Review: The Tyranny of Virtue

Tyranny of Virtue

The Tyranny of Virtue, Robert Boyers. New York: Scribners, 2019.

Summary: A distinguished liberal scholar critiques the new academic orthodoxy, one that defines virtue through the excoriating of privilege, identity, safety, microaggression, ableism, and appropriation, creating an academic tyranny in which people fear to speak their minds under threat of denunciation.

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Robert Boyers

Perhaps the most stunning thing about this book is who wrote it. This is not one more conservative diatribe against political correctness and speech codes in the university. Robert Boyers is a liberal arts professor teaching English at Skidmore as well as editing the literary quarterly, Salmagundi, which he has done for fifty years. He directs the New York State Summer Writers Institute. He does not have kind words to say about religious and political conservatives.

He also writes trenchantly against a new liberal academic orthodoxy of enforced virtue. He shows how constructs like privilege, microaggression, ableism, safety, identity, and appropriation, that may have a legitimate place in social critique, have become part of a surveillance culture on campuses where fellow scholars of good will can find themselves facing universal denunciation for the smallest, often inadvertent speech infractions, while the denouncers assert their own political virtues. It creates a culture in which faculty fear to say what they think, and students are taught all the things against which they should take offense.

Boyers is concerned with how this shuts down real inquiry and discourse, and often does little, if anything, to advance real efforts toward justice and equity with persons of color, or of other identities that these enforced virtues are meant to protect. He also is concerned with the lack of real intellectual underpinnings to the slogans used in the denunciation of transgressions, using Susan Jacoby’s phrase “junk thought.” One example comes in his discussion of cultural appropriation. As with other matters in the book, he recognizes legitimate instances of appropriation but then shows how all writers, including writers of color appropriate. He challenges the idea that those who are not of a particular culture have no right to write about it and cites examples of those who do so with real sympathy, with the intent to honor and honestly present that culture and who get it right in the eyes of persons from that culture.

Boyers in his epilogue soberly assesses the scene:

In many quarters we are now haunted by the specter of a liberalism increasingly drawn to denial and overt repression. Academic liberals who would have laughed thirty or forty years ago at the prospect of speech codes and draconian punishments for verbal indecorum or “presumption” are now not only compliant but enthusiastic about efforts to enforce standards many of them know to be intellectually indefensible. Those of us who are determined to call what is happening by its rightful name are astonished again and again, by the virulence of efforts to deny what is now unmistakable.

Boyers is describing the shift from the liberal value of honest, fearless exploration of ideas that allowed for difference and debate and discomfort. He decries the loss of a generosity of spirit that assumed good will of one’s intellectual adversaries, replaced by a climate of suspicion, an “us versus them” mentality whose resting state is one of hostility and grievance.

What it seems to me Boyers is calling for is perspective and rigorous mental reflection. Privilege does exist. Microaggressions do occur. Sexual violence on campuses and #MeToo make it clear that campuses are often not safe places for women. “Black face” episodes remind us that cultural appropriation is all too real. It seems, though, that to find instances of this everywhere, even among those with the most impeccable liberal credentials, begs the question of whether we diminish the seriousness of flagrant instances by lumping inadvertent or even non-existent slights with these. To put all the onus of offense on the act also seems to take away the agency of being able to choose to be offended, or to choose other, perhaps more conciliatory responses that mend rather than rend the social fabric.

What Boyers doesn’t address, perhaps in a desire to preserve the work he loves, is the connection between such toxic discourse and the eclipse of the humanities within the university. Yet might it not be contended that instances of the kind of speech codes and public shaming Boyers writes about occur most often with the context of the disciplines that fall within the humanities and social sciences? Might it be that the apparent dying of the humanities at many institutions is assisted by those within these disciplines digging each other’s graves? What I think Boyers gets right is that these things are “not to be done” but rather vigorously resisted. Hopefully his fellow scholars will wake to this realization in time.

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

Review: What You Take With You

What you take with you

What You Take With YouTherese Greenwood. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2019.

Summary: Therese Greenwood had minutes to evacuate her home as the Fort McMurray fire approached. The book recounts both her escape, and reflects on what she took, and what this revealed about her life.

A wildfire is rapidly approaching. Floodwaters are rising around you and you have minutes to escape. Thousands of people face this every year. Sometimes we idly think of what we would take if we only had minutes to flee our home. Therese Greenwood, who always feared she would die in a fire had such thoughts as well. She even worked in with an emergency preparedness organization for a time. And then she found out what she would really take when the order came to evacuate her neighborhood as the Fort McMurray fire bore down on her subdivision.

This book is both an account of her flight and a reflection on the articles she rescued and what her spur-of-the-moment choices told her about her life. Of course she had her “go bag” prepared that contained insurance policies and other important papers. These would prove necessary in the days ahead. It is what else she took that was revealing.

Her description of the drive to pick up her husband captures the rising fear many must have felt, sitting in traffic jams, smoke all around, windows rolled up (and air conditioning failing), watching the gas gauge creep toward empty. She reaches Steve in an empty downtown office building as flames appear in the distant hills. Eventually they end up in Edmonton, staying in a hotel with many other evacuees, hitting the Walmart for the necessities they left behind, waiting anxiously to find out whether they would have a home to return to. Steve later watches a video of someone driving through the neighborhood. Houses on one side of the street are still standing. Those on the others are gone, a crater where a house once was. Their home was on that side of the street. Greenwood’s narrative captures what is like for evacuees who have lost everything, and the challenge a community faces when thousands have lost their homes.

There are many such stories. What distinguishes Greenwood’s is its reflection on what she had saved from the fire–a rolling pin, a plaster saint, sleigh bells, a Bible and a bee book, a special needlepoint, her father’s musical instruments, an unusual mirror that was a wedding gift, a quilt and an award. Each reflects a chapter of her life and reflected something that endured that was ineluctably hers amid all the loss.

It isn’t all fear and thoughtful reflection. One of the striking parts of the book was her relationship with Hudson, A.K.A. “Big Stinky Dog,” a high maintenance, smelly old dog owned by her husband’s parents, who they stayed with for a time, a time that coincided with Steve’s mother’s death. Steve’s  dad Ray had to leave for a time, and Therese ended up caring for Big Stinky Dog, and found herself refusing a suggestion to put the dog down.

Many of us live in homes made comfortable with the accumulations of years, perhaps carried on one move to the next. This book asks the question of what would we choose when our choices are stripped bare and we act on instincts that reflect our subconscious sense of what may matter most deeply. It explores the lives we forge, the places where we define identity, the people who are dearest in life and memory, reflected in what we take, and in what is left of us when we’ve had to leave most of our “stuff” behind.

One of the greatest treasures in life may be to understand both where we have come from and who we have come to be. It seems that Therese’s reflections gave her some of those insights. Perhaps reading and reflecting with her might do the same for us.

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

Review: Boundaries for Your Soul

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Boundaries for Your SoulAlison Cook and Kimberly Miller. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019.

Summary: A therapeutic approach to dealing with overwhelming emotions through a process of understanding them as parts of oneself, allowing one’s Spirit-led self to befriend and care for these parts, and integrating the parts as a “team of rivals” within one’s life.

Some feelings are so powerful that they overwhelm us–anger, fear and anxiety, sadness, envy, shame, and guilt. These unruly emotions break the boundaries that enable us to function in a healthy and productive way. How do we control these emotions?

Alison Cook and Kimberly Miller propose an approach drawing on the Internal Family Systems Model of Therapy that sees our inner selves, or souls as consisting of a family of parts that works to free unruly parts from controlling roles and our various parts working together harmoniously under our Spirit-led self.

This model works off a map of the soul centered around the Spirit-led self who leads with creativity, clarity, curiosity, compassion, and confidence. Around this Spirit-led self are two types of protectors and one vulnerable part. One of the protectors is the manager that manifests in worry, people-pleasing, striving, self-criticizing, controlling, and perfecting. This part tries to protect by keeping us emotionally safe and free of pain. The other protector is the firefighter, that jumps in after painful events to extinguish pain through actions like overeating, addictions, overspending, self-harm, daydreaming, and lashing out. The third vulnerable part represents the exile: shame, fear, insecurity, hurt, loneliness, sadness. Often, a person seems to be struggling with one of the two protectors in action, and a key is quieting them to hear what the exile is saying and needs.

The key to beginning to bring these emotions under the control of the Spirit-led self is taking what the authors call a “You-Turn.” Instead of fighting or suppressing emotions, this approach assumes we can differentiate our self, particularly our Spirit-led self, from our unruly emotions. They commend five steps:

  1. Focus: Noting where we sense the feeling, thoughts or images that come to mind when we focus, early memories of feeling this way.
  2. Befriend: Are we able to feel curiosity and compassion toward this part of our soul. If there is some other emotion, that may be a different part, perhaps self-criticism, that needs to be asked to step back. Then as we return to our emotion, we ask, is there more it wants us to know?
  3. Invite: Would this part like to invite Jesus to be near? If not, what are its fears and concerns? Can it tell Jesus? Then ask Jesus if he wants to say or do anything, or give a specific gift.
  4. Unburden: what has this part been carrying? What does it fear about giving up the burden? Does the part want to release the burden and is it asking anything in exchange?
  5. Integrate: This involves checking in with other parts that might not have liked how a part was expressing itself. How can these parts work together as a harmonious family?

After outlining these steps, they apply the steps to specific emotions: anger, fear and anxiety, sadness, envy and desire, guilt and shame, and the challenging parts of others. Throughout the book, each step, each situation is illustrated with client stories (with details and identities changed to protect privacy.

What is attractive about this book is the clarity and simplicity with which it is written. In addition, for those who share the authors Christian assumptions, it addresses in one of the most tangible ways I’ve ever seen, how one lives a Spirit-led life, particularly as this applies to disabling emotions and defeating habits. Finally, this book is a refreshing alternative to the “try harder approaches” that seem to rely on human resolve in either suppressing or overcoming unruly emotions or habits. Instead, it builds on the idea that all of these might be focused on, befriended and listened to. These emotions point to places where we need the Spirit’s care and healing. The authors hold out the hope that, in the words of the subtitle we may “turn…overwhelming thoughts and feelings into [our] greatest allies.”

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

Review: I, Claudius

I Claudius

I, ClaudiusRobert Graves. New York: Vintage International, 1989 (first published 1934).

Summary: A fictional autobiography of Claudius, of how a physical handicap and speech impairment enabled him to escape death by intrigue until he rose to emperor.

Claudius was a survivor. To be Roman emperor, or close to the emperor, was to live with the threat of assassination, whether by the knife, or by poison. You only became emperor by surviving intrigues. Before Claudius, there was Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula. None died of old age.

Claudius mother was Antonia, a niece of Caesar Augustus and sister-in-law of Tiberius, who succeeded Caesar. By all rights, he should not have escaped the various purges, especially under insane Caligula, with whom he share the consulship. Robert Graves fictional biography describes how it happened. In his youth, he suffered from infantile paralysis (in Graves rendering, others have questioned this), and only hobbled rather than walked. In addition, he had a considerable stutter. Augustus wife Livia banished him from her table because of his “uncouthness.” Given Livia’s propensity for poisoning, he was lucky.

His infirmities rendered him “harmless” in the eyes of rivals and the powerful. Graves showed how he complemented these infirmities with a retiring and deferential demeanor. Aside from being censored by Livia, he was able to devote himself to his love of history, and the responsibilities that came with his high birth. With Caligula,  retiring and deferential became a combination of flattery and fawning–not particularly becoming, but he survived.

Livia, perhaps is the most fascinating character. She is the only one I can think of among the powerful who died a natural death. We speak of Machiavellianism, but before Machiavelli, there was Livia. She was both hard headed and clear thinking about the needs of the empire, and absolutely ruthless in pursuing the interests first of Augustus, and then Tiberius, until she died. She, too, did not see Claudius as a threat, though she blocked several histories written by Claudius that got too close to truths she wanted kept hidden.

Caligula is a study in what happens when a country is ruled by an insane and arbitrary tyrant. The four years of his reign were too long, and mercifully ended by assassins. In the aftermath, Claudius is elevated to emperor, a position he occupied for thirteen years, from 41 to 54 AD, one of the longer reigns of a Roman emperor. The book ends with his accession to power. Like the others, he also was murdered, by poison, probably from his wife, Agrippina, who we meet at the end of this volume.

Graves helps us understand the character of the times that combined efficient administration (partly thanks to Livia–it unraveled following her death), and military conquest, and a never-ending struggle to keep the German tribes subdued. He also tells the story of one who might be the “most unlikely emperor,” who succeeds merely by avoiding death. The book also makes the case that to be born close to power might be the worst possible fate one could suffer. It certainly came with a shortened life expectancy.

Thirty-five-some years ago, PBS based a series on this book, which may still be purchased. As I recall, it was relatively popular at the time. From reading the book, I think I understand. We seem to love stories of powerful people at their worst.

Review: The Winding Path of Transformation

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The Winding Path of TransformationJeffrey Tacklind, Foreword by Cathleen Falsani. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: The author proposes that spiritual growth means walking in paradoxical tensions of glory and humility lived out in a winding journey toward the transformation of our character and spiritual freedom.

Jeffrey Tacklind proposes that the path to spiritual transformation is lived in a middle place between glory and humility, and similar tensions or paradoxes. In truth, we often find ourselves in that tension, at once longing for greatness, while conscious that we are finite and fallen creatures. We are “glorious ruins” in the words of Francis Schaeffer.

Tacklind traces this journey for us, using incidents in his own journey to illustrate this journey, one that is not arrow straight but winding. He describes an encounter with an alder tree in a dry stream bed, with roots that grow deep to draw any bit of water and branches flexible to bend with wind and flood. To be rooted without being rigid is indeed to live in a middle place. He describes vocational tensions of ambition and rejection and hearing God just say “do this” as he engages a visitor to his congregation in a coffee shop, one who was spiritually seeking and asking questions.

He walks us through the winding trail of life’s different seasons of birth, death and resurrection. He urges us to face desolation to find joy, to wait in a pressured, distracted world, to face our longings to belong and the pain of choosing to stand between opposing sides without belonging to either (naming a pain I have often felt).  He invites us into a path of living in the questions rather than grasping for certitude.

The path to transformation is a slow path as it wanders toward wholeness. There is the struggle to discover who “me” is, drawn as we are by “shoulds” and comparisons. Sometimes, it is small prayers and consequent obedient faith that discovers God in the small things like finding a son’s lost report card award card. It is learning that it is in our brokenness that the work of the cross manifests in our lives.

A fly-fishing episode illustrates another part of the path. God has his own ways in our joy grief, our glory and humility. Pulling fish out of the river is more than just a good cast and setting the hook. It is yielding to the wisdom of the river, the wisdom river guides learn in studying the river for where the fish are. It is a wisdom that ceases striving and yields. God leads us out and leads us back, again and again in life.

One has the sense of listening to someone whose life is very much a “work in progress” and his refreshing candor helps us relax into the possibility that life and spiritual progress are like that for all of us, and that’s OK. This is not a book of prescriptions for a fulfilling spiritual life, but an account from one pilgrim to others of what the journey is like and insights into the way God meets us in the tensions and contradictions and perplexities of our lives. You may have reached the point in your journey where all the “answers” of how the Christian life works don’t seem to quite fit your own winding path.  This work might better help you understand the true nature of the journey on which you’ve embarked, while encouraging you with a hope that may be even richer than you thought.

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

Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

The Road to Middle Earth

The Road to Middle-EarthTom Shippey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, rev. ed. 2003.

Summary: A study of Tolkien’s methods in creating the narratives of Middle-Earth, including words, names, maps, poetry, and mythology.

For most of us who have read (and re-read) J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and other stories, we marvel at the world Tolkien creates, complete with fascinating names, a variety of languages with poetry and mythologies of beginnings, and the entry of evil into their world. Creatures who previously only inhabited the fairy tales of childhood come alive: dwarves, elves, trolls, wights, and orcs, as well as Tolkien’s unique creation, those lovable hobbits. One wonders, how did he do all that? We might wonder where Christopher Tolkien, his son, has gotten all the material for twelve volumes of Middle-Earth history and more.

Tom Shippey’s book helps answer that question, and is a boon to those who wish to delve (an appropriate word) into the depths underneath the stories we love. Shippey begins with what it meant for Tolkien to be a philologist. It was a time when the field of English studies was riven between “lit versus lang.” Tolkien was a philologist. He loved languages, particularly the languages from which modern English came. Shippey observes that for Tolkien, the story arose from the language and the world he created provided a place for the languages. The book traces all of this, the people and place names, the poetry and song, the map of Middle-Earth and a mythology to make sense of it all.

He analyzes the stories and what he calls “interlacement” as a series of different stories intersect in this grand story. He also unfolds Tolkien’s lifetime work of establishing the history behind The Lord of the Rings, including the account that made up The Silmarillion, finished by Christopher Tolkien. Tolkien worked for decades on various pieces of the history, developing languages, drawing on Old English and other languages to come up with words, and then going back and forth, harmonizing his account. He would devise stories and characters like Tom Bombadil and then try to fit them into his growing narrative. Names changed over times as Trotter became Strider and Aragorn. It appears that Tolkien often could be drawn down rabbit trails as he sought to elaborate the bones of the history of Middle-Earth. The story “Leaf by Niggle” is a parable of Tolkien’s creative process. It is a story of an artist so meticulous that he only paints one leaf. Oh, what a leaf Tolkien painted, even if he left much unfinished work to Christopher!

The book includes several afterwords, the most interesting of which is a comparison of the text of Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson’s version, underscoring what can be done with text versus film, and the plot choices Jackson made, sometimes illuminating, sometimes questionable.

If all the poems and strange names in Lord of the Rings are off-putting to you, this probably isn’t the book for you. Shippey plunges deeply into all of this and Tolkien’s creative process that resulted in the story. It can be heavy wading, and is probably done best after reading Lord of the Rings several times and having the text at your side. If you love all this stuff, you will love this book and won’t mind some of the sections which get fairly technical with lots of unfamiliar words.

Tolkien probably started developing the ideas that led to The Lord of the Rings around 1914. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 and 1955. His other major work, The Silmarillion, was published posthumously in 1977. In an era where some fan fiction writers crank out a work every year or two, Shippey helps us understand why it took so long to produce these works and why these works are considered so great by so many. Shippey makes the case that in creating this mythology in the English language, Tolkien was “The Author of the Century.” Tolkien did not merely create a story. He created a world.

Review: Losing Earth

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Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019.

Summary: An account of the lost opportunity of the 1980’s to address climate change and the birth of the polarized dialogue that exists to this day.

Did you know that much of the scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and global warming traces back to the nineteenth century? That in the 1950’s and throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scientists were already warning of global warming and contending that warming connected with higher carbon dioxide levels was already evident? Did you know there was a time when climate change and the science behind it was not a political issue and that political leaders in both parties, and many others in most the the countries of the world, substantially agreed that this was a looming problem that needed to be addressed? That world leaders came very close to an agreement to limit and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 1989? That was thirty years ago. In 1990 human beings emitted more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of cutting that amount, by 2018, the amount was projected at 37.1 billion metric tons and growing.

Nathaniel Rich narrates the story of a lost moment through two figures: Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist and Gordon MacDonald, a climate scientist. A third figure who plays a prominent role is James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who compiled massive amounts of data, and gave compelling testimony wherever called upon. Pomerance, came across this finding in a government study on the continued use of fossil fuels: “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes to the global atmosphere.” That was in the Spring of 1979 and changed the course of his life. It led to his interview with Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist, who was glad that someone beside him finally noticed.

Rich’s book traces their efforts to mobilize awareness and action, culminating in the formation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a climate summit in the Netherlands in 1989. Initially, action on climate change was widely supported, at least in public statements. Meanwhile, a transformation began to take place in the fossil fuel industry from studying the issue themselves and reckoning on the consequences of continued fuel use, to a movement of resistance and a challenge to the science, and exercise of increasing leverage. In the climate talks, the resistance of one US figure led to a meaningless agreement to which the US never subscribed, and an increasingly politicized discourse around climate issues. Perhaps the most stunning revelation of this book was that it was not always so.

Rich’s afterword is both hopeful and sobering. He both notes the technological advances that might be turned to action limiting global temperature rises to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Yet he also wrestles with the propensity of human beings to not act to address possible dangers down the road and instead prefer their present comfort. He not only condemns in the strongest terms those who twist and deny what they know. He challenges all of us:

We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species. Our queasiness even infects the language we use to describe it: the banalities of “global warming” and “climate change” perform the linguistic equivalent of rolling on sanitary gloves to palpate a hemorrhaging wound.

To see how close the world came to a climate agreement on carbon emissions in the 1980’s, to learn of a time when this was not a political football, suggests that it may be possible in the future. To avert the worst possibilities, it is imperative. One concludes Rich’s book wondering, will we seize or miss the opportunity that we have?

 

Review: The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President, Alan Sears and Craig Osten with Ryan Cole. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Traces the spiritual heritage and growing religious faith of Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially through the years of his presidency and later life.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president I remember hearing about as a child. To be honest, he seemed kind of bland, and mostly I remember reports of him golfing. Recent historians and biographers have raised the estimation of Eisenhower as they consider his Cold War policies, how he kept the U.S. out of “hot” wars, presided over a boom of economic growth, and took some of the first, perhaps somewhat tentative, steps toward recognizing the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities, since the failed efforts of Reconstruction.

What the authors of this work discovered in examining other studies of Eisenhower’s life was that little or no account was give of his religious faith, a neglect that flies in the face of an increasingly regular, yet not publicized pattern of religious practice, interactions and expressions of faith with religious figures from Billy Graham to Pope John XXIII, the testimony of his pastors, and a number of public acts and utterances. Furthermore, these patterns continued after his presidency up to the time of his death in 1969.

The authors trace Eisenhower’s religious journey. He was born of parents deeply devoted to a branch of the Brethren in Christ that moved to Kansas. Later they left this group, and Ida, his mother was especially devoted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While not entirely orthodox, what marked his upbringing was a strong pattern of Bible-reading and piety, as well as involvement in pacifist religious groups.

Ike broke with his parents in going to West Point and entering the military. And we hear relatively little of his religious faith during his military career, even when he lost his son “Icky,” an event that strained his marriage. Only in World War II do we find him sharing prayers and expressing “There is nothing we could do but pray, desperately.” From here on, Ike expresses more of his faith publicly, though reticently, including contributing the words of “Lead, Kindly Light” to a prayerbook for servicemen in Korea, and more about the connections between America’s religious faith and democracy.

As was the case with so many others, a key influence in his life was the ministry, and in particular, personal conversations with Billy Graham in early 1952. Graham encouraged Eisenhower’s church attendance, referring him to the ministry of Dr. Ed Elson at National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower had previous associations with Elson as a chaplain with the military. One of the things that stands out is that Eisenhower did not join the church, including being baptized (the only President to be baptized in office) until after the beginning of his presidency. His baptism was a private affair, witnessed by an intimate circle, and he was upset when word of his joining the church leaked to the press. He did not want attention called to his attendance, but both Elson, and his pastors at the Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, where the Eisenhowers owned a farm, reported Eisenhower attended regularly, and frequently engaged in discussions of the content of sermons, They also quietly contributed monetarily and in other ways to the ministry of their churches.

The other part of Eisenhower’s faith focused on in the book were his ideas about the importance of religious faith, whether Christian or not, to America’s response to the atheist communist threat. He saw the fundamental difference between the two countries to be spiritual and not simply economic or political, which drove things like his support for the U. S. Information Agency. He publicly encouraged religious worship, began the practice of National Prayer Breakfasts, and served during a period when America’s attendance at religious services was at a peak. The authors highlight how religious conviction informed Eisenhower’s efforts with religious leaders across racial divides to break down segregation, albeit far more gradually than civil rights leaders would wish.

The latter part of the book describes Eisenhower’s post-presidency, marked with continued involvement with his church, even as his health declined. During his final hospitalization, he invited Billy Graham to share the scriptures of how he might be sure of his salvation. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Thank you, I’m ready.” One of the last things he said to his family was, “I want to go. God take me.” He died shortly after.

Two of the authors (Sears and Osten) are associated with a conservative religious liberty organization, so I found myself reading with a certain skepticism. However, I thought that on the whole, they offered a balanced account of Eisenhower’s life, and made a case for the genuineness of Eisenhower’s Christian faith. They don’t gloss over his mother’s involvement in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the lack of religious expression through his early career, including his marriage difficulties with Mamie (they discount the possibility of the Kay Summersby affair, although evidence exists for an emotional, but unconsummated affair between them). The fact that Eisenhower waits until after election to be baptized and join his church argues strongly for his not using religious affiliation for political ends, as well as the persistence of his religious practice for the remainder of his life. It also struck me that one may see evidence of religious principles in his policies without engaging in culture wars or litmus tests.

If I might raise any issue, it would be with what seemed an uncritical account of a “God and country” vision and the language of civil religion that seems to appropriate religious faith to national aims (e.g. fighting Communism) that does not seem to recognize a kingdom that transcends national borders. I grew up internalizing that vision and it wasn’t until I began to truly understand God’s love for the world, and the priority allegiance of the Christian to God’s kingdom purposes, that I began to recognize the danger of “God and country” language. In Eisenhower’s administration, this was not egregious. Eisenhower acknowledged God’s providence, and supported the language of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, acknowledging that God, not the state was ultimate. Yet it is so easy to turn this to an ideology of God existing to sustain American greatness, and the manipulation of religion for political ends.

The value of this work is that it redresses a balance in documenting the religious faith of Eisenhower, that has been neglected in other accounts. The account actually suggests that there is further work to be done in studying Eisenhower’s faith. The writers establish that Eisenhower was deeply thoughtful about his faith and sought to act upon that in his presidential leadership. Others around him, like John Foster Dulles, and George Kennan, also had religiously informed visions of the world. It also seems that Eisenhower was thoughtful about how one exercises religious belief in a pluralistic society and might well be studied for this. Lastly, one wonders how the pacifism of his upbringing and his religious faith may have informed his farewell address warning of the “military-industrial complex.”  The authors have made a case that far more research in this aspect of Eisenhower’s life and leadership is well-warranted.

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

 

Review: A Week in the Life of a Slave

a week in the life of a slave

A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series), John Byron. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A creative re-telling of the story of runaway slave Onesimus that casts light on the institution of slavery in Greco-Roman society and the church’s response.

Onesimus. Philemon. These two names are associated with Paul’s shortest letter. One wonders at times why it was included. It seems to be a personal appeal for Onesimus, a runaway slave, who during his time with Paul became a follower of Jesus. He appeals for Onesimus to receive him back as a brother, and charge any debt or wrong to Paul. A beautiful appeal to reconcile a runaway slave to his master, a fellow Christian. Just a personal letter? Perhaps, but it is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Is there a larger message for the church from the apostle who taught there is “neither slave nor free. . . but you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).

These questions and many more John Byron explores in this newest contribution to the “A Week in the Life Series.” Through both a creative re-telling of story and the sidebars, Byron casts light on the institution of slavery in the Roman empire. We learn how people became slaves, how they were treated, their status, even when freed, and what a serious matter it was for a slave to run away. Beyond flogging, a slave could likely be sold, usually into inferior conditions with even less chance of obtaining his liberty.

Byron tells the story through the cast of characters we find in the letter, and a few others, including a prison superintendent who is a believer, who at risk to himself allows Paul to see Onesimus long enough that he can understand and believe the gospel. In doing so, he posits an Ephesian imprisonment, which makes sense with its proximity to Colossae. He includes Luke and Demas and Epaphras who shares his imprisonment. Demas hosts a church in his home and shelters Onesimus, who witnesses the mingling of slaves and free persons in worship.

Byron explores what it might have been like for churches to grapple with the question of the inclusion of believing slaves in their worship. He creates a contrast between Ephesus where all are brothers in Christ when they gather for worship, and Colossae and the church in Philemon’s home, where slaves are excluded–until Archippus (a kind of overseer or bishop of churches in the Lycus valley) challenges their practice, and their socially stratified worship. One begins to grasp how “neither slave nor free” in worship was itself an incredibly radical step.

Many who discuss the issue of slavery in the New Testament argue that an infant church couldn’t challenge this powerful institution. I appreciate that Byron doesn’t make this argument, which can ring hollow. Rather he shows what it was like for early house churches to take the first steps to press out their theological convictions about oneness in Christ into eating and worshiping together, steps that in themselves broke with established social convention.

We don’t know what Philemon did with regard to the legal offense of running away. Paul only appeals and doesn’t offer a specific course of action. But Byron picks up on the legend that the Bishop Onesimus mentioned in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians. If that were so, at some point Philemon granted this runaway his freedom. One wonders if the Philemon-Onesimus incident was something of a watershed moment with implications beyond their immediate relations. Was this perhaps the reason for the letter’s preservation. Did Bishop Onesimus, as Byron writes the story, have something to do with the letter’s preservation?

These are plausible speculations at best. What Byron’s book does so well for us is bring to life the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, perhaps different in treatment from American slavery, but nevertheless demeaning of the personhood of the enslaved. We grasp the risks Paul, and all who helped shelter Onesimus ran. We begin to understand the costly counter-cultural actions of a nascent church that shelters, welcomes at table, and worship, the slave, calling him “brother” and her “sister.” We only are left wondering why it took the church another eighteen centuries to follow the arc of their theology to its ultimate conclusion in practice and law.

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

Review: Placemaking and the Arts

placemaking

Placemaking and the Arts, Jennifer Allen Craft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Considers the “place” of the arts in placemaking, particularly in the settings of the home, the church, and the wider society.

Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte have pioneered a movement known as “placemaking,” the gist of which is the planning and design of urban spaces that promote the health and well-being of those who live in them. This movement has also included writers of “place” like Wendell Berry who urge loving attention to local places, their people, and their ecology.

In this work, Jennifer Allen Craft explores the role of the arts, particularly the visual arts, in placemaking, and how for the Christian in the arts, artists may both seek the flourishing of their places, and anticipate the coming of the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Her first chapter explores the “placed” character of art. Every artist works in a place. Art is an embodied practice that can only occur in a place and in various ways interacts with that place. Through all this runs a theology of creation, incarnation, and resurrection hope for the new creation. One’s art is integrally connected to one’s relationship with God, other people and creatures, and the place in which we work.

The next four chapters explore how this works out in different settings: the natural world, the home, the church, and in society. In the natural world, art enables us to understand, love and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection” in the creation. Art in the home is a “homemaking” practice that creates beautiful spaces that also may become hospitable places for those experiencing dis-placement. Art in the church creates a welcome “place” for community, for encountering God, and for “embodying” the spiritual in a local place, as does liturgy and the Eucharist. The arts also have an important role in the pursuit of human flourishing in society, in creating “place” for the displaced, and bringing artistic considerations to the design of places.

Her final chapter is an attempt to articulate a placed theology of the arts. This commences with six key dialectic features of art: physicality/spirituality; particularity/universality; individuality/community; given/made; beauty/usefulness; contemplation/action. It seems that part of the theological ground of this dialectic approach is the sense of already/not yet of the kingdom and the dialectic of reflection and action in spiritual practices of faith.

The author seems to primarily be writing for an academic audience at the intersection of theological studies, sociology, and art theory, an important group to engage. I found myself wondering how accessible this would be to most of the practicing artists I know, many who might be appreciative. Many are believing people but unaccustomed to reading academic prose and would struggle to read a book like this, or they would just put it down and paint.

At the same time, as an individual who participates in a local arts group and a local choral organization, this resonated deeply with me. Joining a group of plein air painters in various locations in our “place” helps me see and cherish that place more deeply–the particular light of our summer skies, the gently rolling landscape, the river valleys, the species of trees and the shades of green of each. Whether it is a local park or town square, these become intimately a part of the place where we live as we seek to render them on canvas. To study and rehearse great works of music, and then to perform them in an assembled community in our place brings these works to a particular life that enhances life. The works we and others have painted that adorn our home make it a distinctive and welcome place. Singing four-part acapella harmonies with a few friends in my church embodies community and invites worship in our local place.

What this work offers is a theological framework for thinking about both the embodied practice of making art in local places, and how faithful engagement in the arts may be a part of our kingdom callings. I hope she will think about how to articulate these ideas to a wider art and craftwork community, many whose work is indeed grounded in place, and could use the encouragement and affirmation of their work present in this book.