season to just “summer.” Eventually additional approaches including viral vectors and various approaches using DNA and RNA material have been developed

Next, Rhodes walks us through the development process and the stages in that process:

  1. Exploratory: Studying the virus to determine what components to include to provoke a strong response to the virus without adverse reactions.
  2. Preclinical: Conducting tissue and animal studies to study effectiveness with different dosages and adjuvants.
  3. Phase I trials: These are human trials with small numbers to study the safety of the vaccine but also whether they provoke an effective response.
  4. Phase II trials: These are with larger groups continuing to study safety as well as dosage and adjuvant effects in producing an effective response.
  5. Phase III trials: These involve tens of thousands of subjects, continuing to look for even rare adverse reactions. Often these are done in regions with high infections to better establish the real-world effectiveness of the vaccine.
  6. Regulatory review and approval. Producers submit an application to certification agencies in each country, such a the FDA in the US. Even after certification, ongoing reporting occurs through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

He also discusses long term vaccine research, such as that on DNA and RNA vaccines that have been going on for twenty years, leading to their stunning effectiveness.

There were an unprecedented number of contenders for COVID-19 vaccines, representing the various types of vaccines already discussed: inactivated whole-virus vaccines, protein subunit vaccines (also non-living), live attenuated viruses, non-replicating viral vector vaccines, replicating viral vector vaccines, virus-like particle vaccines, and DNA and RNA vaccines. He describes how each works, the ways they interact with the immune system and where they were being developed. He also takes a chapter to warn us against magic bullets and the importance of therapeutics. The history of COVID since this book was written amply illustrates this point–with new variants that reduce (though not eliminate) vaccine effectiveness on one hand and a growing array of therapeutics.

While there has been much controversy surrounding vaccines, Rhodes focuses on the amazing story of how quickly a myriad of vaccine candidates entered trials and how vaccine campaigns began in many countries within a year of the discovery of the virus. It represented advances not only in the science of vaccine development but also unprecedented collaboration of scientists around the world and the clearing of administrative hurdles without compromising safety protocols.

There will always be the threat of dangerous pathogens and it is right to not count on “magic bullets.” But there is much to rejoice in as one learns about the immune system and the science of vaccines. Very few people die of the horror of tetanus or polio. Small pox only exists in freezers. New vaccines hold the promise of protection against malaria, a perennial killer in tropical climates. The research and collaborative steps taken in developing vaccines in record time that seriously reduced the threat of a pathogen novel to the human species seems to me worthy of celebration rather than opprobrium.

I found myself alternating between wonder and hope as I learned more about the science of vaccines. Perhaps it is time, in the aftermath of the pandemic and when the arguments and polemics have quieted, to learn about our amazing bodies, about the dangers novel pathogens pose, and the progress human ingenuity has made to give us the tools to fend off those dangers. This book is a good place to start.

Review: Strength for the Fight

Strength for the Fight (Library of Religious Biography), Gary Scott Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2022.

Summary: A biography on this pioneer Hall of Famer who desegregated Major League Baseball, devoted his post-playing years to civil rights activism, all sustained by his active faith.

As a lifelong baseball fan, this is not the first Jackie Robinson biography I’ve read. The one I read when I was a young fan focused on his exploits on the field, his courage and restraint in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and how his play contributed to several pennants and a World Series victory. As this book makes clear, Robinson not only needed to be both courageous and self-controlled to face racist treatment, he needed to be good–and he was. He was fast and daring on the base paths, a great fielder, and could deliver hits and bunts in clutch situations. He was a great all-round ballplayer deserving of Hall of Fame status simply on those merits.

This book added to the portrait of Robinson in several ways. Most importantly, it reveals him as a man of deep faith, who like Augustine had a godly mother and his own Ambrose in the form of a Methodist pastor, Karl Downs, who rescued him from gang life in Pasadena. Later, as he faces intense pressure and vitriol, he testifies, “Many nights I get down on my knees and pray for the strength not to fight back.” This and the support of his wife Rachel made all the difference for a proud man whose natural instinct was to fight back. Yet Smith also shows how Rachel went beyond standing by Robinson to pursue her own career as a nurse-therapist and professor.

Gary Scott Smith also fleshes out the vital role Branch Rickey played in Robinson’s life. Smith goes into the Methodist faith the two men shared, a critical factor in Rickey deciding to sign Robinson. Rickey was both a deeply religious man in Smith’s account and a sharp (and parsimonious) baseball entrepreneur. It was Rickey’s counsel he followed in not fighting back against spiking, knockdown pitches, and crude racial insults. When Rickey died in 1965 he said of Rickey: “He talked with me and treated me like a son.” The treatment of Rickey is so interesting that I would love to see Smith follow up this book with a full length biography on Rickey, perhaps as part of this Library of Religious Biography series.

What also distinguishes this book is the account it gives of Robinson’s post-baseball career as a tireless activist for civil rights through newspaper columns that did not hesitate to criticize presidents of either party, through public addresses including messages in hundreds of churches, marching on the front lines in places like Selma. At the same time, Robinson was not a “movement activist.” While honored by the NAACP with its Spingarn award, he did not hesitate to differ with others like Paul Robeson over communism or Dr. King over Vietnam. Some accused him of being an “Uncle Tom” for his relationship with Nelson Rockefeller, motivated by both political and business considerations, and his support in 1960 for Richard Nixon.

Vietnam would contribute to tragedy in Robinson’s life. His son Jackie, Jr. returned with addiction problems but the book makes clear the strains on the father-son relationship between the two. Sadly, just as Jackie, Jr. started to get his life on track as well as his relationship with his father, he died in an auto accident, just a year before Jackson himself passed.

That leads to my one question about this book, that the author doesn’t discuss how such a fine athlete as Robinson died at age 53, just sixteen years after retirement, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, and nearly blind. Others have discussed the disparate impacts of racism on health and the effects of his repressed anger and racial traumas on his health. Pictures of Robinson show him with hair turning white in his last playing years. Robinson bore on his body in many ways, externally and internally, the trauma of racism, and perhaps this might have been further developed in this work.

Smith portrays Robinson’s faith as “muscular,” and apart from those bedside prayers concerned more about moral and social uplift of his people, expressed in his tireless work. Even in his last years, with failing health, he was grateful for God’s blessings. Yet, he was infrequent in church attendance, and Smith notes the evidence of extra-marital affairs. After his first two years, he was more aggressive in defending himself on the field, having fulfilled his agreement with Rickey. Yet there is a thread running through the course of his life, shown by Smith of a faith that sustained and strengthened Robinson. What resulted was some of the most significant civil rights leadership in the twentieth century delivered in the form of a stellar athlete (no one since has stolen home more than the 19 times he did this) and a courageous champion. His faith, courage, and perseverance are worth emulation.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Light Thickens

Light Thickens, Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2016 (originally published in 1982).

Summary: Set once again at the Dolphin theatre as Peregrine Jay stages Macbeth, a play surrounded by superstition, a production plagued by macabre practical jokes, and the real murder of the title character discovered just after the play’s climactic scene, with Alleyn in the front row.

This is the last Chief Inspector Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh, completed in 1982 when she was 86 and just weeks before her passing. She returns to the scene of an earlier murder, the Dolphin theatre, as the accomplished Peregrine Jay undertakes one of the most audacious productions, and one surrounded by superstition–Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The superstition is that it is ill luck for any production members to mention the play by name or speak its lines elsewhere than in rehearsal or performance.

Jay has assembled an brilliant, but eccentric cast. The title character is played Dougal MacDougal, a true Scot and a vain one at that. Both he and his opposite, Simon Morten, who plays Macduff are real-life rivals for the affections of Margaret Mannering, who plays Lady Macbeth. Gaston Sears, who plays Seyton, has an obsession with arms, including the Claidheamh Mòr (emphatically not a claymore according to him), a wickedly sharp two edged sword used in the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff. He choreographs and trains them in the fight.

Banquo is played by Bruce Barrabell, a union leader and participant in fringe causes, and has a connection to the child actor, William Smith, who plays Macbeth’s son. William’s father was an insane murderer who killed by decapitation. The most superstitious is Nina Gaythorne as Lady Macduff, although Rangi, a Maori actor and one of the Three Witches rivals her.

A series of incidents arouse superstitions during rehearsals. A costume decapitated head is found in a bag during a rehearsal, and later under a covered platter. A warning message about William and his father is found on the manager’s typewriter. Then the opening weeks of the performance come off flawlessly to acclaim. That is, until Alleyn has front row seats, compliments of the house, after having provided security for some royals attending an earlier performance, and realizes as the climactic scene concludes that something has gone horribly wrong and Dougal MacDougal is really dead, and in the manner of his denouement as Macbeth.

It’s obvious that a number could have a motive and Marsh keeps us guessing until the end while Alleyn methodically interviews witnesses. Yet there is something off in the chronology. There wasn’t enough time for any of the suspects to commit the murder…or was there?

One of the most interesting themes is that of not charging children with the sins of their parents. There are several turns during which William is allowed to shine as his own person, and to be encouraged with the prospects of his future rather than haunted by his father’s past acts. In this, Marsh invites us to heed the better angels of our nature, and to believe the best of others.

Whether this was one of Marsh’s best, I will leave to others. All I will say is that she concluded her last act well.

Review: Seven Brief Lessons on Language

Seven Brief Lessons on Language, Jonathan Dunne. Sofia, Bulgaria: Small Stations Press, 2023.

Summary: Explores the spiritual significance embedded into the letters, sounds, and structure of our language.

When I was young, the host of a local children’s program took the initials of a child having a birthday that day and turned it into an amusing drawing. I felt there was something of that sort going on with this book, but I could not say that I was amused with the letter play in this book and the supposed spiritual truths the author found in the vowels and consonants and words of our language.

The book is patterned on one by Carlo Rovelli titled Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. The book consists of seven short readings and a postscript. The author believes our language is encoded with spiritual truth for those whose eyes are opened, and through these “lessons,” the author proposes to offer the insights that will open our eyes.

The first chapter is on the alphabet, the vowels and consonants, how they are formed, phonetic pairs of consonants (important to the ideas he develops) and their connection to breath, water, and flesh. A clue to what he would be doing comes early, when through a series of transpositions he connects breath, water, and flesh to “father,” the one who speaks all into existence. Subsequent chapters reflect on the Alpha and Omega, the “I” that is both “I am” and the sinful human ego that needs to go from I to O, the One who is Three, Love, Believe, and Translate.

Here’s a brief example from the chapter on the Trinity of the kind of language play one encounters throughout the book:

“As when we place three Os together, we get G O D, so when we place three Is together we get I l l. We become ill when we are apart from God, when we turn our back on him(p.53).

All of this seems clever letter and word play in service of a book on spirituality. The method seems to me arbitrary, and one that could be used to say almost anything. Also, much of the book focuses on the English alphabet and words while treating with spiritual concepts that are transcultural.

I assume the sincerity of the writer, and would agree with many of the spiritual insights as a fellow Christian. But the method would have us looking for phonetic clues to reveal spiritual meaning rather than the plain meanings of the words of the scriptures and the creeds, which feels more of “Gnostic” or hidden knowledge than Christian.

The book also felt a bit of a “bait and switch,” at least it’s title, modeled as it is on Rovelli’s book which really is on physics. These really are not, except perhaps for the first, lessons on language but spiritual reflections drawing upon the author’s wordplay.

For those who truly value language and its power to unveil spiritual reality, I would commend the works of Marilyn McEntyre <>. As for this, I would take a pass.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.

Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990 (first published in 1927).

Summary: The story of two missionary priests from France and their labors over forty years to establish an archdiocese in the American Southwest.

It is in the time when the United States took possession of lands in the American Southwest that were formerly part of Mexico. Two Catholic missionaries from France working in Sandusky, Ohio, Fathers Joseph Vallant and Jean Marie LaTour are assigned to establish a new diocese in New Mexico, with LaTour being named as Bishop of the new diocese. Much of this work revolves around the relationship between these two men, who were friends from boyhood, and the respective gifts of each, both necessary to the work to which they’d been assigned. Vallant, less physically attractive and refined is utterly passionate in his care for the people of the new diocese, often going on extended journeys, and on several instances, becoming ill and nearly dying, only to be retrieved and cared for by LaTour.

By contrast, LaTour is the more reserved and intellectual and astute in his perceptions, knowing when to be patient and how to exercise his authority without being authoritarian. He is the architect of the diocese, both in identifying where to expand and recruiting new priests and nuns to the work, and in fulfilling his vision of a Midi Romanesque cathedral that would fit the desert landscape in which it would be set. Eventually, to his sadness and Vallant’s joy, he sends Vallant to Colorado and the mining camps to establish a new diocese, gaining the title of archbishop but parting with his mission partner of forty years.

Cather portrays the arduous work of these men. We trace the year long journey from Ohio to Galveston aboard riverboat and ship, losing most of their baggage in a shipwreck. Then comes an overland journey across Texas to Santa Fe. We experience the dangers of this land, from getting lost in the trackless hills as occurs to LaTour at one point, to the lawless Buck Scales, from whom the priests are saved by his abused wife Magdalena, who warns them by sign that he intends to kill them as he has others. Scales is tried, hanged and Magdalena redeemed, in part through the aid of Kit Carson, with whom LaTour forges a relationship of great mutual respect.

Bishop LaTour must deal with both the Spanish history of his diocese and the native peoples within it. We see his skillful handling of Spanish priests whose practices differ and are loved by the people, sometimes waiting for them to pass, in other instances, as in Father Martinez, removing him when he refuses to repent from his position of repudiating celibacy in doctrine and practice, allowing Martinez’ schismatic movement to die with him. He unsuccessfully takes issue with his friend Carson over what was, in the end, futile removal of the Navajo people. Cather portrays a churchman who both operates within the realities of the American occupation of the land while prioritizing the spiritual mission and its care for all the people within its diocese.

As in her other works, Cather paints with words as in this passage where LaTour shows the mission-minded Vallant the hill with rock that is perfect for LaTour’s envisioned cathedral:

“The base of the hill before which they stood was already in shadow, subdued to the tone of rich yellow clay, but the top was still melted gold–a colour that throbbed in the last rays of the sun. The Bishop turned away at last with a sigh of deep content. ‘Yes,’ he said slowly, ‘that rock will do very well. And now we must be starting home. Every time I come here, I like this stone better. I could hardly have hoped that God would gratify my personal taste, my vanity, if you will, in this way. I tell you, Blanchet, I would rather have found that hill of yellow rock than have come into a fortune to spend in charity. The Cathedral is near my heart for many reasons. I hope you do not think me very worldly.’ “

The outing exposes the differences between the two men with “Father Vallant…still wondering why he had been called home from saving souls in Arizona and why a poor missionary Bishop should care so much about a building.” Yet both are necessary–Father Vallant saving souls and Bishop LaTour planting gardens and fruit orchards and establishing, in the best sense, the institutions and spiritual center of the Church in this outpost diocese, eventually to become an archdiocese through the labors of these two men.

From beginning to the end of this work when death indeed comes for the archbishop, this is a work of understated beauty, whether in capturing the partnership of these two men, their long faithfulness in to their mission, or the peoples and landscape where all this played out. In it, in contrast to works like O Pioneers! or My Antonia, one sees two strong male characters, also pioneers, but in a very different setting, showing Cather’s artistic range.

Review: The Federal Theology of Jonathan Edwards

The Federal Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Studies in Historical and Systematic Theology), Gilsun Ryu, Foreword by Douglas A. Sweeney. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of Jonathan Edwards federal theology, forming the basis of a theology of the history of redemption in three covenants, with a focus on Edward’s exegetical approach to this theology.

You may have noticed from several reviews of books on Jonathan Edwards that I am something of an Edwards fan. Some of this is just national pride. Jonathan Edwards is the first significant and perhaps foremost American theologian. I admire that much of his theological work was done in a pastoral context. And one thing I’ve seen run through different studies of Edwards, including this present work is his ability to both keep faith with the faith once delivered and yet to tease out subtleties missed by other interpreters.

This work focuses on his federal theology. The idea can be traced back to Augustine and was developed in Reformed thought. It is that of the headship of the first and second Adams, acting, as it were, on the behalf of humanity, the first in sin, the second in his obedience to the law and sacrificial death satisfying the laws demands against sinners, reconciling them to God. For Jonathan Edwards, this served as the basis for an unfinished theological project, A History of the Work of Redemption, but one developed in a series of sermons and in many other writings.

Gilsun Ryu begins with four theologians antecedent to Edwards: Cocceius, Witsius, Mastricht, and Turretin. While Edwards draws upon all of these, he bases his theology on the biblical history of redemption, an approach that emphasizes the harmony of scripture as seen in his covenants of redemption, works, and grace. He begins with the covenant of redemption, the purposes and working out of those purposes in the Trinity within the history of redemption. The covenant of works emphasizes the sin of Adam, the impact upon his posterity, the impossibility of returning to a pre-fall state and the Christological focus seen under Moses, pointing toward redemption, Finally, the covenant of grace is traced progressively by Edwards through biblical history, prophecy, and secular history.

Having considered these three covenants within the history of redemption, Ryu then turns to the exegetical basis for each of the three covenants. While there is evidence of various methods of interpretation including typology and Christological interpretation, Ryu shows through Edwards’ exegesis of scripture that a redemptive historical framework informed that exegesis and the resulting doctrinal understanding, emphasizing the unity and harmony of scripture.

The last chapter shows how Edwards applied his federal theology of redemption in the church setting, showing how Edwards sought to encourage faith and piety through showing Christians how to engage with redemptive history. In this, he resists Arminian tendencies in emphasizing both the precedence of God’s design and human responsibility in justification.

Ryu’s unique contribution is his focus on Edward’s exegetical work, which he argues is what distinguishes Edwards’ federal theology from his predecessors. He draws on both books and Edwards sermons, and this latter is significant. This is not only systematic theology. It is pastoral theology grounding the spiritual state of his people in the sweep of redemptive history. I appreciated this work not only for it careful scholarly work but for recognizing this pastoral element in Edwards work–a model for modern-day pastor theologians!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Inalienable

Inalienable, Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: The three authors propose that voices from the margins and the kingdom-focused vision of service to the neighbor, even the most needy, may be the voices that bring renewal to the American church.

It seems that a favorite current topic is the parlous state of the American church, at least the White evangelical church. Some other parts of the church in America, particularly the immigrant churches, are doing well. And that leads to the point of this book, that it is time for the American church to listen to those we have considered “on the margins,” whether from other countries, especially in the global south, or even marginalized communities in our own country.

The authors are a pastor who works among the marginalized in Tulsa, a missiologist who came here in childhood as a Hmong refugee, and an immigration reform advocate. They are people who were raised in white evangelical culture but have been listening to the voices of those on the margins. They contend that these voices have called their attention to “inalienable truths,” not from the American founders but the pages of scripture. They are truths that confront us with the “there is no other God” (a good translation of the Latin alius).

They center on four themes. First of all, the inalienable truth of the gospel is centered on the kingdom of God, the growing, global advance of God’s rule of justice, peace, and life in Christ. Our call is not one of trying to retrieve an ideal of national greatness but to press into what God is doing. To do so will require “de-centering” white leadership–a recognition that Christians are pursuing the mission of God’s kingdom from every part of the world, and one group, whites, do not get to speak for them. Rather than fearing the increasing diversity of peoples in America, we ought celebrate the increasing realization of God’s multi-ethnic kingdom in our midst.

The second theme is the forsaking of our American idols and embracing the image of God in our neighbors. The writers identify individualism, materialism and consumerism, celebritism, Christian nationalism, and tribalism and partisanship. The Instagram tag, PreachersNSneakers with pictures of the expensive footwear of celebrity pastors is reflective of several of these idolatries. There is nothing for this but lament and repentance. Instead of idols, we need to recognize God’s “images”–the diverse peoples of our community and world who are the real deal of which idols are counterfeits–people made for relationship with God, and as those fully alive through Him, reflecting his very glory. This includes the “others” we dehumanize (the first step to a Holocaust). The authors offer a chilling example of how the words we use can accelerate this dehumanization process.

Third, our brothers and sisters from marginalized churches teach us that nothing transforms like God speaking through the scriptures. While we have unprecedented Bible study resources, are we those who see and yet do not see, who hear but don’t truly hear or understand? Perhaps listening humbly and honestly to those from other cultures, to stop thinking we must be teachers and to place ourselves in the place of learners might help us hear afresh. When we do so, we will hear the concern of God for the poor, for those on the margins, and for the refugees whose number include Hagar, Moses, the refugee from Pharoah’s court, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite, and the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

Fourth, and perhaps most challenging is the call to mission. Many Christians assume this is either partisan, pursuing a political agenda from which religious renewal is hopefully the fruit, or apolitical–witness without advocacy. They invite us into the mission of the gospel of the kingdom that proclaims our hope in Christ in both reconciliation with God, and reconciling all things, including unjust structures in Christ. Witness and advocacy are not opposed but joined. At the same time, as we think of God’s global mission, we are in the age of the Great Collaboration, a time when we work alongside indigenous believers in bringing a contextualized gospel to those who do not yet believe.

This is a book of hope rather than hand-wringing. The reflection questions and action steps in each chapter evidence a conviction that we may change and there is good to be done. But it involves humble listening and to learn from the other rather than think that we have all the answers. Perhaps the devastating exodus and scandals of the white evangelical church have a silver lining of calling into question the things we thought were “answers.” The question is whether we will double-down, allying ourselves with those who seek a return to some form of mythical greatness, or whether we will lament and repent and listen to those on the margins who may be bringing a “Word of the Lord” to us to embrace the “inalienable truths” of the living God.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Death of Politics

The Death of Politics, Peter Wehner. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Summary: A book that explores the noble calling of politics, the causes of the deep divisions reflected in the 2016 election and the years that followed, and what must be restored if the American experiment is to endure.

Peter Wehner, I believe, represents a significant swath of the American population that is deeply concerned by our current political divisions and the transformation of our political processes into hyper-partisanship, vitriol-laden discourse, and a disregard for truth, for the meaning of our words. At least I would like to believe that is the case. Perhaps Wehner just represents me and a few others.

Peter Wehner is an op-ed writer for the New York Times, perhaps enough of a qualification for many to write him off without a second look. That would be sad, because before this, he served in three Republican administrations going back to Ronald Reagan. The fact that those of his party would probably repudiate him today reflects the transformation of our politics that resulted from the election of our former president, whose election had been opposed in a number of Wehner’s opinion pieces.

Given all this, Wehner begins his book with a surprising assertion–that politics is a noble calling–perhaps not quite as surprising if one considers his background. He describes our current moment as a “slough of despond” and a “mess” but he argues that it is not a time to give way to cynicism or wallow in the slough but to recover what is noble in the imperfect practice of politics.

First though, he traces how we ended up in the current mess, attributing it to rapid demographic and cultural change, middle class economic anxiety, a politics of contempt all around, and the failures of our governing class. The ethnic and religious makeup of the country has changed. The day has come when those who are white and Christian are no longer in the majority, the wages of workers in the middle class have fallen, and our political leaders seem to be out of touch in their elite bastions.

Wehner then considers three political philosophers who have shaped the American experiment: Aristotle, John Locke, and perhaps America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. To these he attributes ideas like no ruler being above the law, that participation in a political community is essential to a healthy state, that human freedom and equality are not granted by the state but inherent, that governments govern by the consent of the governed, that it is not the state’s business to shape souls, and that fighting for justice does not abrogate the need to recognize the dignity of those who oppose us. Wehner maintains we need to reaffirm these foundations and the dangers of deviating from them.

Faith and politics is the subject of his fourth chapter. It is here that Wehner’s own deep Christian faith is evident, but not of one aligned with partisans. He discusses the moral basis religion has brought to American life at its best, ranging from civil rights to the Bush administration’s AIDS relief efforts in Africa. He observes the disjunct of evangelicals’ excoriation of a Democrat’s sexual failures while looking the other way in 2016. He argues that the ends don’t justify the means and contends that Christians need to focus on what Jesus actually taught, for the need of a coherent political vision rather than a stance on a few issues, a shift from a politics of revenge to one of reconciliation, and for the treatment of all our citizens as “neighbors.’ He argues that we need a gospel culture rather than a political culture within the church.

As he looks to the healing of our culture, it begins with words. We need to realize the power of words to stir us to either principled effort of unholy actions. He’s blunt in his denunciation of the culture of lying in the previous administration and the chilling phrase of “post-truth.” He contends that we all have a role in the restoration of integrity in our words from politicians to journalists to citizens who test claims for truthfulness, not only of the other political party but our own.

Wehner has not given up on the possibility of civility in our politics, of moderation and compromise in our policies (at least as of 2019). What I wish he could answer is how he would energize the “moderate middle” against energetic progressive and nationalistic partisans. I think he is hoping for the extremes to move to the middle, and I think this is highly unlikely in our heavily gerrymandered states where one’s base is all one needs to be elected. I personally have less hope that this will change our politics, but, like other virtues, I believe civility is its own reward, and part of Christian character that enjoys the favor of God, if not our political adversaries. But even here, Wehner holds out an interesting hope in the concept of the Second Friend (drawn from C. S. Lewis). These are not the First Friends who share our outlook but the person who shares our interest but comes at them in opposing ways with opposing conclusions. They force us to better thinking and action.

His final chapter offers a case for hope, drawn from his own political experiences–both the low and high points. He reminds us that we have never had perfect politicians–flawed leaders have led us in times of war and peace. He’s not arguing for the pretty, but the possible–a politics that works.

I found myself wondering if this would have been written differently after the contentious year of 2020 and the events of January 6, 2021. I wonder if he would have written with greater urgency. I would not have changed the argument though. Events since he has written only underscore the urgency of a return to the values he espouses. I think his plea for a return to the foundations of our democratic republic would have been stronger, foundations I believe partisans on both ends of our political spectrum are ready to jettison for their political ends. We need his call for honorable means in the pursuit of our political ends. When we allow ends to justify our means we will find that the fruits of victory will be poisoned fruit. The health of our politics and the democratic experiment will always be the worse for it.

Review: The Children of Ash and Elm

Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020.

Summary: A history based in archaeological research of the rise of the Vikings, their ways and beliefs, and their development as a trading, raiding, and invading power.

The story is that the gods, as they were creating, found two pieces of wood, out of which they fashioned the first man and first woman. The man was of Ash, the woman of Elm, and from these the people that became known to us as the “Vikings” sprang. Or so the Norse legends say.

Beginning with this story, Neil Price renders a history of the people known to us as Vikings. It is a story of a people who emerge from the fjords of Norway and the fastnesses of Sweden, from a collection of locally powerful lords of halls to invade and settle as far as Uzbekistan, Kabul, and Baghdad in the east and Iceland, Greenland, and the eastern shores of North America to the west. They contributed to the founding of Russia and their blood runs through William the Conqueror.

Price draws deeply on archaeological research to reconstruct the rise of these peoples in a time of volcanically-induced extended winter. The first part of this work traces their roots amid a Europe reconstituting itself after the fall of the Roman empire and the spread of Christianity, including to isolated monasteries in England that fell to early raids. Price uses archaeology to reconstruct their life, their beliefs (the Norse gods were a violent and promiscuous bunch) their burial customs (a most fascinating part of the book, including the boat burials, the rites and sacrifices, and what they were interred with), their social organization, including the employment of slaves, and their gender and sexuality.

The second part of the book traces the rise of the Vikings as a maritime culture from trading to raiding (“why trade for it when we can just take it.”) to their full scale invasions. What drives all of this is growing economic power and the needs to sustain and expand it. Price is unsparing in his accounts of the violence of these raids and invasions, and especially the consequences for women.

The third part of the book then builds upon this expansion to trace the extent of their dispersion throughout northern and eastern Europe, Russia, Constantinople and the trade routes to the east. We also learn of their dispersion from Scandinavian countries to Iceland and the attempts to settle in Greenland and North America (Vinland). Price traces the wars in England, the back and forth struggles of alternating Anglo-Saxon and Viking kings until the death of Knut in 1035 and the invasion of William, who as mentioned, was a Viking descendent.

In addition to this sweeping history, Price offers us a glimpse of the avalanche of data coming from archaeological work, from excavations, to artifacts, to DNA samples. We learn of the excavation of a warrior burial site that the warrior was a woman, from DNA evidence. Price offers evidence of fluidity in both gender roles and sexuality which might be explored further in terms of whether contemporary constructs are being read into the record, or whether the record bears out the existence of gender and sexual expression that parallel contemporary experience.

The work helps the reader enter into the worldview of these people, their maritime and military prowess, the sheer breadth of their advances and influences, and, in the end, their assimilation into Christendom. We see both the glories of the hall and the ugliness of their violence and some of their rites. The work offers maps that should be referenced to track the movements of the Vikings and a variety of illustrations of sites and artifacts referenced in the text. The references also offer extensive additional readings, as well as references for each chapter in the text.

All of this comes in a highly readable account, seasoned with Price’s wit from time to time. While there may be matters for continued scholarly debate in Price’s account, he offers an account that separates myth from fact in our understanding of these people–for example, there were no horned helmets but rather head pieces of armor and mail! This is a “go to” resource for those interested in the current research on the Vikings and their history and ways.

Review: The World-Ending Fire

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry, Selected and with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2019.

Summary: A collection of the essays, mostly focused on local culture, the care of places, and the hubris of technological solutions.

The works of Wendell Berry span the gamut from poetry to novels and short stories to essays, in addition to many articles contributed to various magazines and journals. I have a number of volumes just with his essays. This recently published work draws from them, and I think, does capture the “essential” Wendell Berry as an essayist.

The collection opens with “A Native Hill” and “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” They capture one essential of Wendell Berry–the loving knowledge of and care for a place, as Berry tramps the ground once farmed by his family, and describes his own farm, its features and how it must be cared for to continue to be useful beyond his life. He describes the slow work of rebuilding topsoil, describing a bucket which has collected leaves, twigs, feathers, droppings, and other debris, which have slowly decayed over decades into a few inches of soil. He comes back again and again to the idea that we should give up looking for big solutions, or solutions for someone else to implement. The question is what does our place require to preserve its soil, its life, and thus to sustain us? What must we do to protect the air, the water, the soil, and feed ourselves.

He decries the global food economy in “The Total Economy” in which production and consumption are separated, where farm work becomes servitude done by unseen workers rather than the hard but noble work of feeding both oneself and others through the care for plants and animals living on the soil. He reminds us in “The Pleasures of Eating” of both the joy and act of self-defense of growing, preparing, and being mindful of the sources of our food.

He writes of his own choices to use simpler but sufficient technologies: a good team of horses and various plows, mowers, and other attachments. He gives his reasons for not buying a computer. Hand-written text, edited and typed up by his wife to be sent to his publisher is enough, and he questions how a computer can make it better. He offers standards for technological innovation that should give pause, including that it should be cheaper, as small in scale, do better work, use less energy, and be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence with the requisite tools.

The essay following “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” addresses the firestorm that resulted when people found out about the work his wife did for him and made all kinds of invidious assumptions. He uses it as an occasion, one of several, to talk about domestic economies–of the home being the center of work for husband, wife, and children. In “Economy and Pleasure” he talks about how we have separated our work and our pleasure, recounting the storytelling among a crew during tobacco harvest time, or time with a grand-daughter, who drove a team for the first time, hauling a load of dirt to spread on a barn floor, and her response at the end, “Wendell, isn’t it fun?”

One of his repeated themes is that big tech and big government are not going to solve the problems they’ve created, because all of our challenges reduce to local challenges–this stream, this strip mine, this local community, this school system. He not only advocates for local culture but names the prejudice against country people and questions, what is the best way to farm in all of earth’s “fragile localities”

His penultimate essay, “The Future of Agriculture,” is the most recent in the collection, and in a pithy way sums up his essay-writing career. He offers seven things we must do that are straightforward common sense and concludes:

“This is a agenda that may be undertaken by ordinary citizens at any time, on their own initiative. In fact, it describes an effort already undertaken all over the world by many people. It defines also the expectation that citizens who by their gifts are exceptional will not shirk the most humble services” (p.333).

Berry’s words seem prophetic to me. The disruptions of the pandemic to global supply chains has awakened us to things like computer chip shortages. But a recent problem with infant formula brought to our attention how fraught is our system of producing and transporting food essentials. Climate-change induced droughts in food-producing areas as far flung as California and southern France and Spain should be alarm bells. A threatened rail strike as I write could be catastrophic.

So where do I begin? Perhaps it is to look at converting some of the lawn I mow to gardens. I recall a 15 by 15 garden at our former home and how much food we got out of it, how good it was, and how much fun we had ordering seeds and starting plants under lights. How did I get away from that? We’re coming up on the time to replace a roof as well as some electrical upgrades. Perhaps it is time for solar. Not sure it will pay back in our lives or change things in a big way. But that’s Mr. Berry’s point. It’s the small, local acts of care that extend even beyond our lives that are our “humble service.” Now, if only I can get off this computer…